T.R. Raghunandan

‘Karnataka's Panchayat Raj law is one of the most powerful in the country'

‘Circular Raj has replaced Panchayati Raj'

Bangalore: Karnataka's long-standing reputation as a champion in Panchayati Raj was established about two decades ago when Abdul Nazir Sab set up a two-tier panchayat system consisting of zilla parishads and mandal panchayats and empowered them with wide-ranging powers and responsibilities. Nazir Sab's greatest contribution lay in the detail that he laid down in the fine print, which he developed along with a team of committed senior bureaucrats. Panchayat responsibilities were precisely defined through law, and backed by clearly identifiable financial allocations, through a ‘district sector' window, comprising of about 24 per cent of the State budget.

Fine framework

In an emphatic administrative move that clearly showed that times had changed, deputy commissioners were divested of their development responsibilities and officers senior to them were posted as “Chief Secretaries” of zilla parishads, who were accountable to the ZP and whose performance appraisals were written by the ZP Adhyaksha. Nazir Sab thus crafted a congruence of functions, funds and functionaries, which ensured that panchayats functioned in letter and spirit as institutions of local government.

During M.Y. Ghorpade's second term as Panchayat Raj Minister from 2001 to 2004, he piloted wide-ranging second-generation reforms, which included a comprehensive activity mapping order, broadly positioning the zilla and taluk panchayat as planners, facilitators and owners of common executive machinery, the gram panchayats as the cutting edge for local service provision and gram and ward sabhas as people's institutions to ensure transparency and accountability.

To match this detailed assignment of powers, he simplified the budget's district sector and took steps to restore it to the 24 per cent share as in Nazir Sab's time. Mr. Ghorpade's most far-reaching reforms were the landmark amendments of October 2003 to the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act, which established a two-tier system of ward sabhas and gram sabhas endowed with powers of mandatory identification and prioritisation of beneficiaries for government programmes, approval of developmental plans and generating proposals and determining priority of schemes. It also provided that the beneficiary list so decided by the gram sabha could not be changed at any level of the government, thus placing beyond any doubt the supremacy of the gram sabha. Karnataka's Panchayat Raj law thus remains one of the most powerful ones in the country in the scope of empowerment of panchayats.

Not fool-proof

However, by no means is Karnataka's Panchayat Raj system safe. While the law remains strong on paper, the fine print defining the support structure has been distorted by a plethora of administrative instructions through which line departments have clawed back their powers.

Their most potent tool has been to establish parallel societies for each programme, bringing these under the DCs and giving MLAs overriding powers to veto or change selections of plans and programmes by panchayats. Circular Raj has replaced Panchayati Raj and this stark truth is hidden behind a smokescreen of boastful political rhetoric and ‘official' versions, replete with clichés of empowerment and decentralised development.

The immediate future of Panchayat Raj in the State is uncertain. We are not likely to have any more Nazeer Sabs or Ghorpades. The removal of Shobha Karandlaje, who impressed many as a pro-decentralisation Minister, is a clear signal that new champions of decentralisation will not be tolerated in the current dispensation. Tackling this contemporary reality is entirely dependent upon greater vigilance by panchayats, gram sabhas and people at large. In particular, they must resist the repeated clumsy efforts of higher level politicians and bureaucrats, such as the amendment to withdraw the powers of selecting beneficiaries for the ‘Ashraya' housing scheme from the panchayats and bestowing this privilege on the MLAs.

Governance is too precious a commodity to be the preserve of an exclusive club of legislators, bureaucrats and technocrats.

Panchayat elected representatives carry with them considerable native wisdom and a deep appreciation of local realities. Now they will require infinite skills of diplomacy, patience and political sagacity to ensure that the ruling elite do not turn the clock back on decentralisation.

(The author served as Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Government of Karnataka and Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India. He now works closely with panchayats across the country.)