Bill must ensure power to the people

Bill must ensure power to the people DESPITE the cynicism of sceptics, a brace of proposed constitutional amendments could empower the people to take control of their environment and turn it clean and green. But this dream will come true only if the proposed political decentralisation is truly democratic and results in the creation of participatory institutions at the grassroot level.

Parliamentary joint committees set up to review the amendment bills concerning panchayati raj and nagarpalikas have submitted their reports but discussion on both measures has been postponed to the winter session because of Parliament"s preoccupation with the volatile Ayodhya issue.

The two bills were presented -- for the third time -- to Parliament last year so that a constitutional mandate can be accorded to local bodies. Similar bills in the past, intended to achieve the same objective, got stalled in the Lok Sabha, one session after another.

The amendment bills were first introduced by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 but they failed in the Rajya Sabha by five votes. The V P Singh government then introduced modified versions of the bills in 1990, but these died a natural death with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The bills were reintroduced in September 1991 to fulfil a Congress(I) election promise to usher in democratic decentralisation within 100 days of the party assuming power. But opposition to some of the provisions forced the government to set up two joint committees in January this year and they tabled their reports in Parliament in July.

The country committed itself to political decentralisation soon after Independence and set up a system for elected panchayats to manage rural problems. But during the more than four decades since, this system has been steadily emasculated as political parties vied for power. Quite often, the party in power, anticipating losing, has unceremoniously postponed panchayat elections. Moreover, the jurisdiction of panchayats was not carefully defined and their financial resources were kept tightly restricted. As a system, therefore, panchayati raj was designed to fail. The situation with urban local bodies has not been much dissimilar.

The two amendment bills aim at rectifying some of these deficiencies. In the first place, they would make panchayat elections mandatory. The bills also fix the tenure of local bodies at five years and mandate that elections must be held within six months of supersession. These provisions, it was argued by those who framed the bills, would adequately safeguard the measures against the political whims of ruling parties. Furthermore, the bills provide new schedules to define the broad spheres of activity of panchayats and nagarpalikas (See boxes) and authorise the state legislatures to define their financial power and set up state finance commissions to review their financial position once in five years.

All the political parties in Parliament want these bills passed. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress MP, who played a key role in formulating both bills during the Rajiv Gandhi era, supported them on the ground that "delivery mechanisms today take up a large amount of funds for development. If a delivery mechanism can be built up where the people are, costs of development can be reduced. Returns on development can be optimal only when there is greater local decision-making."

Aiyar noted that despite 40 years of planning, "resources still haven"t reached the grassroots, in the absence of responsible people"s bodies. Moreover, as development flows in a top-down fashion, there are now unrealistically high expectations from the government, which is seen as a mai-baap sarkar. This can be checked if power is devolved."

L C Jain, an avowed Janata Dal supporter, is in favour of the bills saying they are necessary. "It may have been brought in by one party, but all stand to gain," he added.

Said Aiyar, concurring: "No political party will ever be able to say no to Panchayati Raj. It would impinge on their conscience."

But the irony is that the political debate on the bills has focussed more on Centre-state relations than on "empowering people". Opposition critics of the Rajiv Gandhi bill argued he wanted to establish direct links with community level institutions so as to further reduce the powers of state governments. Two aspects of the Rajiv Gandhi bill in particular riled the Opposition: direct supervision of panchayat elections by the Election Commission and direct auditing of panchayat funds by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). The V P Singh bills, on the other hand, gave more authority to state legislatures to define the powers and function of panchayats and to frame the rules for panchayat elections, and to state finance commissions, to oversee panchayat finances. Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao"s bills was described by Nathu Ram Mirdha, who heads the joint committee on the Panchayati Raj Bill, as being "somewhere in between". Rao"s bills give more power to the states than the Rajiv Gandhi bill. Mirdha commented: "States have always been complaining that the Centre is encroaching upon their autonomy. So, let us leave it to the state legislatures."

Subramanian Swamy of the Janata Party noted, however, that the Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party (Marxist) "have so far been vehemently opposing any dilution of powers of state legislatures".

The CPM said in a note of dissent to the joint committee that under "Article 40 of the Constitution, which makes it incumbent on states to take steps to organise panchayats and to endow them with such powers as may be necessary, it lies entirely in the states" domain to decide and legislate on the subject". CPM is unhappy because the bills do not cover the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Committee members recommended that as DGHC exists under a separate agreement, it has a special status and so it must remain outside the bill"s purview.

