Power to the People: Local Self Governance and Democratization

John Samuel

The three tiers Panchyat Raj system of India is the largest experiment in grassroots democratisation in the history of humanity. There are around three million elected representatives at all levels of Panchyats and now fifty percentage of them would be women. They would represent more than 240,000(two hundred and forty thousand Gram Panchayat), 6500 intermediate tiers (block Panchyats) and more than 500 district Panchyats. The fact that the Indians system of local governance- the Panchayath system- has its roots within the cultural and historical legacy of India makes it different from many other initiatives of decentralisation of governance. The idea of Panchyaths and sabhas travelled a long way from Institutions of traditional local governance structures within the culture to become an important corner stone in the constitution of India. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, arguably the most substantive amendments since the adoption of the constitution, envisage Panchayats as institutions of Local self-governance. The three-tier system of local governance is also means to build synergies between representative and direct democracy and participatory governance, resulting in deepening of democracy at the grassroots level. Though there is a huge gap between the promises of the substantive local self governance and the realization of true political devolution of power, the three tier Panchayat Raj system of local Governance still offers the great possibility of transferring the power to the people.

Substantive democratization works when all people are empowered to participate in governance, ask questions, take decisions, raise resources, prioritise the social and economic agenda for local development and ensure social and political accountability. Such a vision of democracy requires democratization from below and true devolution of power to the people. The nurturing of local democratic culture and local self government would be the most important means to realise the promise of the Indian democracy: the need for an inclusive, capable, participatory, accountable and effective direct democracy at the grassroots level. And the three tier system of Local governments, envisaged by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, seeks to establish democracy at the grassroots level as it is at the state level or national level.
Though the idea of local government was discussed and debated in the wake of the movement for freedom struggle in India, it took forty five years after the independence to make it a constitutional guarantee. While Gandhi argued for Gram Swaraj (village republic) and strengthening village panchayaths to the greatest extent, Dr.BR Ambedkar warned that such Local Governments would be captured by local cast and feudal elites, perpetuating the marginalisation and exclusion of dalits and other excluded sections of the society. The present three tiers Panchayath Raj system, with 50% women representation and provision of representation of dalit and tribal communities, provide a much needed space for inclusive democracy.

In spite of the promises of grass-roots demoralisation, there are structural and political impediments to realise the Gandhian proposal for the real Gram Swaraj. The idea of Panchayat Raj emerged through a serious of policy proposals and process since independence. The Balwantrai Mheta Committee (1957) came out with the first comprehensive policy proposals in the context of Community Development. Though the committee recommended early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of necessary resources, power and authority, the primary thrust was on implementation of community development projects rather than true devolution of political power. Following the Balwantarai Mheta committee, four other committees in the next thirty years ( K Santhanam Committee-1963,Ashok Mehta Committee 1978, GK Rao Committee-1985 and LM Singvi Committee 1986) proposed a serious of proposals to revitalize Panchayat Raj institutions -as per the Directive Principles of the State Policy, mentioned in Article 40 : “the state shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as unit of self-governments”. It took forty-five years of political and policy process to move this from an aspiration of the directive policy to a justiciable guarantee of the constitution. Apart from the 73rd and 74th amendments, the most important step towards grassroots democratisation is the Panchyat Extension to the Scheduled areas Act 1996, by making Gram sabhas (people’s committee/meetings at the grassroots level) as viable means towards direct participatory democracy.

One of the major hurdles in realising the true democratic and political potential of the Local-self Governance is the structural and systemic resistance by the bureaucracy and the political elites in control of the important state apparatus. There is a tension between the instrumental value of Panchyat Raj Institutions (PRIs) in community development and project implementation and the intrinsic value of PRI as strong political institutions with regulatory and administrative power-with adequate united funds and fiscal capacity. Following the Blawantrari Mheta committee recommendations, PRIs were expected to be the main vehicle for the community development projects. However, the funding for community development projects stagnated by the mid 1960s and Panchyats got stagnated without adequate funds and authorities.
Even after the constitutional amendments, one of the major hurdles is that in spite of various measures to devolve administrative and implementing mechanisms of the state, there has not been adequate measure of the devolution of finance, functions and functionaries to the PRIs. There are indeed few states, like Kerala, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, made important step towards this, though true devolution of political and financial power still remain far from being realized. In a dissenting note to the Ashok Mehta Committee report (1978), one of the members of the Committee EMS Namboodiripad made a very pertinent remark: “Democracy at the Central and State levels, but bureaucracy at all lower levels- this is the essence of the Indian Polity as spelt out in the Constitution. I cannot think of anything other than the integral parts of countries administration with any difference of what are called ‘development’ and ‘regulatory’functions. I am afraid that the ghost of the earlier idea that Panchayat Raj institutions should be completely divorced from all regulatory functions is haunting my colleagues. What is required is that, while certain definite fields of administration like defence, foreign affairs, currency, communication etc should rest with the centre and all the rest should be transferred to the States and from the there to the district and lower level of local administrative bodies”. Even now one of the key challenges is the transition of the role of PRIs from mere local level implementing agencies to that of real local-self government institutions with political, financial, administrative and regulatory power in setting the agenda for local social and economic development.
There have been some very bold initiatives like the People’s Planning Process in Kerala that point towards the potential of peoples participation in Local Self Governance and the possibilities of Panchayats. In spite of few such innovative initiatives to strengthen PRIs and people’s participation, there are still major structural challenges to make them the vehicles for substantive democratisation at the grass-roots level. Some of them are to do with the very architecture of the governance process in India and some of them are to do with the character and nature of political power in India.
Some of the key challenges and issues are the following:
1) The challenge of transforming PRIs as the location of countervailing power of people to claim their rights and demand direct social accountability
2) The potential for PRIs to become the key vehicles for social transformation by ensuring the active agency and participation of women and marginalised section of the society. Such
a role of PRIs would help women and marginalised sections of the society to assert the political space and demand to an inclusive social and economic agenda.
3) There seems to be a strong link between a vibrant local democracy and human development- as there would be more strategic allocation and effective expenditure of resources to promote on primary health care, education and sustainable environment. However, there is less role of PRIs in ensuring quality primary health care and education at the grassroots level
4) The success of PRIs is also influenced by the effective delivery of basic services to the poor and marginalised sections. Hence, macro-policy framework that ensures the right to livelihood is critical to success of PRIs as an important vehicle for poverty eradication.
5) Devolution of finance, particularly untied funds, is crucial to the success of PRIs as the means
for Local Governance.
6) Deliberate efforts to remove the administrative, legal and procedural anomalies would be important to make the PRIs effective.
7) PRIs offer the most effective means for social accountability and transparency. Hence, devolving finance would help to reduce the instances of large-scale and entrenched corruption. The Eleventh Finance Commission, analysing the issue of Centre-state financial relations, highlighted the need to strengthen the finance of local bodies. Hence, there is a need to have broader finance reform to ensure fiscal devolution through the national and state finance commission.

