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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 25 New Delhi June 9, 2018

Twentyfive Years of PRIs: A Few Disquiets

Sunday 10 June 2018


by Suranjita Ray

The local governance through the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in rural India came into force on April 24, 1993 with the adoption of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment which was introduced in 1992. The Municipal Corporations in urban India came into force on June 1, 1993 with the adoption of the 74th Constitutional Amendment. The following article analyses how the PRIs have functioned in these 25 years.

Democracy in India, perhaps, would not have been the same today without the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). They have strengthened local democracy across rural India by overcoming the limitations of hierarchically structured procedures of administration and centrally controlled national planning. PRIs provide an institutional space to the local people, in particular disadvantaged sections and women amongst them, to decide on matters that concern their lives and livelihood. The disadvantaged sections not only contest the panchayat elections and become members who attend panchayat meetings along with men from the upper castes, they also represent the interests of their communities. Many of them are Sarpanchs who head the panchayats. As statutory bodies, panchayats have the authority to govern at the local level—a radical departure from the top-down approach.

The self-governing village panchayats and Gram Sabhas are expected to resolve local problems, manage common pool resources and local development to achieve inclusive development, social and economic justice, and empowerment of the marginalised and disadvantaged. While PRIs have the potential to work towards an inclusive society, at the operational level they are yet to liberate themselves from the dominance of upper castes who largely influence decisions. Some of the past experiences suggest that wherever assertions by people through democratic organisations such as pressure groups, social movements, social action groups, and voluntary organisations have been strong enough, panchayats have addressed the basic rights of ordinary citizens such as right to work, education, health, shelter, and food. The demands for irrigation facilities, land rights, remunerative prices, debt relief for farmers, alongside prevention of atrocities and violence against the oppressed communities, securing safety nets and social justice have also become significant. The administrative processes have been made accountable through public hearings/jan sunwais and social auditing has exposed the multifaceted nature of corruption and its practice by the public officials and elected members of panchayats.

However, in practice, in major parts of rural India, the political culture is subjective and common citizens are passive recipients of policies. In such situations, the PRIs function merely as implementing agencies for social welfare programmes and development policies that are planned at the Centre. And wherever the panchayats decide, the decisions are largely influenced by the power structure and power relations based on the semi-feudal agrarian economy, caste system and patriarchal structures.

In fact, the contextual understanding of rural governance reveals that the prevalent social, economic and political conditions impact the functioning of PRIs at the local level. The owners of productive resources, who invariably belong to the upper castes, control and influence the decision-making process of panchayats. While the institutional reforms through 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts have been instrumental in redrawing the federal structure and ensuring certain autonomy to the local institutions thereby making democracy more decentralised, representative, responsive and participatory, it is important to address some of the structural and attitudinal problems that inhibit local governance. Completing 25 years of functioning, the PRIs have once again drawn attention towards the larger concerns that impede substantial democracy at the grassroots.

The Ground Reality

The values that democracy espouses are far from the ground reality that discriminates, deprives and alienates the vast majority from the basic resources of livelihood. Lack of ownership and control over basic productive resources is a major underlying cause of increasing inequalities, disparities, deprivations, exclusions and denial of basic rights to the absolute majority of the population. The institutional mechanisms of local governance have failed to address the basic issue of redistribution of the productive resources. These issues figure nowhere in the political narratives during the panchayat elections. The elected representative of people across class, caste, sex and ethnic communities have failed to empower the marginalised and poor to fight the everyday structural constraints of society. In fact, failure to decentralise economic power has made decentralisation of political power meaningless.

While the traditional management practices of community resources were revived through bhagidari/partnership/co-operation programmes such as watershed management-Pani Panchayat, Joint Forest Management (JFM)-Van Panchayat to involve the local people and committees in managing common property resources to reduce exploitation by forest officials, middlemen, traders and other vested interests, the dominance of class-caste alliance resulted in massive land acquisitions, destruction of livelihood resources and displacement of large number of people. The principle of ‘eminent domain’ to use common property for the benefit of larger society and public interest has, in practice, enabled the state to protect the interest of the dominant classes that create conditions of deprivation and impoverishment for the large majority who remain disadvantaged and disempowered.

