Role of Panchayati Raj Institutions

SEP 20

Mains   > Constitution   >   Local self governance   >   Panchayati Raj

WHY IN NEWS?

  • With panchayats emerging as front warriors in the collective fight against COVID-19 pandemic, the critical importance of rural self-government institutions was once again established.

EVOLUTION OF PANCHAYATI RAJ IN INDIA:

  • Vedic Era:
    • In the old Sanskrit scriptures, word ‘Panchayatan’ has been mentioned which means a group of five persons, including a spiritual man.
    • In the Rigveda, there is a mention of Sabha, Samiti and Vidatha as local self-units.
    • These were the democratic bodies at the local level. The king used to get the approval of these bodies regarding certain functions and decisions.
  • Epic Era
    • It indicates the two great epic periods of India, that is, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
    • The study of Ramayana indicates that the administration was divided into two parts - Pur (city) and Janpad (village).
    • Self-government of a village finds ample expression in the ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Mahabharata; in the Manu Smriti as well as in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
    • As per the Mahabharata, over and above the village, there were units of 10, 20, 100, and 1,000 village groups.
    • ‘Gramik’ was the chief official of the village, ‘Dashap’ was the chief of ten villages, Vinshya Adhipati, Shat Gram Adhyaksha and Shat Gram Pati were the chiefs of 20, 100, and 1,000 villages, respectively.
    • They collected the local taxes and were responsible for the defense of their villages.
  • Ancient Period:
    • There is a mention of village panchayats in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
    • The town was referred to as Pur and its chief was the Nagarik.
    • Local bodies were free from any royal interference.
    • During the Mauryan and Post-Mauryan periods too, the headman, assisted by a council of elders, continued to play a prominent role in the village life.
    • The system continued through the Gupta period, though there were certain changes in the nomenclature, as the district official was known as the vishya pati and the village headman was referred to as the grampati.
    • Thus, in ancient India, there existed a well established system of local government which was run on a set pattern of traditions and customs.
    • However, it is significant to note that there is no reference of women heading the panchayat or even participating as a member in the panchayat.
  • Medieval Period:
    • During the Sultanate period, the Sultans of Delhi divided their kingdom into provinces called ‘Vilayat’.
    • For the governance of a village, there were three important officials - Mukkaddam for administration, Patwari for collection of revenues, and Choudhrie for settling disputes with the help of the Panch.
    • The villages had sufficient powers as regards self-governance in their territory.
    • Casteism and feudalistic system of governance under the Mughal rule in the medieval period slowly eroded the self-government in villages.
    • In the medieval period also there is no mention of women participation in the local village administration
  • Colonial period:
    • Under the British regime, village panchayats lost their autonomy and became weak.
    • It is only from the year 1870 that India saw the dawn of representative local institutions.
    • The famous Mayo’s resolution of 1870 gave impetus to the development of local institutions by enlarging their powers and responsibilities.
    • The year 1870, introduced the concept of elected representatives, in urban municipalities.
    • The revolt of 1857 had put the imperial finances under considerable strain and it was found necessary to finance local service out of local taxation.
    • Therefore it was out of fiscal compulsion that Lord Mayo’s resolution on decentralization came to be adopted.
    • Following the footsteps of Mayo, Lord Rippon in 1882 provided the much needed democratic framework to these institutions.
      • All boards (then existing) were mandated to have a two-thirds majority of non-officials who had to be elected and the chairman of these bodies had to be from among the elected non-officials.
      • This is considered to be the Magna Carta of local democracy in India.
    • Local self-government institutions received a boost with the appointment of the Royal Commission on centralisation in 1907 under the Chairmanship of C.E.H. Hobhouse.
      • The commission recognized the importance of panchayats at the village level.
    • It is in this backdrop that the Montagu Chelmsford reforms of 1919 transferred the subject of local government to the domain of the provinces.
      • These panchayats covered only a limited number of villages with limited functions and due to organisational and fiscal constraints they did not become democratic and vibrant institutions of local self-government at the village level.
    • However, by 1925, eight provinces had passed the Panchayat Acts and by 1926, six native States had also passed panchayat laws.
    • Local bodies were given more powers and functions to impose taxes were reduced. But, the position of the local self-government institutions remained unaffected.
  • Post- Independence:
    • After the Constitution came into force, Article 40 (DPSP) made a mention of panchayats and Article 246 empowers the state legislature to legislate with respect to any subject relating to local self-government.
    • Since the Directive Principles are not binding principles, the result was the absence of a uniform structure of these bodies throughout the country.
    • After independence, as a development initiative, India had implemented the Community Development Programmes (CDP)
      • It encompassed almost all activities of rural development which were to be implemented with the help of village panchayats along with the participation of people.
      • In 1953, the National Extension Service was also introduced as a prologue to CDP. But the programme did not yield much result.
      • There were various reasons for the failure of CDP like bureaucracy and excessive politics, lack of people participation, lack of trained and qualified staff, and lack of local bodies interest in implementing the CDP especially the village panchayats.
    • In 1957, the National Development Council constituted a committee headed by Balwant Rai Mehta to look into the working of community development programme.
      • The team observed that the major reason for the failure of the CDP was the lack of people’s participation.
      • The committee suggested a three-tier PRIs, namely, Grama Panchayats (GPs) at the village level, Panchayat Samiti (PSs) at the block level, and Zilla Parishad (ZPs) at the district level.
    • As a result of this scheme of democratic decentralization was launched in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959.
    • In subsequent years in order to revive and give a new lease of life to the panchayats, the Government of India had appointed various committees. Some of them are:
      • Ashok Mehta Committee (1977), Hanumantha Rao Committee (1983), G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985), L.M.Singhvi Committee (1986) and the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations (1988), P.K. Thungan Committee (1989) and Harlal Singh Kharra Committee (1990)
    • In 1992, 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments were passed by Parliament. Through these amendments local self-governance was introduced in rural and urban India.

