After facing a massive budget cut last year, the future of the Panchayati Raj Ministry continues to look bleak. After the BJP government shuttered two of its key programmes — the Backward Regions Grants Fund (BRGF) and the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan (RGPSA) — several officials at the Ministry feel it would soon be closed down and turned into a department under the Ministry of Rural Development.
A senior official at the Ministry told The Hindu that Panchayati Raj Minister Chaudhary Birender Singh wasn’t making any efforts to rescue the Ministry from dissolution because he also heads the Rural Development Ministry.
“The government is turning this Ministry irrelevant so that no one questions it when they shut it down,” the senior official said.
Last year’s budget cut, from Rs. 7,000 crores to Rs. 96 crores, left such an impact on the Ministry that it lost confidence in empowering panchayats nationwide.
“Our role has been reduced. We are more like an advisory or advocacy group,” said another official at the Ministry, wishing not to be named.
After the budget sequestration, the official said it was Dr. S.M. Vijayanand, then Secretary at the Panchayati Raj Ministry, who battled his way through the Finance Ministry and managed to rescue some elements of RGPSA on the condition that it will be renamed Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (RGSA). This year, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allotted Rs. 655 crores to RGSA.
In view of the budget cuts, the Ministry recently “realigned” its mandate from financing panchayats to capacity-building and training.
In the UPA-I and UPA-II regimes, since the Ministry was well-funded with BRGF and Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan schemes, it was able to address district-wise inequality, pumping money into the panchayats of the backward ones, helping them build panchayat ghars (offices) and training the functionaries in drafting annual plans to increase their upward mobility.
“We had plans to hire junior-level engineers and data entry operators in panchayats to turn all the panchayats e-governance friendly. But with the budget cuts, everything has come to a standstill,” said an official.
A ministry official said that the government refuses to acknowledge that there are 58,000 gram panchayats across the country without permanent office facilities.
Senior Congress leader and former Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was instrumental in creating the Ministry over a decade ago, said that if the government wants to turn the ministry into a department it should do so only to increasing its funding capacity. “If it won’t be able to utilize huge funds for the promotion of Panchayats then it could be the BJP government’s method to kill Panchayati Raj institution,” said Mr.Aiyar.
Speaking to The Hindu, AK Goyal, Joint Secretary at Panchayati Raj Ministry, said that the centre rolled back the BRGF scheme because it asked state government to “increase their own funding resources” to empower Panchayats.
Mr.Goyal, however, refused to speak on whether the government was planning to close down the ministry.