Our experiences show that PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, which prohibits the state to make any law which is not in consonance with the customary law, the social, religious and community practices and traditions, and aims at safeguarding and preserving the traditional rights over comm-unity resources (such as land, water and forest) in the Fifth Schedule areas, is often desecrated.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, which aims at protecting tribals and forest dwellers, are often violated by the state in nexus with the corporate sector. While the Act intends to empower tribals and forest dwellers, and devolves power to the gram sabha to challenge the alienation of forest land, and exercise forest management rights in scheduled areas, it has virtually empowered forest officials in matters of governance. Increasing commercial extraction of forests undermines the rights of the local communities to forests and forest lands.

Similarly, panchayats are supposed to be the key players in the MGNREGA by preparing the village plans and setting up local institutions to facilitate monitoring and evaluation of the implementation process, but several studies find that they have been completely sidelined. As per the Act, the gram sabhas are required to recommend work to be taken up under the MGNREGA, monitor and supervise these works and conduct social audits of the implementation of the schemes. Several studies in villages in the south-western regions of Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh find that there is no transparency and accountability and the village level workers are influenced by the officials and discriminate the villagers in allocating work, the location of work-site and number of workdays. They get the sarpanchs to sign blank cheques and jealously guard the muster rolls. Panchayats have no decision-making power with regard to the financial allocation. While the Act intended to do away with the role of the local contractors in construction works, we find that these projects are implemented through them. The provision in the Act for increasing people’s participation in deciding the kind of assets to be built is also violated. Studies find a wide gap between the records of the panchayats and the narratives of villagers through jan sunwais and social auditing, which reveals fake entries and wage payments. The panchayats have failed to protect the villagers from the exploitation and harassment by contractors and middlemen at the local level. The political parties favour their supporters in the panchayat elections and thus a new class of beneficiaries—the middlemen, traders, contractors, money lenders, and landowners—has emerged, which corners the benefits of poverty alleviation programmes and development schemes in terms of monetary gains.

Despite the decentralisation measures to empower the local bodies and subsequent amendments to privilege the participation of the SCs, STs, and OBCs, and women in particular, there has been proxy women participation and manipulation of decisions by the men from the upper castes. The revival of Khap Panchayats/Caste Councils and Maha Panchayats illustrates not only the dominance of the upper castes in the decision-making process, but also the exploitation and oppression of the Dalits and tribal people, in particular women amongst them, who are the worst victims of injustice. In Haryana, Punjab and parts of Western Uttar Pradesh, Khaps, which are entrenched in caste and patriarchal prejudices, feudal and semi-feudal agrarian structures and unequal power relations encourage honour killing, sanction humiliation and ostracism. The Dalits and poor are often tortured and killed at the hands of the socially dominating caste and the Khap Panchayats socially boycott individuals who raise their voice against them.

The local leaders consistently use the caste divide to create a situation of hate, fear and viciousness that has resulted in the decline of secular, democratic and liberal values. The just concluded panchayat elections in West Bengal saw unprecedented violence, rigging and booth capturing. This raises a more serious question about the strategies adopted by the political leaders even at the local level to reclaim lost power by aligning with the upper-caste landed gentry and popularising caste and community divisiveness, discrimination, prejudice and hostility. By condescending every aspect of a diverse, heterogeneous, plural, democratic existence, the dominant class-caste alliance has contributed to an increasing polarisation and communalisation of society that has led to further marginalisation, deprivation and alienation of disadvantaged communities. The underlying causes for denial of basic needs and democratic rights to ordinary people at the local level continue to remain unaddressed. This highlights the larger debate on the class-caste alliance and the narrow political interest of people’s representatives and leaders of panchayats in winning elections. It is important to underline that PRIs have been undermined due to the dominance of the upper-caste landed gentry, hierarchical attitudes of the bureaucracy and lack of political will.

Though autonomy forms the heart of decentralisation, in the absence of a definition of the term ‘self-government’ in the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts, the exercise of autonomy by local institutions is left to the discretion of both the Central and concerned State governments, who have time and again favoured the institutions at the Central as well as State level. In practice, the nature of participation of the local institutions has been techno-managerial. Although under the Eleventh Schedule 29 out of 84 subjects are placed with the local government in rural India pertaining to rural development such as agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, small scale industries, infrastructure—schools, hospitals, roads, drinking water facilities, market and fairs, maintenance of community assets, poverty alleviation programmes, PDS and welfare of weaker sections, the list of subjects in the Eleventh Schedule is suggestive rather than mandatory.