The BJP rhetoric also stresses the need to give powers to the people. "We want participatory democracy," said Atal Behari Vajpayee. "A beginning should be made at the grassroots and participatory democracy should be ushered in at panchayat level." But Vaipayee also soon switched to the issue of more powers to the state legislature. "Let us discuss distribution of resources first," he said. "Where is the money for panchayats? The Centre should give up its economic and fiscal powers to the states."

States like Nagaland also have been critical of attempts to extend laws uniformly throughout the country, totally disregarding traditional systems of community governance in tribal areas. As a compromise, the bills state that tribal areas would be covered only if the state legislature concerned passes a resolution to this effect.

The bills have received little public attention, but even so they have inspired considerable cynicism -- and limited criticism. Former Punjab governor Nirmal Mukherji, for instance, commented at a recent panel discussion, organised by the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi, "One wonders whether status and dignity of people"s bodies really flow out of Constitutional provisions per se. Is a Constitutional provision an adequate substitute for political will?" Indeed, political will has been at a premium and panchayati raj institutions in several states have been regularly subverted. In Karnataka, for example, the state government appointed bureaucrats to administer zila parishads earlier this year.

Criticism of the bills from an environmental perspective has come mainly in a statement by noted environmentalists, who include former chief justice P N Bhagwati, Chipko movement leader C P Bhatt and Chakriya Vikas Pranali founder P R Mishra. Their statement asks pertinently, "Power to the People: How and For What?" Environmentalists note, "Every action must have an objective (and) there can be no greater and more relevant objective for political decentralisation, than the empowerment of India"s villagers to manage their natural resource base.

"What is an Indian village other than a human settlement surrounded by a natural resource base consisting of farms, forests, grazing lands, wells, streams, ponds, tanks, trees and animals?"

The environmentalist panel noted, "Our work over the years has clearly shown that it is possible to regenerate the land and augment people"s income, on a self-reliant and sustainable basis. But all this demands social discipline and a spirit of cooperation, which comes only when people have control over their environment and can express their desires and wishes through a village-level institution that promotes consensus rather than division, openness in decision-making and a sense of fairness and equity."

Environmentalist criticism of the bills consists of assertions that can turn out to be dangerous and counter-productive. Elected panchayats, they contend, will become beset with factionalism and can never represent the true aspirations of the people because decentralisation should have its roots in the openness of gram sabhas (assemblies of village adults). The Panchayati Raj bill treats gram sabhas as electorates and not as parliaments and this emasculates the people while strengthening neta raj at the grassroots. "In fact," environmentalists contended, "our experience has convinced us that the strengthening of panchayats, as they exist today, will completely destroy the efforts we ourselves have made over the years. Government programmes, too, which have tried to involve panchayats in afforestation, for instance, have invariably met with failure."

Environmentalists argue that in every Indian village there should be a gram sabha with clearly defined powers, that must include the right to control and manage all natural resources within the revenue boundary of the village, the right to devise and implement rules and management plans for village natural resources, and the right to levy fines and penalties.

Unfortunately, the proposed bills fail to define the powers of the gram sabha and leaves this to the state legislature.

There is also only limited support for participatory democracy amongst the political parties. The joint committee has shown great reluctance to give real power to the gram sabha, noting, "The gram sabha cannot exercise any powers and can only perform certain functions the details of which can be laid down by the state legislature."

"Even gram sabhas can fall prey to factionalism," noted Jain. "However, practical considerations demand that a smaller group should have executive powers to expedite matters." But there are few takers for the alternate view that the executive should be bound by decisions taken by the majority in open meetings so that the opportunity for domination and especially for neglecting the interests of the poor are reduced.

It is doubtful that the proposed bills, as they exist, would bring much power to the people at the grassroots. Jain himself cites a village meeting in Karnataka on panchayati raj during which one of the villagers talked about panchayat leaders: "Earlier," he said, "they were self-appointed feudal lords. The only difference now is that we elect them." Jain said another villager pointed out disgustedly, "If, earlier, you wanted a problem solved in the panchayat, you took a chicken under your arm. Now, you carry an envelope of money and even then it may not work."

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