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Adding `life to years'

Working towards a hunger-free India needs the active cooperation of local bodies like the panchayat, says L.C. JAIN, but the blatant flouting of constitutional norms is an impediment to their functioning.

Women must be empowered to lead the `freedom from hunger' movement.

ENCOURAGED by the success in extending average life expectancy, the eminent scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has urged the country to now "add life to years". In "Towards a hunger free India" (The Hindu April 27, 2003) he endorses the shift of emphasis in the Tenth Plan from food security at household level to nutrition security at individual level. He also spells out the guiding principles for converting this goal into accomplishments. The foremost step he says is to form "an alliance of elected local bodies and government agencies" to prepare and implement micro action plans. Further, "elected members of local bodies, particularly the one million elected women members can be empowered to spearhead the freedom from hunger movement, since they are more aware of the problems of nutrition and drinking water. Decentralisation will enhance accountability, reduce transaction costs and remove corruption in delivery systems."

Dr. Swaminathan has chosen well his foot soldiers. But are they alive and available for the job? When Dr. Swaminathan was looking at the abominable malnutrition of our infants, a committee of Parliament was looking into the health of the local government. The 254-page report of this standing committee is an exhaustive review of the growth of panchayats in the 10-year period since the enactment of the 73rd Amendment in April 1993. It concluded that our local government is still an infant and is as acutely malnourished as the 50 per cent of our infant population. Again, though the nutrients are available in this case, entrenched interests are deliberately starving the local governments despite the "definite and unequivocal" direction of the constitution.

In 1992, while arguing the case for giving the local government a firm footing in the Constitution, the Government told the Parliament that, in the preceding 40 years, healthy growth of panchayats had been thwarted by many weeds. Listed among these were "absence of regular elections, prolonged suppression, inadequate representation of weaker sections (women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes), insufficient devolution of powers and lack of financial resources". The Parliament agreed to end this malaise once for all, and enshrined certain basic and essential features in the Constitution to impart to panchayats "certainty, continuity and strength" to enable them to bloom as "institutions of self-government". The standing committee found that, regrettably, the 10-year record of implementation by the Central and State Governments was not only woeful but there was wilful violation of the Constitution.

Prior to the constitutional amendment, the authorities did not hold elections to local governments for 15 to 18 years at a stretch. It made a mockery of panchayats. Hence the foremost mandatory provision in the 73rd Amendment is that elections to panchayats will be held every five years, and that the next election due will be held "before the expiry of the duration" of a panchayat.

Inadequate representation and suppression of weaker sections, especially women, are endemic to local government bodies.

What has been the fate of this mandatory provision? The standing committee found that "there have been shocking violations with regard to holding of timely and regular elections to local bodies". So much so that a State Election Commissioner had to file a writ petition against his own State after failure of his persuasive efforts. The Supreme Court ruled that "the concerned states cannot be permitted to withhold election of panchayats ... It will be unfortunate if the states remain insensitive to the Constitutional Mandate".

The apex Court also pronounced that any legislative device of the Government, which comes into direct conflict with the mandatory provisions of the constitution (in this instance, Article 243 E) such device is ultra vires of the constitution. The standing committee was appalled that "whereas the State Governments are wilfully flouting the constitutional provisions, the Union Ministry pleads its helplessness in persuading the State Governments"!

Panchayats can discharge their constitutional responsibilities only when they are endowed, as per Article 243 G, with powers and authority necessary to enable them to function as institution of self-government. The standing committee observes that even after 10 years, "a framework in conformity with the provisions of the constitution to devolve appropriate powers so that the elected bodies could be made functional in totality" is lacking. The standing committee was "constrained to note that most of the States are yet to fully and conscientiously implement article 243G of the Constitution". So even where elections have been held, panchayats remain an empty box.

But the bureaucracy has not remained idle. It has been working overtime to subvert the substance and autonomy of panchayats. It has created, what the standing committee calls "parallel structures" in the very subject areas assigned to panchayats by the Constitution in education, health, watershed development, forestry management et al. These parallel structures are often sought to be protected by Central/State enactments which pre-existed the 73rd Amendment, but which were required by Article 243 N to be overhauled and made compatible with the Constitutional Amendment, within one year. There has been no compliance either with this mandate.

The devolution of financial resources to panchayats is indeed peripheral. Sums retained by State Governments in their own hands are mind-boggling. District Development Agencies (DRDAs), which are purely administrative creatures, were set up before the panchayats became constitutional bodies. Despite repeated strictures by the standing committee, the DRDAs have not been merged with elected panchayats in most States. Rather, in an affront to the Constitution, the Union Rural Development Ministry is spending hundreds of crores annually to strengthen DRDAs administratively with the objective of maintaining them as "distinct from panchayats". The standing committee reminds us that this Ministry is responsible for seeing that the mandate of the 73rd Amendment is obeyed. At a recent event in Delhi, the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, hailed Dr. Swaminathan's action plan and called for concerted action to achieve substantial freedom from hunger by August 15, 2007. But "concerted action" is a far cry considering that Dr. Swaminathan's foot soldiers — the three million local government elected representatives including one million women — are frozen in their tracks. The Constitution is being slighted, if not slaughtered, in daylight. It is time the Prime Minister awoke to the oath of office he took in Rashtrapati Bhawan to uphold the constitution. Or else, the inspiring goal set for the country by Dr. Swaminathan is in danger of degenerating into one of "adding years to years".

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