On the basis of the recommendations of the Ashoke Mehta Committee, the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) got constitutional status in India by the 73rd Amendments of Indian Constitution in 1993. The 74th Amendment, at the same time, was for urban local bodies. After 25 years, what’s been the success and failure of the PRIs in the country?
Why was this Amendment made? According to Subhasish Chtatterjee, professor and Director, School of Management, Sumandeep Vidyapith, Vadodora “It was understood just after the post-independence era that social change of India is possible by continuous development of rural sectors, but despite knowing it, the main importance was given to industry, communication, education and health. But when it was realised that social change and rest of the progress was not possible without appropriate improvement of rural sector then Panchayat Raj Institution was introduced and furthermore a special emphasis has been given to bring the people from grass-root level into the lime light of Indian democratic panorama. But, in early few years, the Panchayat Raj Institution was under the grip of the elite society, who used to control different villages by virtue of their muscle and money power. It started changing after the introduction of the 73rd amendment in the year 1992; a special reservation policy i.e. 1/3rd reservation policy has been implemented for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC (other backward class) candidates. Special provisions of 1/3rd reservations policy has also been initiated for women candidates in all tiers of the new Panchayat Raj Institution.”
Empowerment of local disadvantaged sections
The State Election Commissions are in charge of election of local bodies. Presently, there are 250,000 PRIs and urban local bodies in the country and over 30 lakh elected member in local bodies. After the Amendment, no less than 1/3rd of total seats of local bodies are reserved for women and proportionate representation is mandatory for ST/ SC. This is something different from candidates from reserved categories in parliamentary elections. Different studies noticed that voices of the women and SC/ST representatives in the local governments are being heard. Recently, Shruti Rajagopalan, assistant professor, New York State University mentioned a few noticeable trends in her article published in a national media She mentioned that the research using PRIs (by Laxmi Iyer, Anandi Mani, Prachi Mishra and Petia Topolova) has shown that having female political representatives in local governments makes women more likely to come forward and report crimes. Further, female PRI leaders are more likely to focus on issues pertinent to women. Citing another research of R. Chattopadhyay and E. Dufflo, Rajagopalan wrote that in districts with female sarpanch/ pradhans significantly greater investments are made in drinking water, priority public goods
for women. In this study it was also found that a lot of invest-ment on public goods has occurred in small villages or areas where SC section resides more in number. This is considered as an important change in the severely segregated villages of India. This improvement is noteworthy in a country where caste and gender factors at times, become more important than economic factors.
Lack of performance due to lack of financial autonomy
In the case of financial autonomy, which is one of the main preconditions for empowerment and governance of local people, the situation is not at all impressive. Actually by the 73rd Amendment it was mandated the creation of self-governing bodies, and left the decision to delegate powers, function and finances to the state legislatures. Rajagopalan thinks that herein lies the failure of PRIs. Transfer of power was not mandated in the hands of PRIs in the matters of education, health, sanitation, water supply etc. the most importantly the power to earn their own revenue through taxation was not mandated, except some of with very little importance. Although there have been constitutional provisions to devolve money from state exchequers to local governments through the recommendations of the state finance commissions but most of the states have not realised this practically.
Other factors leading to lack of performance of the PRIs
It is said that functions assigned to Panchyats (village level) and Panchyat Samiti (at the block level) overlap and that leads to confusion, duplication of efforts and shifting of responsibility. In many cases, higher structure treats lower structure as subordinate. This destroys the spirit of democratic decentralisation. There have been complaints of lack of cooperation and coordination between people of government officials at the Block Develoment Office. Other oft-quoted allegations are corruption, inefficiency, disregard procedure, day to day political interference, motivated action, lack of service mentality etc. stand in the way of Panchayati Raj system.
It is true that after the 73rd and 74th Amendments there has been a lot of change in governance and empowerment at the local levels towards the better. But there remains much incompleteness in this regard, particularly, in financial empowerment. In many respects, the most important aspect is power to supersede local bodies on the part of state government. If this is not addressed and changed, it will destroy the spirit of democratic decentralisation.