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‘Put Gram Sabhas in charge of all social sector schemes’

P.V. Srividya
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Mani Shankar Aiyar in conversation with The Hindu in Mayiladuturai, Tamil Nadu.— Photo: B. Velankanni Raj
Mani Shankar Aiyar in conversation with The Hindu in Mayiladuturai, Tamil Nadu.— Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

How relevant is panchayat raj in the everyday lives of the people? What is the role of panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) in poverty alleviation and human development? Is poverty alleviation possible through a peripheral role for panchayats as conceived in various Central sector schemes?

Taking up these questions, the Mani Shankar Aiyar-led Expert Committee on “Leveraging Panchayat Raj Institutions for effective delivery of public goods and services,” which submitted its report to the government recently, has suggested that the Gram Sabha should be empowered to monitor and make decisions on all the social sector schemes — Central and State. Citing MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme as the model for other schemes, Mr. Aiyar told The Hindu in Mayiladuturai that this move will remove the lacunae in the ‘last mile delivery’ of the schemes.

A panchayat-driven social sector expenditure model empowers the community with a sense of ownership as against the bureaucracy-driven, top-down model currently inbuilt in the Central sector schemes. It calls for a rethink on the way central sector schemes (CSS) on poverty alleviation are designed and the need to retrieve PRIs from the fringes to their rightful place as drivers of rural welfare.

Outcomes are not in sync with the outlays, says the report. The multifold increase in social sector expenditure has barely translated into positive outcomes. There was no tangible rise in the Human Development Indices, despite the exponential increase in social sector expenditure.

The Committee — drawing its template from the Prime Minister’s address to the Conference of Chief Ministers in 2004 that calls for a rethink on the top-down design of programmes — prescribes Activity Mapping for each CSS. Activity Mapping envisions clear delineation of “functions, finances and functionaries,’ shifting the ownership of Schemes from the line departments to elected Panchayats. The report illustrates model Activity Mapping for eight CSS to lead the way.

Grassroots devolution

When the Panchayat Raj experiment was started two decades ago, there was a certain degree of naïveté in believing that effective devolution would just happen, Mr. Aiyar recalls. “Unlike the West, with its local government experience in parishes and counties, here local government was imposed from above. We had to devolve, while the West evolved from local governments.” But, ours was the first such experiment at grassroots devolution leading to tangible social engineering, says Mr. Aiyar.

The Committee’s recommendations include a Centre-drafted model Gram Sabha law to motivate State legislation; freezing of rotation of reserved seats to two or three terms to incentivise good work and facilitate capacity building of panchayat leadership; incentivise PRIs for transparency and accountability and the States to devolve; reorient the outlook of lower bureaucracy to panchayats. The report also prescribes collateral and institutional measures such electronic tagging of funds, setting up of a National Commission for Panchayat Raj, and strengthening Gram Sabhas in PESA areas (tribal areas to which the Panchayat system has been extended by law).

The report recommends the MGNREGA scheme and BRGF (Backward Regions Grant Fund) model that locate PRIs as central to implementation. “We have wonderful examples in MGNREGA and BRGF. MGNREGA was initially worked out without a role for Panchayats. On my personal intervention and literally in a midnight, government’s amendment to the Bill, (and) a strong role for Panchayats came by. Today, it is a highly functional scheme,” says Mr. Aiyar.

While the Committee advocates strong Gram Sabhas that the panchayats are accountable to, the Bill on Land Acquisition lends only consultative powers to the Gram Sabhas.

Even as Mr. Aiyar sees no inherent conflict between intent and action, he does believe there are vested interests. ‘The Sub Committee under me strongly recommended consent by Gram Sabhas. But, there are always vested interests.” Also, most States have not legislated on powers for the Gram Sabhas.

According to the report, effective devolution leads to better outcomes, which in turn engenders political will. It was lack of bureaucratic will and not political will that has stalled effective devolution, says Mr. Aiyar. “My recommendations as chairperson of the Empowered Sub Committee of the NDC (National Development Council) were not acted upon by the Planning Commission. The Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission and the Cabinet Secretary are not elected and their inability to enforce their own circulars reflects lack of bureaucratic will.” The political class did not bear down on the bureaucracy like it did with MGNREGA.

“It is bureaucracy that will have to produce the methodology of devolution. But they did not. Now our report illustrates how to do it through Activity Mapping. They just have to implement it.” Recounting a personal conversation with Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, Mr. Aiyar says the former Prime Minister envisioned a generation’s time for effective devolution. “It is only 20 years now; we have five more years to realise that dream, if our recommendations are implemented.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar-led committee prescribes

a mechanism for panchayat control


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