SALIENT FEATURES OF 73RD AMENDMENT ACT OF 1992:

  • This act has added a new Part-IX to the Constitution of India.
  • This part is entitled as ‘The Panchayats’ and consists of provisions from Articles 243 to 243 O.
  • In addition, the act has also added a new Eleventh Schedule to the Constitution. This schedule contains 29 functional items of the panchayats. It deals with Article 243-G.
  • The act has given a practical shape to Article 40 of the Constitution
  • Justiciable part of the Constitution:
    • The act gives a constitutional status to the panchayati raj institutions. It has brought them under the purview of the justiciable part of the Constitution.
    • In other words, the state governments are under constitutional obligation to adopt the new panchayati raj system in accordance with the provisions of the act.
  • The provisions of the act can be grouped into two categories—compulsory and voluntary
  • Compulsory provisions:
    • Organisation of Gram Sabha in a village or group of villages.
    • Establishment of panchayats at the village, intermediate and district levels.
    • Direct elections to all seats in panchayats at the village, intermediate and district levels.
    • Indirect elections to the post of chairperson of panchayats at the intermediate and district levels.
    • 21 years to be the minimum age for contesting elections to panchayats
    • Reservation of seats (both members and chairpersons) for SCs and STs in panchayats at all the three levels.
    • Reservation of one-third seats (both members and chairpersons) for women in panchayats at all the three levels.
    • Fixing tenure of five years for panchayats at all levels and holding fresh elections within six months in the event of supersession of any panchayat.
    • Establishment of a State Election Commission for conducting elections to the panchayats.
    • Constitution of a State Finance Commission after every five years to review the financial position of the panchayats.
  • Voluntary Provisions:
    • Giving representation to members of the Parliament (both the Houses) and the state legislature (both the Houses) in the panchayats at different levels falling within their constituencies.
    • Providing reservation of seats (both members and chairpersons) for backward classes in panchayats at any level.
    • Granting powers and authority to the panchayats to enable them to function as institutions of self-government (in brief, making them autonomous bodies)
    • Devolution of powers and responsibilities upon panchayats to prepare plans for economic development and social justice; and to perform some or all of the 29 functions listed in the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution.
    • Granting financial powers to the pachayats, that is, authorizing them to levy, collect and appropriate taxes, duties, tolls and fees.
  • The following areas have been exempted from the operation of the Act because of the socio-cultural and administrative considerations:
    • Scheduled areas listed under the Schedule V of the Constitution.
    • The states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
    • The hill areas of district of Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal for which Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council exists.

