Strengthening local governance
V. K. SRINIVASAN
PANCHAYATI RAJ AND LOCAL GOVERNANCE: Edited by B.K. Sinha and K. Gopal Iyer; National Institute of Rural Development, Rajendra Nagar, Hyderabad-500030.
Rs. 600 (2 volumes).
While Panchayati Raj has been an article of abiding faith with many, its conversion into an instrument of effective local governance has had a varied record. Article 40 of the Constitution of India enjoins upon the state “to take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” “Local self-government” figures in the State list (entry No. 5)
Thus operationalising the Panchayati Raj was left to the State governments, with varying degrees of commitment. Consequently, the functioning of the three-tier PR structure — Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samithis, and Zilla Parishads — that emerged in the late 1950s was marked by disparity among States.
After three decades, the Union government took steps to provide, at the national level, an institutional framework to the units of local self-government, both rural and urban, by amending the Constitution in 1992-93. Part IX inserted by the 73rd Amendment (which related to the panchayati raj institutions) provided for the setting up of a State Election Commission to conduct periodical elections, the appointment of a State Finance Commission to recommend devolution of resources from the State government to the PRIs, and the creation of District Planning Committees to formulate development plans that will form the basis for the State plans.
The formation of the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2004 became an important step in establishing an effective national level monitor for the PRIs. The Ministry sought to address the macro and the micro level problems as well as State-specific issues by holding round-table discussions with the States. As part of its efforts to obtain feedback from the field, it organised a three-day workshop of writers and thinkers in June 2006 and the two volumes under review carry 38 of the papers presented on the occasion by persons with varied professional background — social activists, academics, administrators, and so on — along with a perceptive preface, a long introduction, and an elaborate account of the discussions held in 14 sessions. In the words of the editors, “it was a workshop with a difference where the floor spoke and the dais listened.”
The deliberations covered such diverse issues as: devolution of powers; governance, transparency and the right to information; fiscal decentralisation and rural business; women empowerment and gender dimensions; land reforms and livelihood issues; panchayat extension to the Scheduled areas and North-East; training and capacity-building of PR functionaries; and civil society and parallel institutions.
As for the views expressed and points made in some of the presentations, L.C. Jain laments that the “institution of self-government as envisioned in 1949 and in 1992 is still a mirage” and urges that a review of pre-existing laws should be taken up to make the PRIs more effective. George Mathew argues that “a nexus between the contractors, bureaucrats and politicians” is really affecting meaningful implementation of the PR Acts. Mangal Singh, an activist, states that “PR is a regime of intense rent seeking” and warns that “the entire system is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption.”
In a sober analysis, K.C. Sivaramakrishnan points out the democratic deficits in the PRI, while P. Sainath highlights the role of the PRIs in employment generation and water management. M.A.Oommen presents a disquieting picture of fiscal decentralisation and uneven per capita resource transfer across the States. N.C.Saxena attributes the poor delivery by the PRIs to inadequate devolution, dependence on government funding, reluctance of the PRIs to use fiscal powers, excessive bureaucratic control, and interference by the MLAs. He proceeds to make useful suggestions for changes in the financing pattern of the PRIs, with a formula-based share in the State revenues and untied grants as also performance-based devolution and linkage with MP Local Area Development Funds.
Food for thought
The session on parallel institutions, highlighting the emergence of organisations like the DRDA and the one on training and capacity-building for PR functionaries, offered policy-makers some food for thought. What emerges from the two volumes of material is that, while some critical voices were heard at the workshop, the approach on the whole was constructive, throwing up a number of eminently sensible suggestions for strengthening local governance and improving the delivery systems in the rural areas.
Mani Shankar Iyer, Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, who spoke at the valedictory session on the “lessons” he learnt at the workshop, had this to say: in States where there is better governance in terms of law and order, there is better Panchayati Raj; and where the State-level politics has promoted muscle raj and money raj, one cannot have good panchayati raj. In his view, the good feeds on itself even as the bad creates a vicious circle. The publication offers valuable lessons in local governance and could be a useful addition to all personal and institutional libraries.
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