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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Power to the People and its Enemies

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by George Mathew

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The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper saw way back in the 1940s how the open society was being wrecked from within, something the enemies of the Panchayati Raj are doing at present. All efforts to give power to the people through democratic decentralisation and empowerment of the disempowered are being undermined by the vested interests. We have created a structure but it is like an edifice without base.

The Standing Committee of Parliament on Rural Development (2009-10) in its Fourth Report says it all. It is indeed shocking how grants to panchayats are not being used optimally. As the Report says, the utilisation of BRG funds and other schemes is deteriorating, technical knowhow, personnel and infrastructure in the panchayats are dismal, if not absent, and the vacancies of panchayat functionaries are not filled. There is little progress in activity mapping. Training of elected representatives too is in a sorry state. The pace of devolution is extremely slow. All this is because of “a flip-flop approach”.

It is universally accepted that the local governments, which are nearer to the people, are the base of any democratic system. In order to give power to the people, a strong, vibrant local government is a necessary sine qua non.

Though it took more than four decades for the Indian Republic to give local governments the constitutional status through one of the best and most comprehensive legislations, only after the UPA Government came to power in 2004 the panchayats could make some striking impact. The political commentators who give all credit to the NREGA or Bharat Nirman for the Congress party’s impressive performance are missing the wood for the trees.

The creation of an independent Ministry for Panchayati Raj by the UPA Government made all the difference. It gave a push for a national debate on various issues affecting the lives of ordinary people and created a lot of hopes in the mind of the common man. The participation of the Prime Minister and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in the national programmes relating to panchayati raj also sent the politically correct message. However, by failing to provide the basic structures and transfer of funds, functions and functionaries, it has provided not only enough grounds for skepticism but also enough ammunition to the Opposition. Today, an impression has been created that power-to-the-people is an empty dream.

The first and foremost are the politicians themselves. When one observes how the political leaders try to subvert political decentralisation and power to the local governments, I remember how true Prof Dantewala’s observation was: ‘Whatever may be their rhetoric, politicians are averse to the idea of decentralisation due to political compulsions to prevent the emergence of rival political forces.’ Members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies are there to discuss, debate and legislate on national and State issues and those affecting the people of the country as a whole as well as to bring to national attention the policy issues affecting their respective States and constituencies. But today they prefer to be development agents.

How else can one explain rupees two crores per year (now the demand is to raise it to rupees 10 crores) being allocated to an MP for the local area development fund? They would like to see their names on a bus stand, a culvert, a temple stone or a toilet block. When the panchayats are starved of funds, the MPs get crores to create their vote-banks, patronage and clientelism.

The MLAs too are averse to any measure giving power to the panchayats. Most of the States are nowhere closer to implementing their panchayat acts because the MLAs create the roadblocks.

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The bureaucracy in our country is not at all happy to see panchayats emerge as institutions of self-government or the third stratum of governance. Our administrative culture is to retain the powers of the line departments and not to give power to the people. Their structure and procedures are deeply mired in the imperial model of governance and they retain their distrust of local governments. Therefore, it is the ‘collector raj’, ‘BDO raj’ and ‘gram sevak raj’ which is the order of the day and not the panchayati raj. In 1995, during a study of Shadnagar in Andhra Pradesh where Jawaharlal Nehru had inaugurated the first panchayat in South India on October 11, 1959, I asked an old guard why the panchayati raj failed. “The officials worked against giving power to the non-officials and especially the people’s representatives from the villages. In this they were hand in glove with state level politicians,” said he. To sabotage the new generation of panchayats, the officials create parallel bodies which has a devastating impact on the panchayats.

Hardly anything has been done seriously to change the mindset of the bureaucracy. In spite of the civil society activism and Right to Information Act in operation, the politician-bureaucracy nexus is getting stronger from village/town upwards.

In a socially stratified society like ours, till today the landlords and upper-caste people control everything. From the gram sevak to BDO and other officials happily work with the village landowners. In the rural Indian scenario, elected panchayats function in name as the landlords get elected as sarpanch/mukhia/president; they are having a free hand even today. If Dalits, courageous women, people with idealism question their actions or when elected try to bring changes through the panchayats, they are at the receiving end of the landlords or upper castes’ ire. The bloodbath at the panchayat level since 1994 is horrendous. It seems the government prefers to sweep these tragedies under the carpet or refuse to recognise what it means for the oppressed when the panchayats are at work.

The contractors and power brokers are a formidable force against the people. “To the people of India let us ensure maximum democracy and maximum devolution. Let there be an end to the power brokers. Let us give power to the people.” These were the words of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 15, 1989 when he introduced the first ever Amendment (64th) to the Constitution to give constitutional status to the panchayats. These power-brokers, about whom Rajiv Gandhi spoke, continue to hold sway. They appear in various ways as contractors, middlemen, lobbyists, mafia and so on. They always prefer the centralised corridors of power and not decentralisation. For them, it is much easier to deal with the officials in the national and State capitals than nearly 28 lakh representatives in 2.4 lakh local governments. The contractors are omnipresent.

Among the politicians and bureaucracy there is a small section that is committed to the principle of power to the people. Though it is a minuscule number, their commitment and conviction have kept our flag flying at least in a few areas. The present government has an arduous task on hand. Time has come to make power to the people a reality. Tokenism will not do. If the enemies of devolution are allowed to hold sway, the present civil strife which has gripped more than one-third of our country will see no end.

[A shorter version of this article was published in Hindustan Times]

The author is the Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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