I write this as I fly to Thiruvananthapuram on April 24 for the Silver Jubilee National Panchayati Raj celebrations organised by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration. It is ironic that while the Left Front in Kerala and the BJP at the Centre, both of which voted against Rajiv Gandhi’s historic constitutional amendments on Black Friday, October 13, 1989, are observing this historic anniversary on an impressive national scale, the Congress, more modestly, has left it to its pradesh units to observe the occasion as each deems fit.
It is possible to bemoan the condition of Panchayati Raj in the country 25 years after it received the president’s assent and was proclaimed as incorporated in Parts IX and IXA of the Constitution. There is much that remains to be done. But I do not despair because when I asked Rajiv Gandhi how long he thought it would take for us to realise our goals, he smiled and replied, “At least a generation.” I was stunned. “At least a generation — that’s 25 years!” But, as usual, Rajiv Gandhi was right — and I was wrong. It has taken a generation to get to where we have and we need perhaps another generation (or more?) to achieve with satisfaction the evolution in grassroots governance and development that inspired the then prime minister to bring in what is arguably his single greatest legacy to the nation.
However, the obverse of the curious fact of political parties who opposed the amendment Bill in 1989 now celebrating the silver jubilee on such a nation-wide scale is that it reflects the national consensus that has evolved around Rajiv Gandhi’s original conception that the nation needs constitutional status, sanction and sanctity to ensure the third tier of local self-government. In consequence, Panchayati Raj has been made ineluctable, irreversible and irremovable — in sharp contrast to the four previous decades when local government was whimsical, uncertain, arbitrarily dissolved or even more arbitrarily extended.
It is important to recognise that all states have ensured the full and conscientious implementation of the mandatory provisions of the Constitution on local self-government institutions in both rural and urban India. Moreover, most state legislation has rendered statutory several of the recommendatory provisions of the Constitution such as the 29 and 18 subjects for devolution illustratively set out respectively in the 12th and 13th Schedules.
It is also very important to recognise that successive (central) Finance Commissions have so substantially increased funding to the local bodies, and progressively converted this into untied grants, that panchayats are flush with funds. If chairman NK Singh of the current 15th Finance Commission sees his way to increasing current funding by about 2 per cent of the divisible pool, we would be achieving standards of international best practice in respect of financing local bodies.
Next, it is very important to recognise how deep have been embedded the roots of grassroots democracy in the country. Till the Rajiv initiative that ended our being the “largest but least representative democracy in the world”, the total number of elected MPs and MLAs was about 5,000 to represent a population then approaching a billion. Today, we have in our 2.5 lakh panchayats and municipalities some 32 lakh elected people’s representatives. Uniquely, SC/ST representation is proportional to SC/ST population ratios in villages, talukas/blocks and districts respectively. Approximately one lakh sarpanches are SC/ST. Most staggering of all is the representation of women: Comprising about 14 lakh members, with some 86,000 chairing their local bodies, there are more elected women representatives (mostly from economically weaker and socially disadvantaged sections) in India alone than in the rest of the world put together!
Also, it must be noted that while the pace of implementation of genuine Panchayati Raj is highly variable — Karnataka and Kerala well in the lead, UP consistently bringing up the rear — every state is progressing, some at snail’s pace, others leapfrogging.
First and foremost, effective devolution. The 2013 expert committee I chaired laid out in detail how to achieve this through the device of “activity mapping”. Further, it is imperative that activity maps be incorporated in the guidelines of all centrally sponsored schemes and that the massive amounts of money earmarked for poverty alleviation in all its dimensions be sent directly to gram panchayat accounts, reinforced by detailed activity maps to ensure genuine “local self-government”.
Second, financial incentivisation of the states to encourage effective devolution to the panchayats of the three Fs — functions, finances, functionaries. The World Bank offered me a billon dollar initial IFC soft loan to set up such an incentivisation fund. Unfortunately, the finance ministry turned it down, preferring to look the gift horse in the mouth. But outside funds are not really required if the ministry were to make provision for the domestic funding of such incentivisation.
Third, district planning based on grassroots inputs received from the village, intermediate and district levels through people’s participation in the gram and ward sabhas. In 2005, in full acceptance of the recommendations made by the V Ramachandran committee, the Planning Commission issued an extremely gratifying circular on the mechanics of this process — but then sabotaged its own directives largely because the only village the deputy chairman was acquainted with was the one in downtown Manhattan.
Fourth, following the example of Karnataka, to establish a separate cadre of panchayat officials who would be subordinate to the elected authority, not lording it over them, as happens, alas, far too often, especially in states with weak panchayat systems.
Much else needs to be done. But for starters these four steps might constitute a useful beginning for second-generation reforms to secure grassroots development through democratic grassroots governance.