Panchayati Raj: An idea ahead of its time?

A close associate of Rajiv Gandhi, MANI SHANKAR AIYAR speaks to SANJUKTA BASU on why Panchayats are still dysfunctional and disempowered

Panchayati Raj: An idea ahead of its time?

Sanjukta Basu

He was India’s first Panchayati Raj minister, a role which the former diplomat took in earnest and with passion. Elected thrice to the Lok Sabha and nominated to the Rajya Sabha for one term, he has rich political and administrative experience. A close associate of Rajiv Gandhi, MANI SHANKAR AIYAR speaks to SANJUKTA BASU on why Panchayats are still dysfunctional and disempowered

How did the Panchayati Raj idea come about? Panchayats were there even earlier, weren’t they?

During his tours of rural India, first as Congress general secretary and then as the country’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi discovered that we did not have a responsive administration for the needs of the people at the grassroots level. He first thought there was a managerial solution to this but then concluded that it needed a systemic answer.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted to make Panchayati Raj (PR) a representative and democratic local government, the foundation of our Constitution. Nehru did not initially share that view, but by the end of the first five-year plan he had set up the Balwant Rai Mehta study group to fill the lacuna created by development not reaching automatically to the rural areas.

After reading the Group’s report Nehru concluded that a modern law was required to be given to the states. In the 1957 elections Cong had won all states except Kerala, so a modern law was in order for the state government and they all implemented it and Nehru inaugurated Panchayati Raj in 1959 in Nagaur in Rajasthan on Gandhi Jayanti.

But after he died in 1964 the whole system unravelled. When Rajiv came to power, he realized that although democracy had succeeded in the Parliament, it hadn’t caught on to the grassroots because it lacked the constitutional sanctity and sanction. He wanted to make Panchayati Raj ineluctable and irremovable.

After a quarter of a century, how would you evaluate the Panchayati Raj? What has it achieved and where has it failed?

Constitutional Panchayati Raj has taken roots in every state in India and made some progress except in Uttar Pradesh. Amongst the states there are both the laggards – tortoises and the hares-- who have progressed faster than others. The hares include Kerala, Karnataka, Sikkim, Tripura, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Since the pace of the hares are much faster, there has not been any uniformity in the progress the country has made as a whole.

We seem to lack the political will that drove Rajiv Gandhi into making PR his highest priority. Even Congress party, unfortunately, has not shown this will. Unless the Cong governments in states are compelled to make effective PR the fulcrum of their administration, we would not be able to set an example for the rest of India.

A great deal needs to be achieved. My only source of satisfaction is that Rajiv had told me that it would take at least a generation for Panchayati Raj to succeed. There is some achievement in the first generation. But I fear that if it is given up as a political priority, there is no hope in the next 25 years. We will fail to achieve whatever little we did in the first quarter.

How can the present Congress governments in various states make it a priority?

The heart of the Constitutional Amendments was the District Planning Committee that Rajiv wanted to be chaired by the Zila Panchayat President. Job of the DPC was to consolidate plans prepared at lower levels in order to prepare a draft district plan which would be submitted to state governments for further processing. This has not happened because the DPCs are being chaired by people outside the panchayat system, very often by MPs, MLAs or worse, ministers from state governments. This has wreaked the entire effort of grassroots planning.

Also, there has been no earmarking of total resources that is required for effective planning, either at the village or Taluka or at the district level. There has been inefficient devolution even though legally speaking all states have committed to article 243 G of the Constitution which provides for effective devolution of subjects to be chosen by state governments.

Apart from Madhya Pradesh in Digvijay Singh’s time and Karnataka in M.Y. Ghorpade’s time, Congress governments have not performed as well as Kerala under the communists. To champion the cause of PR as conceived by Rajiv is the only way to mobilise the masses of India. If this is not done, I am afraid the future is bleak.

A committee headed by you had submitted a report to the Government in 2013. The report called Panchayati Raj as Sarpanch Raj and noted that though outlays had gone through the roof, outcomes were not commensurate. Has there been any improvement since then?

My committee was set up with great difficulty on my part, thanks to Pranab Mukherjee when he was the finance minister. Then, I submitted my report to the Manmohan Singh government. But there was total non-cooperation from the Dy Chairman of Planning Commission and the secretaries of various ministries. In fact, Dr Manmohan Singh tried to set up a Group of Ministers to implement the proposal of Veerappa Moily’s second Administration Reforms Commission which had something on PR based on a briefing I had given. Yet when that group met, the two other ministers-- I would not take names-- were adamant that they would not have any interaction with Panchayati
Raj Ministry.

The next Congress government, despite setting up a ministry of Panchayati Raj, did not receive cooperation from other wings of the government and it just withered away. If our own government did not do enough, what can we expect from a government which hates Nehru and
the Gandhis?

So, how has the Modi Government fared? Have they added or removed anything?

The best thing they have done so far is that they have not yet abolished the whole system or changed its name, despite its legacy connected to the Gandhi family. Perhaps because even Modi recognises the fact that this was Mahatma Gandhi’s priority. But Modi has completely downgraded the ministry in terms of political relevance.

Despite Panchayati Raj and elections, why have panchayats not been able to reduce inequality or generate employment or even deliver services?

You have to read my report which has the answer in great detail. In a nutshell I would say until we have effective devolution to these PRIs all over the country, these institutions would not be able to provide meaningful contribution to income generation or employment.

Clearly Panchayats are important and elections to panchayats are now contested with a lot of money being spent, violence and the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh even used the police according to reports. The state election commissions
have been helpless in ensuring fair elections.
So, would you say Indians deserve the panchayats they get?

There is a lot of money available from the grants of the central finance commission. Particularly the 14th and 15th Commission but if you don’t have effective devolution and responsible administration through the Gram Sabha then Panchayati Raj will become Sarpanch Raj. Today, states with poor PRI have turned into Sarpanch Raj and we are seeing display of muscle and money power. But take a look at a better model like Kerala or Karnataka, where the situation is different. Good PR leads to effective democracy, it is not the other way round. If Panchayati Raj is not effective and we still hold elections, then you would see the spectacle of violence we saw recently.

Is it feasible to empower every panchayat to have an orchard, a dairy, a few ponds for fisheries and a poultry to fulfil the needs of the villagers and supply to the cities?

This too have been clearly explained in the five volumes of our report and numerous other reports prepared when I was the minister; but they have not been translated into priority. Much time has gone now, everything we suggested can be faulted on grounds of being out of date. I would hope that in this period when we are out of office, Congress party will take it upon itself to update everything that has been prepared before. If you do not prioritize Panchayati Raj in political terms, there is little hope
of achieving it in economic or administrative terms.

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