ISSUES FACED BY PRIs:

  • Lack of devolution of power by State government:
    • While some States like Kerala, West Bengal, Karnataka have devolved as many as 26 departments to Panchayats, several States have devolved only as low as three functions.
    • In large number of cases, states that have devolved these departments to PRIs do so on paper. It is respective line departments and bureaucrats who call the shots.
  • Parallel bodies to take over the functions assigned for Panchayat:
    • Many states have created parallel bodies to take over the functions assigned for panchayats.
    • For instance, recently the Haryana government created a Rural Development Agency under the chairmanship of the chief minister to oversee the works of local bodies.
  • Little effort to build capacity:
    • Despite 27 years of their existence, there have been little efforts to strengthen the capacities of these institutions.
    • Not only very few States have done some work on internalising the planning process (mapping core activities) of panchayats, several States have not even paid any attention to build the capacities of the newly elected representatives, many of whom are first-timers and belongs to the most vulnerable sections particularly the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and women.
    • So, lack of capacity raised plenty of doubts about efficacies of these institutions and has rightly challenged their credibility as self-governing institutions.
    • Thus, it is not surprising that many elected representatives remain totally depend on officials to perform even basic works like file noting and budgeting.
  • Inadequate financial powers:
    • Inadequate financial powers have kept these self-governing institutions at the mercy of state and central governments.
    • Financial resources generated by PRIs fall far short of their requirements >> more than 93 per cent of the total revenues of rural bodies were derived from external sources.
    • Further, their power of taxation has been very restricted. The major sources of income for local governments like property tax etc. are woefully inadequate to meet their obligations both due to their inherent nature and inefficiency in collecting them.
    • This asymmetry between the taxation power and the responsibility to provide civic amenities necessitates transfer of funds from the State to the local governments
    • Despite the 14th Finance Commission having recommended a significant portion of transfers for these bodies, the PRIs have received scant resources from the respective state governments.
  • Issues with State Finance Commissions:
    • Recommendatory in nature
      • The recommendations of the Central Finance Commissions are not mandatory but from the beginning, successive Union Governments have established a healthy tradition of accepting the devolution package suggested by the Finance Commission without any deviation. In effect, therefore, these recommendations have become mandatory.
      • However, this tradition has not been established in the States, as a result even if recommended by the SFCs, State Governments often do not commit adequate resources for the local governments.
    • No adequate emphasis on outcome of devolutions.
      • Although SFCs, while making their recommendations about devolution of funds also give their recommendations on other matters affecting the resources of the local bodies, there has not been adequate emphasis on the outcomes of such devolutions.
  • Politicization of PRIs:
    • It is being increasingly noticed that the Panchayati Raj Institutions are viewed only as organisational arms of political parties, especially of the ruling party in the state.
  • Interference of MPs and MLAs:
    • The interference of area MPs and MLAs in the functioning of panchayats also adversely affected their performance.
  • Proxy representation:
    • Though women and SC/STs has got representation in PRIs through reservation >> there is a presence of Panch-Pati and proxy representation in case of women and SC/STs representatives respectively.
  • Issues with State Election Commission:
    • The tenure and conditions, qualifications and conditions of service of State Election Commissions vary greatly across States
  • Unscientific distribution of functions:
    • Distribution of functions between the structures at different levels has not been made along scientific lines.
    • The blending of development and local self-government functions has significantly curtailed the autonomy of the local self-government institutions >> again it has converted them into governmental agencies.
    • Moreover functions assigned to the village, block and zilla Panchayat overlap >> leading to confusion, duplication of efforts and shifting of responsibility.
  • Incompatible relation between the three-tiers:
    • The three-tiers do not operate as functional authorities. The tendency on the part of the higher structure to treat the lower structure as its subordinate is markedly visible.
  • Lack of accountability:
    • In many cases, local governments face the problems of corruption, patronage, arbitrary exercise of power and inefficiency which have bedevilled governance. This failure is part of a larger process of democratic evolution.

