Rural communities and panchayats find the need for reform to make self-governance more effective

India can take legitimate pride in creating the world's biggest infrastructure of elected rural self-government institutions in the form of the three-tier Panchayati Raj. Adequate reservation for women in the institutions ensures that already close to 40 per cent of these elected representatives are women.

While these achievements in rural decentralisation have been acclaimed widely, those familiar with the grassroots reality are painfully aware of its many serious problems.

Many panchayats are dominated by just the elected heads who in collusion with the panchayat secretary (the nearest bureaucrat) centralises a lot of powers of rural decentralisation. Similarly, at the block and district levels most of the power is concentrated in a single person.

The situation, though, is not the same in all states. It is worse in the northern states. At recent consultations held on Panchayati Raj in Uttar Pradesh, several elected representatives at the block and districts level said that after five years they did not know what role they were elected for. Some ward members said they were not even called for panchayat meetings.

Neglect of the important role of gram sabhas is a common complaint. This is true even for scheduled areas (areas with a high proportion of tribal population) for which the PESA (Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas Act) law was enacted in 1996. Tribal activists complain that after the legislation raised high hopes, not even a single state implemented this law in the right spirit and its provisions were flouted frequently.

In a situation of over-centralisation in the hands of one or two persons and neglect of the village assembly, the very purpose of rural decentralisation is defeated and favourable conditions are created for corruption to flourish. It is not surprising then that transparency provisions are frequently flouted in Panchayati Raj. And those who want to work honestly are compelled to pay commission to bureaucrats.

In this situation, as the flow of funds to panchayats increased with the advent of the rural employment guarantee scheme and in other ways, criminal elements became increasingly interested in tightening their grip on panchayats by either contesting these elections or supporting their proxies for these posts.

There is another contradiction at the grassroots level, which is reflected in the increasing reluctance of bureaucrats and politicians to hand over real control and resources to panchayats. There is a tendency to regard Panchayati Raj institutions merely as implementing agencies for decisions which have already been taken at the top. This destroys the very spirit and purpose of decentralisation. The proper way should be for the ward sabhas, gram sabhas and panchayats to send strong signals upwards for what kind of policies and laws people need. This should then be reflected in the laws and policies enacted by the Centre and state.

The failure to bring genuine decentralisation is proving very costly. If true decentralisation had existed then the country's lakhs of rural communities could have by now prepared as many plans for decentralised energy systems with special emphasis on renewable sources. These plans would have reflected local needs and potential. As this legitimate role was denied to panchayats, workable alternatives could not emerge on a significant scale in the energy sector dominated by super-thermal plants, large dams and, increasingly, nuclear plants.

So, there is an urgent need to create small units of rural decentralisation where ward sabhas don't exist yet. Transparent systems and the emerging practice of social audits should be promoted. There are important examples of good functioning of Panchayati Raj in some regions. Kerala has emerged a leader in decentralised planning. In Andhra Pradesh social audits have been particularly effective in recent times. In Rajasthan at times people's organisations and the State government have worked together on social audits and public hearings aimed at exposing corruption.

However, beyond these sporadic success stories, there is a massive scope for reforms to improve the functioning of panchayats. There is also enough indication at the grassroots that people and many honest panchayati raj representatives are yearning for such reforms. This view emerged strongly in a series of consultations and workshops organised recently in Utter Pradesh and Rajasthan by the Delhi-based Association of Local Governance of India in collaboration with the Institute of Social Sciences.

At one of these consultations in Chitrakut, elected representatives from panchayats and social activists passed a 32 point unanimous resolution on broad areas of reform. This was followed by a consultation on the problems faced by Dalit and Adivasi panchayat representatives. Here many examples of Dalit panchayat leaders being victimised, threatened, attacked and even jailed came up. Another consultation held at Gorakhpur highlighted displacement and pollution issues. Villagers and community leaders said gram sabhas did not have any significant say in the highly centralised decision-making on these issues.

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