The State Finance Commission’s recommen-dations are also not binding in nature and local institutions with limited fiscal autonomy depend on the Central and State governments. Although resource crunch and scarcity of funds are a major hindrance in the efficient functioning of the local bodies, the fiscal weakness of the panchayats remain unaddressed by the 15th Finance Commission.

It is significant to understand that when the formal powers or administrative procedures are purportedly decentralist but politically controlled or influenced by the Centre, the problem is that of illusory decentralisation. Today the statutory panchayats have been reduced to implementing agencies of the policies of development and social welfare programmes in accordance with the themes and parameters laid down from above and not in accordance with local conditions. In the Left-wing extremist regions dominated by Maoists, many village panchayats are ‘no-go-areas’ due to security concerns and therefore continue to remain underdeveloped and backward with no development works. While none of the issues are new or bewildering, it is important to address the high handedness of the bureaucracy that still prevails and has failed to change the top-down approach. It has raised several issues which have implications not just for centralised and asymmetric federalism but also for the destruction of constitutional values.

The Way Forward

Grassroots governance can only be strengthened when grassroots leaders attempt to assimilate largescale discontent amongst the majority of the people and do away with the growing sense of alienation. Decentralised planning should aim at redistribution of the basic productive resources which can empower the deprived and powerless. Alongside the institutional reforms and procedural changes, decentralisation calls for normative and attitudinal changes to include the representation of the excluded and encourage their participation in the decision-making processes. The state-controlled bureaucratically managed local administration needs to be transformed to a more flexible administration that flatten hierarchies and slim bureaucracy. Strengthening the financial powers of the local institutions is a matter of utmost concern.

An effective functioning of democracy requires good democratic practice in addition to democratic institutions. The state should act as a facilitator rather than a regulator of the local institutions. The Centrally powerful institutions should provide space to the local institutions as decision-making bodies on matters of development and social and economic welfare of the villagers. The Community Based Organisations (CBOs) should be strengthened to generate awareness and mobilise the communities to defend their rights.

The Supreme Court’s intervention to make the consent of the gram sabha/village council mandatory to acquire land in scheduled areas in its recent order not only restored faith in the highest judicial body but also in democratic governance that protects people’s rights. The Supreme Court’s judgement in 2013 affirmed the decision-making powers of the smaller units of local governance such as village councils when the Palli Sabha in the Niyamgiri Hill and its neighbouring villages in Odisha unanimously passed a resolution opposing the proposed $ 1.7 billion mining project by Vedanta Aluminium Limited (VAL) and Orissa Mining Corporation as it was in violation of the rights of the tribes under the FRA, 2006. The Court order is an important step that respects the customary rights of the tribals over the natural resources. By laying down the objective of decentralised decision-making that strengthens democracy, the Supreme Court affirmed the political significance of the gram sabhas beyond the Niyamgiri region in Odisha. In fact, similar land acquisition claims in the recent past have been vetoed by the villagers, in particular the tribal people, in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Similarly, the Supreme Court’s latest obser-vation that ‘Khap Panchayats should not act as conscience-keepers of society and they have no right to question the marital choices of community members’ acquires significance in the context of increasing honour killings. The Apex Court’s declaration that ‘the right to liberty under the Constitution cannot be smothered by class honour’ should empower the state governments to assert against the Khaps.

The success of an inclusive society that empo-wers the disadvantaged socially, economically, and politically is possible only when Khap Panchayats based on caste hierarchies/supremacies do not revive themselves. The problem is not simply about the revival of the dominance of class-caste alliance and the legitimacy and popular support that they have acquired in the cultural majoritarian discourse, but the fear and insecurity they have generated amongst the large minorities, underprivileged and the marginalised which reaffirms the under-mining of democracy.

An outright violation of constitutional norms is the oppressive power relations that constraint the entitlements of certain communities and social groups. This needs to be altered to fulfil the concerns of the common man alongside achieving a more egalitarian and just society. Therefore, local governance and decentralisation need to be understood beyond purely legislative, admini-strative, and political terms, as they aim at ensuring equality and social justice. To move towards achieving the latter in any meaningful way, it is important that the democratic local institutions re-emerge as leading institutions which bring about a far more equitable distribution of economic, social and political power. Strengthening and empowering local institutions and panchayats can significantly enhance democracy and democratic trans-formations.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[at]

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