Attempts to dilute panchayat’s power

Autonomous village panchayats had served people well till the consolidation of British Rule in India. Premchand’s Panch Parmeshwar provides an insight into how villages dispensed justice

Attempts to dilute panchayat’s power

Meenakshi Natarajan

Autonomous village panchayats had served people well till the consolidation of British Rule in India. Premchand’s celebrated short story Panch Parmeshwar provides an insight into how villages dispensed justice and settled disputes. The collective will of villagers in deciding the individual’s rights and community’s interests was supreme. Not surprisingly it was always said that India lived in its villages, that villages reflected its soul and formed its spine.

There is historical evidence of village elections during the Chola Rule in the 12th and 13th century. But this is also equally true that these village panchayats were dominated by the caste elite and the affluent. There was no representation of women, the landless or the Dalits. They were denied even the right to vote.

The elite decided who were eligible to even contest in the election. The marginalised sections had no choice in the matter. Mahatma Gandhi was among the first to speak of Gram Swaraj in which villages would be autonomous and empowered. But it took 10 years after Independence for the Government to realise that without social and economic emancipation of the people, representative democracy would not work and the country
could not prosper. In 1957 a committee headed by Balwant Rai was formed and based on its recommendations, elections
to panchayats began to be held since October, 1959. But panchayats had little or no financial power and elections were desultory and irregular.

Revolutionary changes were taking place in the 1980s. Centralised power structures were breaking up. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Such was the time when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. He had the vision to realise the perils of centralised administration in a vast country like India.

While introducing the 64th Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament on May 15, 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said, “Barely five or six thousand people in all the state assemblies in the country and in the two Houses of Parliament represent 80 Crore people. This has had two far-reaching effects. The number of elected representatives is disproportionately low vis-à-vis the number of electorate. The other fallout is the opportunity this provides to middlemen and vested interests to take advantage of the situation.” The only way to rid the system of middlemen is to ensure greater representation of people in power, he said.

But the Bill failed to pass through Parliament and fell in the Rajya Sabha by just one vote. It was a historic but futile attempt to accord Constitutional status to panchayats and zila parishads. For the first time the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were offered representation in proportion to their population. The Bill also proposed reserving 30% seats for women. Today in most states, 50% of the panchayat seats are reserved for women. It was an inclusive and equitable Bill.

But while the Bill fell in 1989, the 73rd and the 74th Constitution Amendment Bills were passed by Parliament in 1993 and the historic proposals became the law of the land on April 24, 1993. Most states followed suit.

Panchayats were included in the Constitution. As many as 29 departments were specified in the 11th schedule and panchayats empowered to take decisions related to them. State election commissions and finance commissions were envisaged for holding panchayat polls and for devolution of funds. Gram Sabhas were empowered to deal with land and natural resources. It became mandatory to obtain Gram Sabha’s approval for changing land use and for mining. This is the reason why the Gram Sabhas in Niyamgiri opposed Vedanta’s bid at mining, even the Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the Gram Sabha.

However, panchayats have been systematically reduced to executive agencies implementing schemes on the ground. The Gram Sabhas’ concurrence on land acquisition, mining etc. has been turned conveniently into consultations. Decisions to be taken by Gram Sabhas are now decided not in villages but in secretariats. State Governments now decide who would contest in panchayat elections. The eligibility—not more than two children, minimum education, having toilets—criteria are also now determined by state governments. Why should such restrictions be there only for panchayats?

Power is again getting centralised in the hands of the elite and the few oligarchs. They have appropriated uniltaterally the right to question the judgment and common sense of the poor and the illiterate, who have contributed the most in the freedom struggle. The state governments are abdicating their own responsibility for spreading literacy and eradicating poverty by proposing these restrictions.

Unanimity is encouraged in the panchayats of Gujarat, where unanimous elections are rewarded with special funds for panchayats. It is a ploy to perpetuate the stranglehold of the elite because the poor and the marginalised can seldom dare to oppose the local elite. It is also undemocratic and robs the poor of their right to choose and take part in decisions. Those who opposed the 64th Amendment Bill in Parliament in 1989 are the ones who have been overactive in diluting the provisions of Panchayati Raj. Authoritarian rulers seldom like transferring power to the people. But the foundation of Gram Swaraj has been laid. And taking villages and villagers for granted may well boomerang on the power brokers.

(Meenakshi Natarajan is a former Member of the Lok Sabha)

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