Panchayati Raj Ministry: A downgrade for democracy

Confining it to just the Ministry of Rural Development would be the most retrograde step in democratic decentralisation in over a quarter century.

June 30, 2016 03:04 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

If, as >The Hindu’s>exclusive on Wednesday indicates, Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to close down the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, it would confirm one’s worst fears about his government’s hypocritical approach to grass-roots democracy for grass-roots development.

This was a lacuna that was evident in the ‘Gujarat model’ of development long before it began being inflicted from the Centre. For Mr. Modi was just about the only Chief Minister to refuse me entry to the State when, as the first ever Union Minister for the subject during UPA-I, I was attempting to round off my visits to all States and Union Territories to propagate the cause and work with State governments on State-specific action to be undertaken.

Mani Shankar Aiyer

A de-democratising move Among other initiatives we took for strengthening panchayat empowerment was the Index of Devolution prepared by independent experts and geared towards rewarding States that over the previous year had made the most incremental progress towards more effective devolution in terms of the Constitution and their own State legislation. Many States that had been slow starters, including Bihar, Tripura, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, and Rajasthan, found their scores rising and were appropriately recognised. Gujarat never figured because its pattern was frozen.

Worse, Gujarat ran a system under which democracy at the village level was discouraged by financially incentivising panchayats elected without contest. Rajasthan, and now Haryana, have followed suit by placing regressive restrictions on less educated and poorer candidates, particularly Dalit women, from even contesting panchayat elections.

This de-democratisation of local self-government will be aggravated if a Cabinet Minister for Panchayati Raj is not available to advocate and promote the cause with Chief Ministers and his counterparts in the States. After all, the 73rd amendment, now incorporated as part IX of the Constitution, is the joint responsibility of the Union and the States, calling for high-level coordination to promote and protect the provisions of the longest and most detailed amendment ever carried out to the Constitution. It was passed virtually unanimously in December 1992 as representing the consensus among Central and State stakeholders. This consensual method must be persisted with by bringing State ministers together; convening academic experts and field-level NGOs; promoting feedback from and best practices among elected panchayat representatives; monitoring the special interests of women representatives, Dalits and tribals; maintaining and updating data-banks on all aspects of panchayat raj; commissioning expert studies and preparing periodic reports such as the biannual State of the Panchayats reports. These are among the key activities undertaken by the Ministry. Providing such an all-India perspective will be seriously diluted or even entirely lost without an independent Ministry for the subject.

The constitutional mandate Moreover, merging or subordinating panchayat raj under rural development amounts to a grossly inadequate reading of the Constitution, in particular the Eleventh Schedule that lists the proposed jurisdiction (“powers, authority and responsibilities”) of national-level panchayati raj. While schemes of the Rural Development Ministry, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, rural housing, National Rural Livelihoods Mission and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, are indeed covered under more than one entry in the Eleventh Schedule, the range of entries covers virtually the entire gamut of development and welfare in rural India, beginning with entry 1, “agriculture, including agricultural extension”, as also “animal husbandry, dairying and poultry” (entry 4) and “fisheries” (entry 5) that are the responsibility of the Agriculture Ministry; “minor irrigation, water management and watershed development” (entry 3) that falls under the Ministry of Water Resources; “social forestry and farm forestry” (entry 6) and “minor forest produce” (entry 7) that jointly concern the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Drinking water (entry 11) and sanitation (entry 23), including the much-hyped Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, are the responsibility of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The Eleventh Schedule goes on to detail “small scale industries, including food processing industries” (entry 8) and “khadi, village and cottage industries” (entry 9), that fall respectively under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the Ministry of Textiles.

“Family welfare” (entry 24) and “health, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries” (entry 23) are part of the National Rural Health Mission run by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; while the massive Integrated Child Development Services programme falls under “women and child development” (entry 25) that is run by the Ministry of the same name. “Education, including primary and secondary schools” (entry 17), “technical training and vocational education” (entry 18), “adult and non-formal education” (entry 19) and libraries (entry 20) belong to the domain of the Human Resource Development Ministry, especially the transformative Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, while “cultural activities” (entry 21) are part of the Ministry of Culture. “Social welfare” (entry 26), “the welfare of the weaker sections, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes” is in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. “Public distribution system” (entry 28) belongs to the Ministry of Food and Public Distribution. This listing is illustrative rather than comprehensive.

With such a wide constitutional remit, confining panchayati raj to just the Ministry of Rural Development will be a conceptual infringement, an emasculation of the constitutional role envisaged for panchayati raj institutions. What the 73rd amendment sought to do was a radical reorganisation of last-mile delivery of public goods and services to the panchayats by devolving “such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government” (Article 243G). Note, “self-government” not “self-governance”: the fundamental mandate was to establish the panchayati raj system as the third tier of government, not to make these institutions implementing agencies for State departments or Union Ministries. This was to be achieved by endowing these “institutions of self-government” with the required functions, finances and functionaries (the three Fs).

Twenty-five years of progress Clearly such a revolution in political relations between elected local government authorities and the State political set-up requires time and patient experimentation to play out. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, set up by UPA-I in 2004, has over the past 12 years or so been advocating and incentivising this. It is the primary duty of the Ministry to perform these delicate advisory functions. Panchayati raj remains on the State list but, in view of the 73rd constitutional amendment, the Centre becomes responsible to work with the States to fulfil in letter and spirit the aims and objects of the constitutional legislation. For this revolutionary task, an independent Ministry, preferably under a persuasive and influential Minister, is essential. Otherwise panchayati raj will wither on the vine.

Prime among these is “activity mapping”, that is, identifying the numerous tasks to be undertaken in planning and implementing any given scheme with a view to allocating these different activities to different tiers of the system from the Central to the State government and the three separate levels of rural self-government: the village, the intermediary (taluka or block) and the district would have to be supplemented by parallel and simultaneous devolution to the appropriate tiers of finances and functionaries. To this end, the UPA Prime Minister, through the Cabinet secretary, issued directions in November 2004 and August 2013 to departmental secretaries of all Ministries concerned to work on such “activity maps” for their respective Centrally-sponsored schemes. This called for a systemic overhaul of district and sub-district level administration (and the politics of administering rural India) involving the effective empowerment of a whole new tribe of elected local representatives.

The numbers alone tell the scale of the tale. As against about 5,000 elected MPs and MLAs to run the “world’s largest democracy”, we have about 28 lakh rural and about 4 lakh urban representatives, with about 14 lakh rural and urban women, making ours also the “world’s most representative democracy”. There are more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together! We have also guaranteed equitable representation for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. The gram sabhas too have been constitutionally recognised to provide a forum of accountability to the beneficiaries. All this is an achievement without precedent in history or parallel in contemporary times. And this massive machinery of social change is, according to The Hindu ’s report, to be entrusted to a Minister of State! What a recipe for retardation.

Notwithstanding the hurdles, real and imagined, thrown in the way of such empowerment, virtually the whole country is moving forward, at different speeds and with considerable diversity but, nevertheless, in the desired direction. It cannot be faster or more uniform for there are many eggs to be broken to make the devolution omelette.

Quietly, considerable progress has been made in the last 25 years. Panchayati raj has been made ineluctable, irremovable and irreversible, but much remains to be accomplished. To disrupt the process by downgrading the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and making it an adjunct of some other Ministry would be the most retrograde step in democratic decentralisation in over a quarter century. Is this really what Mr. Modi wants?

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress leader and former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj.

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