STEPS TAKEN TO STRENGTHEN PRIs:

  • Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (RGSA):
    • It is a centrally sponsored scheme
    • It aims for developing and strengthening the capacities of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) for rural local governance to become more responsive towards local development needs, preparing the participatory plans that leverage technology, efficient and optimum utilization of available resources for realizing sustainable solutions to local problems linked to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • e-GramSwaraj:
    • To strengthen e-Governance in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) across the country, Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) has launched eGramSwaraj, a user friendly web-based portal.
    • It unifies the planning, accounting and monitoring functions of Gram Panchayats.
    • Its combination with the Area Profiler application, Local Government Directory (LGD) and the Public Financial Management System (PFMS) renders easier reporting and tracking of Gram Panchayat’s activities.
    • It provides a single-window for capturing Panchayat information with the complete Profile of the Panchayat, details of Panchayat finances, asset details, activities taken up through Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) etc.
  • AuditOnline:
    • As a critical institutional reform, Ministry of Panchayati Raj has launched the AuditOnline application in 2020 for carrying out online Audits of Panchayat accounts.
    • This application also seeks to streamline the process for audit inquiries, draft local audit reports etc
  • People’s Plan Campaign (PPC)- Sabki Yojana Sabka Vikas
    • The central government launched People's Plan Campaign, also known as “Sabki Yojana Sabka Vikas” from September 2019.
    • It aims to draw up Gram Panchayat Development Plans (GPDPs) in the country and place them on a website where anyone can see the status of the various government’s flagship schemes.
  • National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj
    • It is an autonomous organisation under the Union Ministry of Rural Development and is a premier national centre of excellence in rural development and Panchayati Raj.
    • It builds capacities of rural development functionaries, elected representatives of PRIs, bankers, NGOs and other stakeholders through inter-related activities of training, research and consultancy
  • National Panchayat Awards:
    • Under this programme best performing Panchayats were selected based on various criteria and indicators.
    • This incentivization encourages Panchayat representatives who make special efforts; creates models for other Panchayats and Gram Sabhas to follow and focuses public attention on Panchayats’ performance, which encourages all Panchayats to improve their performance.
  • SWAMITVA Scheme
    • SWAMITVA stands for Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas
    • The scheme aims to provide the ‘record of rights’ to village household owners possessing houses in inhabited rural areas in villages and issuance of property cards to the property owners >> This empowers PRIs with better data on land ownership.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Capacity building:
    • Training of elected representatives:
      • Training of elected representatives and personnel should be regarded as a continuing activity.
    • Research and Development
      • Academic research has a definite role to play in building long-term strategic institutional capacity for greater public good. Organisations like the Indian Council of Social Science Research must be encouraged to fund theoretical, applied and action research on various aspects of the functioning of local bodies.
    • Outsourcing of non-core functions:
      • State Governments should encourage local bodies to outsource specific functions to public or private agencies, as may be appropriate, through enabling guidelines and support.
    • Maintain a pool of experts and specialists:
      • A pool of experts and specialists (e.g. engineers, planners etc.) could be maintained by a federation/consortium of local bodies.
      • This common pool could be then accessed by the local bodies whenever required for specific tasks.
  • More devolution of financial powers to the PRIs
    • This is the need of the hour to make them as viable institutions to effect change in the socio-economic development of the rural India.
  • Role of Union Government in ensuring devolution of power to PRIs:
    • The Union Government also needs to financially incentivize states to encourage effective devolution to the panchayats in functions, finances, and functionaries.
  • Recommendations of 2nd ARC:
    • Devolution of Powers and Responsibilities
      • There should be clear delineation of functions for each level of local government in the case of each subject matter law.
      • This is not a one-time exercise and has to be done continuously while working out locally relevant socio-economic programmes, restructuring organisations and framing subject-matter laws.
    • Electoral process:
      • The task of delimitation and reservation of constituencies should be entrusted to the State Election Commissions
      • Local government laws in all States should provide for adoption of the Assembly electoral rolls for local governments without any revision of names by SECs.
      • The conduct of elections for the elected members of District and Metropolitan Planning Committees should be entrusted to the State Election Commission.
    • Reforms in SECs
      • State Election Commission should be brought under the control of the Election Commission of India. Such a measure would give the State Election Commission the required independence from State Governments and they would be able to discharge their duties in an objective manner.
      • The State Election Commissioner should be appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of a collegium, comprising the Chief Minister, the Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly and the Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.
    • Framework Law for local governments
      • Government of India should draft and place before Parliament, a Framework Law for local governments.
      • The Framework Law could be enacted under Article 252 of the Constitution on the lines of the South African Act, for the States to adopt.
      • This Law should lay down the broad principles of devolution of powers, responsibilities and functions to the local governments and communities
    • Constitution of Legislative Council
      • Parliament should provide for constitution of a Legislative Council in each State, consisting of members elected by the local governments.
    • Accountability and Transparency
      • Evaluation of Performance of Local Bodies:
        • Local bodies have to be evaluated in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and resource mobilisation, apart from the efforts to promote participation and transparency as indicated above.
        • One way of achieving this would be to benchmark the performance of local bodies.
        • To ensure effective service delivery, the performance of local bodies has to be closely monitored.
      • Legislative Oversight:
        • Howsoever independent the third tier of governance may become, it should still be responsible to the State Legislature.
        • The Commission is of the considered view that legislative supervision can be ensured by institutionalising a separate Committee on Local Bodies in the State Legislature.
      • Independent Grievance Redressal Mechanism (Local Body Ombudsman):
        • This would provide a platform to the citizens for voicing their complaints and also bring out the deficiencies in the system for suitable remedial action.
      • In-house Mechanism for Redressal of Grievances:
        • The local bodies themselves should be in a position to learn from mistakes and mould themselves according to the needs of the people.
        • This would require a robust in-house mechanism for redressal of grievances.
      • Social Audit
        • Institutionalising a system of social audit is essential for improving local service delivery and for ensuring compliance with laws and regulations.
        • An effective system of social audit will have to be based on two precepts; first, that service standards are made public through citizens’ charters and second, that periodic suo motu disclosure is made on attainment of service delivery standards by the local bodies.
        • Social audit processes are also important to ensure effectiveness.

