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The man behind panchayat raj

By M. Madan Mohan

HUBLI, JAN. 12. The death of Ramakrishna Hegde removes from the scene one of the votaries of the panchayat raj system in Karnataka. It was during his stewardship as the first non-Congress Chief Minister (1983-88) that a decisive step was taken towards ensuring decentralisation of democracy in Karnataka. He was the joint author of the experiment, undertaken for the first time in the country, in which the sovereignty of the people in the governance at the grassroots was ensured with the formation of gram sabha, an assembly of voters of the village, to oversee the working of panchayat raj institutions.

Thanks to the interest taken by him and the then Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Abdul Nazir Sab, Karnataka took the path-breaking step of enacting a special law in the very first year of assumption of office, though it took three more years before the assent of the President could be obtained and elections were held for two of the three-tier system, namely the mandal panchayats and the zilla parishads, with the middle tier at the taluk level being a non-elected body.

Another important feature was the conscious attempts made by the Hegde Government to portray the concept of government at the district level. All functions at the district level, except those pertaining to the magistracy, excise, and law and order stood transferred to the zilla parishads, and the Chief Executive Officer of the body was named as the Chief Secretary, a name analogous to the chief executive of the State. An IAS officer, who was senior to the Deputy Commissioner, was posted as the Chief Executive Officer since the bulk of the functions stood transferred to the body, and the Deputy Commissioner was saddled with only residuary functions.

And the president of the parishad was given the powers to write the confidential report of the chief executive officers too.

Karnataka's experiment in the decentralisation of democracy evoked admiration all over. But the tragedy was that the Janata Party, subsequently renamed as Janata Dal, which had been able to capture power in the zilla parishads and mandal panchayats could hardly derive the lasting political advantages of the new system. The Congress Government, which came to power, brought its own version of the Panchayat Raj Act to replace whatever had been done by the Hegde Government.

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