Twenty years have passed since the Act on new Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) was put in place by the Constitution 73rd Amendment (1992). There were high hopes of empowering rural India’s two long-neglected sections of society — women and Dalits — through reservation of seats in elections to panchayat bodies. The reform was seen, understandably, as a major step in the direction of Dalit liberation.
Yet after two decades of its functioning, many feel that nothing much has come of this exercise. The reasons are not far to seek. From Day One, hard-core caste Hindu opponents of Dalits seemed bent on making the system non-functional inasmuch as it benefited Dalits. The 1992 constitutional amendment introduced systematic reservation of political positions for Dalits (besides women) in institutions of governance at the grass-roots level. This was the first time this was happening in the long history of local bodies in the country — something large sections of caste Hindus could hardly digest.
In some places in Tamil Nadu, for instance, rich and powerful caste Hindu groups either forced Dalit aspirants to keep off the polls, or fielded handpicked farm workers as candidates, or ‘auctioned’ the PRI posts to the highest bidder. In many villages across the country, Dalit candidates who manage to win are very often denied cooperation from their caste Hindu masters elected to the post of vice president or as panchayat members. In several panchayats, the clerk remains indifferent and disrespectful, more so if he happens to be a caste Hindu. There are also instances of corrupt government officials misleading panchayat chiefs by taking advantage of their many weaknesses. In five village panchayats in Tamil Nadu reserved for Dalits, no election could be held for two five-year terms owing to strong resistance from caste Hindu residents. The failure to conduct elections always leads to tension between the two social groups in the villages and discrimination of the worst kind against Dalits.
Instances of discrimination against Dalits have been reported more intensely and frequently in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, States in which the Dalit population is concentrated. The 20 years of work in village- and district-level panchayat institutions notwithstanding, there is still a long way to go. When the PRIs in their amended form were launched two decades ago, governments at the Centre and in the States declared that the empowerment of Dalits by providing them reserved seats in PRIs would lead to the abolition of the practice of untouchability in the years to come. But the reality is that much more has to be done to achieve this, say, by delegating more authority and giving more funds to these institutions so as to create confidence among panchayat leaders. The government must revive the practice of conducting capacity-building classes for Dalit panchayat chiefs if it is really interested in further empowering elected panchayat functionaries and facilitating the underprivileged to fulfil their commitments to the people. What is needed today is to equip Dalits with what they need to ensure the achievement of the twin objectives of economic development and social justice.
‘Major discriminations persist’
Simon Chauchard, in his brilliant article Panchayati raj and untouchability, in Business Line (Opinion Page, June 6, 2012), throws new light on the subject.
Commending the government for going ahead with the introduction of reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in PRIs ignoring the protests from dominant caste groups, he points out that this has enabled the SCs and the STs to get elected to tens of thousands of political positions. He says recent studies have shown that “major discriminations persist.” In his view, “while members of the SCs on average do not materially benefit in a significant way from an experience with an SC sarpanch, these reservations lay the ground for what may be an equally important kind of social change.”
A recent study by Evidence, a Madurai-based organisation working on Dalit issues, has documented a series of discriminations against panchayat presidents spread over 10 districts in Tamil Nadu. The study finds that 94 per cent of the 171 Dalit panchayat presidents studied have not been given any training; seven panchayat presidents were not allowed to sit on chairs; all the 171 panchayat chiefs have complained of discrimination by caste Hindus; and 32 of them have given in writing charges of discrimination. The study also shows that the majority of panchayat presidents are ignorant about the need to fight untouchability. This, if anything, tells us that real empowerment of Dalits lies not in merely providing constitutional status to PRIs but in strengthening their capabilities for independent thinking and for standing up to their oppressors. Only education and knowledge, and pro-active interventions by emancipatory socio-political movements, can help achieve this. The media can also play a significant agenda-building role in bringing this about.