CORE PRINCIPLES TO BE APPLIED IN THE REFORM OF  LOCAL GOVERNANCE:

  • Subsidiarity:
    • The principle of subsidiarity stipulates: functions shall be carried out closest to citizens at the smallest unit of governance possible and delegated upwards only when the local unit cannot perform the task.
    • Application of the subsidiarity principle has three great advantages in practical terms. First, local decision-making improves efficiency, promotes self reliance at the local level, encourages competition and nurtures innovation.
  • Democratic Decentralisation:
    • Effective democratic decentralisation from States to Local Governments should be the cardinal principle of administrative reforms
  • Delineation of Functions
    • There should be clear delineation of roles of the State and the local government, in respect of each of the subjects/functions, otherwise needless confusion and undue interference by the State will be the inevitable consequences
  • Devolution in Real Terms:
    • Local governments should be effectively empowered to frame regulations, take decisions and enforce their will within their legitimate sphere of action.
  • Convergence
    • With rapid urbanisation and increasing need for peri-urban areas to be taken into account in city planning and development, there must be greater institutional convergence between rural and urban local governments
  • Citizen Centricity
    • The citizen is the heart of a democratic system. Therefore all governance institutions, particularly local governments should be judged by the satisfaction of citizens and the direct empowerment of people.

BEST PRACTICE:

  • U.S model – on local government revenues:
    • Local government revenues accounted for 15% of the total government revenues in the USA, the corresponding figure in India was just 3%.
  • German model – local government as a single point of contact
    • In Germany, a local government office is the point of contact in obtaining a passport, though the actual service is provided by the federal government.
    • Similarly, collection of tariffs, fees and taxes by various service providers is available at local government institutions.
  • Karnataka model
    • Karnataka has created a separate bureaucratic cadre for Panchayats to get away from the practice of deputation of officials who often overpowered the elected representatives.
    • Such practices needs to be replicated in other states for strengthening the true character of local self-governance

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. “COVID-19 pandemic has clearly established the critical importance of panchayats in mobilising resources, managing intricate tasks and shouldering responsibilities that no other institution can replace”. Analyze.