The experience of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh demonstrated that the transfer of funds, functions and functionaries would be critical to effective decentralisation. An effective policy framework for decentralisation from above need to be complemented with social mobilization and democratisation from below. In Kerala, social mobilisation through neighbourhood groups and women’s groups such as Kudumbasree proved to be an effective means to strengthen the demand at the grassroots level and facilitate the participation of women and marginalised groups in Governance. Democratisation at the grassroots level requires space for voices of the poor and marginalised through networks of social mobilisation. Such a space for participation, demand for effective delivery of services and demand for accountability can strengthen process of socio-political empowerment and capabilities of the poor. A human rights based approach to governance is crucial for the grass-roots democratisation. Hence, empowerment of Gram sabhas is critical to the claiming of rights and asserting voices of the marginalised and poor. Unless the legal and administrative hurdles that often constrain the effective role of Gramsabha are removed, the potential of the PRIs would not be realised. It is important to recognise that there are entrenched pathologies of cast discrimination, patriarchy and identity based political dynamics at the grassroots level. Hence it is very important to have safeguard mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability. There can be systematic efforts for participatory governance assessments- such as social audit and people’s report card to make sure that PRIs are not subjected to elite capture or capture by one political party or group.

While PRIs are still a work in progress, there are many initiatives that undermine the role of PRIs. For example, more than Rs 2000 core is spent annually through the Local area Development Funds of MPs and MLAs. Most of such funds are often spent independently of the social and economic priorities of the PRIs. Such parallel systems of financing often can undermine the real governance role of PRIs with more powers to the political elites of a particular political party and the bureaucratic elites at the district level. There is also more potential for PRIs to become the primary institutions for disaster mitigation, sustainable development, and water conservation, facilitation of local economies and creation of employment opportunity at the grassroots level, through small and medium enterprises that make use of the local natural and agricultural resources.
The 73rd and 74th amendments provide us a unique opportunity for democratisation, social accountability, effective service delivery, poverty eradication and reduction of corruption and a more participatory democracy. In spite of all economic growth, there is still entrenched poverty, social and economic inequality in India. When there are islands of prosperity, surrounded by sea of poverty and inequality, the real participation of everyone as equal citizens would be more challenging than it is assumed. We may have to go miles before realizing the dream of Gram Swaraj of Gandhi: “Every village has to become a self-sufficient republic. This require brave, corporate and intelligent work…..I have not pictured a poverty stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius. I do not, however, picture it as a third class or even first class copy of the dying civilization of the west. If my dream is fulfilled everyone of the seven lakhs villages becomes a well-living republic in which there are no illiteracy, in which no one is idle for want of work, in which everyone is usefully occupied and has nourishing food and well-ventilated dwellings, and sufficient Khadi for covering the body and in which all villagers observe the laws of hygiene and sanitation”

3 Responses to “Power to the People: Local Self Governance and Democratization”

  1. 1 KP Kannan ഒക്ടോബര്‍ 7, 2010 -ല്‍ 9:37 am

    Dear JS,

    Interesting article in an overview sense. Now there is need to move beyond general principles. In that context, I am a little intrigued by your clubbing of Kerala along with Karnataka, UP and MP. I thought Karnataka has gone back considerably, UP has done a bit of devolution mthat needs to be encouraged and MP is something I am not aware of.

    Beyond Panchayat elections – what are the agenda? Why are many states still lukewarm? How do push the PRI ahead?

    • 2 js ഒക്ടോബര്‍ 7, 2010 -ല്‍ 3:09 pm

      Thanks Prof Kannan

      Yes, it was a rather quick overview- something that I had to write within an hour to keep my word to Santhosh 🙂
      I agree with you that we need to move to the next stage in Kerala. In spite of an early enthusiasm, Karanatak seemed to have gone back- particularly during the last few years. In fact, Karnatka did some active initiative in terms of women’s participation etc. I remeber reading o good analysis on this by LC Jain and another one by Geeta Sen

      In fact, in this election we are yet to see a clear election manifesto by both major fronts in Kerala. It is time for the parties to come out with a clear vision and socio-economic agenda for PRIs. We need more wider debates and discussion on this.

      Thanks PL Lathika for your comments. I think PRIs offer a great opportunity to address many of the gaps in a representative democracy

  2. 3 pl lathika ഒക്ടോബര്‍ 7, 2010 -ല്‍ 10:46 am


    gives a clear idea of how powerful these basic units can grow , if designed with sincerity to their cause. people should be properly educated about the working of the system, how they can and how they should be an active part of the administration, planning, implementing, supervising and auditing..

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