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Updated: June 18, 2012 01:02 IST

Constitutionally empowered Act

S. Viswanathan
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S. Viswanathan
The Hindu S. Viswanathan

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.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

This was a tragic and sad read. I have yet to understand the term 'caste Hindus'. The so
called 'upper' caste Hindus have been the bane of our civilization. Status of worth and
wealth is earned and lost in a lifetime of noble pursuits and not inherited or bequeathed at
birth. There are Hindu temples where 'lower' caste Hindus are not allowed. These Hindus
glorify the presumptive divinity with savage mindsets and primitive practices. In their
pursuit of absolution they earn damnification. Where the government aspires for good, like
the Panchayat Raj Instititions Act, the intentions are defeated by the inertia and prejudices
of ancient thinking. And then the nation wonders why we were conquered and converted.
Mother Teresa did more for the 'lower' caste Hindus in her brief lifetime. Now there is a true
'upper' caste Hindu if there ever was. The 'lower' caste Hindus are still awaiting their own
'tryst with destiny' which should have been theirs first on the15 August 1947.

from:  Dipesh Lall
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 20:57 IST

Well-in sighted editorial on outcomes of PRI. There is need to efficient
implementation of this act. Mere approval and amendment don't make any
drastic changes in the life's of people. The government must understand
the limitations of this act and need to make necessary towards it's
efficient implantation.

from:  santhosh
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 20:21 IST

Real empowerment to AAM AADMI will come only when we will start getting justice in this country.Untill then all such exercise will prove futile.
I will give one example to support my point. Suppose a Dalit or Tribal girl is raped/murdered by someone powerful. She goes to court and get justice within a year.What will happen.... many people will be discouraged.If similar kind of justice is delivered almost everyday, imagine the change that will take place in this country. Only then a simple citizen (dalits/tribals) will be truely empowered.Please do not expect any kind of empowerment to Dalits/Tribal from these acts.It might empower few Dalits/Tribals but at the end they will also become powerful people misusing the power.
I sincerly urge you and The Hindu to start capaigning to bring revolution in our JUSTICE DELIVERY SYSTEM.Just imagine amount of money they had spent on above act, had they spent it on our JUSTICE system,there would have spectacular achievements in empowering people.

from:  Niraj Kumar
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 12:22 IST

Merely being elected as a PRI leader or member in grassroot level government doesn't mean those Dalits, womens, tribals & other minorities are empowered. It is not only the process that empowered, but it is the progress that is to be judged. The ability and capacity to make dicisions, plans, implement the policies and the authority to execute the functions are more important in the process of empowerment.Government should try to solve out those differences among the castes, rich and poor through a proper mechanism.

from:  Pangam Wangnaw
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 10:44 IST

It is shameful that even after 60 years of Independence, a large part of our population labeled as Dalits and tribals continues to be discriminated against and victimized by those in power. Despite laws for protection of their rights the Dalits and tribals are exploited in every possible way-physically and mentally.Incidents of rape, murder and assault are more common against the Dalits and tribals. Due to political pressure even the police and courts are helpless spectators to these attacks on their fundamental rights.
One of the reasons for the spread of extremism in India is the deprivation of a right to a life of dignity and security for the SCs/STs in India. Any one who tries to work for the upliftment of the lower castes is labeled as a Maoist/Extremist and put behind bars and charged with sedition. Dr. Binayak Sen's struggle with the Chhatisgarh Government is a prominent example of that.Even today many activists who tried to empower the marginalised sections of society are in ja

from:  Umesh Bhagwat
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 10:21 IST
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