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Wednesday, October 03, 2001

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Panchayat Raj in Karnataka - I

By M. Y. Ghorpade

FOR CENTURIES, India has had the experience of gram panchayats but they were based on traditional values, male dominated and caste ridden. They were not based on values of democratic equality and social justice for all in equal measure. There was no equality of opportunities and equal access to the means of human development and quality of life. The concept of panchayat raj, sought to be developed after India became a democratic republic, is based on the progressive democratic values enshrined in our Constitution. It is a massive movement to strengthen these values at the grassroot level and build a strong participatory democracy which will accelerate development with equity and social justice.

The whole purpose of the freedom struggle was to give people the power to develop in a self-reliant manner and build a strong, sensitive and just society. Much has been done since Independence but we need to decentralise power and give opportunities to all sections of society, especially the weaker sections and women. It is with this vision that Rajiv Gandhi, after widespread consultations, brought about the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution enacted in 1993 making it mandatory for all States to conduct elections once every five years to panchayat raj bodies at the village, taluk and district levels. Karnataka was the first State to do this by passing the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act, 1993, and conducting elections to gram panchayats in December that year. This was the beginning of a full-fledged three-tier system of panchayat raj in Karnataka, making use of the 11th Schedule in the Constitution to decentralise power and functions to panchayat raj bodies at all the three levels. According to a recent evaluation report of the Union Ministry of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Karnataka is the one State (apart from Sikkim) which has transferred or devolved all the 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution to the panchayat raj institutions.

The cardinal principle is that what is appropriate at a given level of the three-tier system should be done at that level and not unnecessarily at a higher level. The same principle could be extended to State-Centre relations. This is a dynamic concept which can be progressively applied to all the five tiers of Government, including the State and the Centre, to maximise decentralisation and empowerment of the people with social justice, so that all sections have an equal share in the exercise of power.

The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act, 1993 provides 33 per cent reservation for women, 33 per cent for Other Backward Classes and 28 per cent for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in keeping with the constitutional provisions. It also provided minimum reservation to ensure that at least one seat in a gram panchayat shall be for persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In Karnataka, 43 per cent of those elected to gram or village panchayats are women, though the reservation is only for 33 per cent. In districts such as Dakshina Kannada, it goes up to 50 per cent. This reservation applies not only to election of members but also to the election of office-bearers or chairpersons of these institutions. The gram sabha is the soul of panchayat raj and the idea is to progressively strengthen its functioning to ensure full participation of the people and accountability. Karnataka has introduced a system called panchayat jamabandi, where audit of accounts and works is carried out with public participation. And, the report of the jamabandi is put before the gram sabha for further action. All panchayat raj bodies are expected to display boards containing information of receipts and expenditure and development works.

Karnataka has 5,659 gram panchayats, 175 taluka panchayats and 27 district panchayats. Elections to these bodies have been successfully held twice since 1993. Every 400 people elect one member to the gram panchayat, 10,000 people elect a member to the taluka panchayat and 40,000 people elect a member to the district panchayat. This ensures equitable representation to all sections of society and also social justice by way of a progressive pattern of reservation. The Government gives a statutory development grant of Rs. 3.5 lakhs to every gram panchayat and intends to progressively increase this amount and the flow of untied resources to encourage and enable local planning in keeping with national and local priorities. Of the total Plan and non-Plan budget of the State, Rs. 4,589 crores are devolved to the three-tier panchayat raj institutions - Rs. 1,697 crores for Plan and Rs. 2,892 crores for non-Plan. The idea is that Plan and non-Plan schemes being implemented at the three levels should be supervised by the elected panchayat bodies to ensure better implementation, public participation and accountability. The powers and functions have been devolved to elected bodies at each level and not to any individual. No elected body is subservient to any other but only to the State Panchayat Raj Act, which specifies the duties, powers and functions of each.

Adequate empowerment of the gram sabha is the crux of effective decentralisation as that is where people's democracy can be put into practice. It is there that the voice of the people, including the weaker sections and women, can be really heard. The elected gram panchayat must be accountable to the gram sabha, which should be convened at least once in six months or twice a year, to discuss a well-structured agenda. The annual statement of accounts and the social audit report must be formally placed before the gram sabha, as also the development report relating to the preceding year, and the programme for the current year including the annual plan and selection of beneficiaries. The annual plan should be considered against the background of a five-year plan based on local priorities. All relevant information should be systematically made available to the gram sabha in accordance with the Transparency Act and the Right to Information Act, which have been enacted in Karnataka. Full use should be made of the gram sabha to create awareness regarding the policies and programmes which are of great relevance at the grassroot level, so that people's participation can be progressively increased and improved. The gram sabha should be fully representative, especially of the weaker sections and women, and not dominated by the powerful minority. Each separate habitation in a gram panchayat should have its own people's committees which could be like sub-committees of the gram panchayat with suitable links with the gram sabha, to strengthen people's participation. Whatever user or stakeholders groups are set up should have organic links with the gram panchayat to ensure that it is not sidelined. The gram panchayat should be the focal point of convergence of all schemes and programmes at that level, with provision to coordinate with higher or different levels of administration. The NGOs should also fit into the spirit of this structure. The test of decentralisation should be whether all that can be done at the village level is done there, the taluka and district levels performing a supportive role and dealing with inter-village and inter-taluka matters not confined to a single village or taluka as the case may be.

The taluka panchayat being closer to the gram panchayat the people should be enabled to do much more than at present, the district panchayat performing such functions which cannot be performed at any other level. Functions, functionaries and finances should be carefully matched in such a reordering or restructuring of the administrative set up and the delivery systems. Karnataka has already taken significant steps in this regard.

(The writer is Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Government of Karnataka.)

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