Devolve more powers to panchayats

Owing to delimitation and reservation processes that are pending completion, the dates for the elections wherein 189 panchayats in the state were tentatively supposed to go to polls on June 4 this year, are likely to be postponed. The fact that the elections will not be held on party lines and the affirmation that ballot papers will be used for voting this time stands out as two striking aspects of these polls.

With the fledgling party of youngsters which revolutionized political perceptions in the state in the recent assembly elections set to extend its sphere of influence to the local body elections as well, remaining apolitical will be a tough proposition for those in the fray.

The election of ‘representatives’ has always been about propping up a worthwhile contender to that seat of governance where the elected member strives his utmost to address the problems of his constituents. The panchayat elections in this respect brings to fore that aspect of elections.

Grassroots democracy is a tendency towards designing political processes that shift as much decision-making authority as practical to the organisation’s lowest geographic or social level of organisation. In spite of his oft quoted remark that “Panchayat Raj represents true democracy realised”, we are yet to fully understand the true concept of the term as visualized by Mahatma Gandhi. For decades now, it has been boldly claimed that “The vehicle that was most ideal to initiate both political and economic democracy at the grassroots level was the Panchayati Raj system.”

But have we been able to discern a definite pattern over the years which could convince us of this theory having developed to its full potential!

In this context, one can well understand the ministry for Panchayati Raj in successive regimes since 2004 in Goa extolling the public to avail the benefits of various schemes extended by the government to the general public. But when the Minister for Panchayats has to ask the representatives of the local self-government bodies to take the schemes to the ‘aam janata’ in order to mitigate their sufferings, it is an indication of the fact that all plans and proposals drawn up by the government for the welfare of the people doesn’t always reach them.

No doubt, a scheme can only be dubbed successful if its benefits reach the common man for whom it is meant and who need it the most. Usually the villagers are quite ignorant about the fact that there are a number of well-meaning government proposals meant to alleviate the hardships of the common man. But almost always, plain ignorance about such schemes robs them of this wonderful chance to avail the facilities. Considering that the panchayat is often associated with a grassroots style of democracy as even people from the lowest part of the economic spectrum have a say in who represents them, that the elected ‘panchas’ take it upon themselves to educate their ward members about various schemes in existence would be a natural expectation.

When queried about various welfare schemes that are in the offing, a legislator some years back was overheard telling a gathering of people who approached him that regular visits to the panchayat, or a panch for that matter, could keep them abreast of all the developments. Yet, when the elected representatives themselves are uninformed about various programmes, how can they present a factual picture of the government schemes to the public?

It is essential that the elected panchas recognise their own position and footing, and stand up for the village and its people even if it means opposing the government. More importantly they need to leave aside personal differences so that the village can be developed. However, more often than not, it is observed that the elected members of the panchayat are more interested in being recognised as the local MLA’s ‘man’ and in this fascination they soon forget that they have been elected on a different plank and for the development of the village.

If only the tradition of political parties forming panels on the announcement of panchayat elections were to be done away with, voluntarily or otherwise, governance at the grassroots level would be devoid of any political interference. In the midst of this titanic struggle to control panchayats, everyone, including our hallowed leaders, tend to forget that panchayats should act as a self-governing institution.

Although the panchayat is supposed to be self-sustaining with respect to social needs, then how is it that a majority of village panchayats flounder in maintaining and developing various wards under its control complaining of paucity of funds? Although, theoretically speaking, the panchayats do not need any outside help from the federal government, haven’t we often heard of the local self-governing bodies suffering on account of government apathy. The flippant attitude of some of the legislators hasn’t helped matters either!

The Constitution of India envisages village panchayat to be the foundation of the country’s political democracy. “A local government is a government at the grassroots level of administration meant for meeting peculiar grassroots needs of the people.”

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments give recognition and protection to local governments and in addition to each state has its own local government legislation. The powers of rural localities have been formalized under the Panchayati Raj system, under the 73rd amendment to the Constitution.

However, the Pachayati Raj system, evolved after independence, has failed to live up to the expectations of the people in rural India. And we claim that our country lives in its villages!

Elections in the state elicit tremendous response, but amongst those contesting the polls. The public at large is conspicuous by its treatment of the proceedings as a mere formality certain in the belief that no matter who wins, things will never change. Grassroots democracy is a people or community-driven contribution in elections, governance and decision-making. But, with the retort that politics is not everyone’s cup of tea, the marked reluctance shown towards participation in the governance and betterment of one’s village has been a significant feature of the public mindset. Leave alone contesting elections, the manner in which villagers have stayed away from attending gram sabhas says a lot for their different attitude towards the affairs of the village. It is only now that with voices being raised against controversial government proposed plans and which are undoubtedly detrimental to the region that gram sabhas have gained more relevance.

Although villages have been the backbone of the India since the beginning of the recorded history, it however comes as a surprise that Goa is the only state in the country where the state government has not empowered its village panchayats and gram sabhas to take decisions on a A number of subjects, including health, education, family welfare and land reforms among others.

Unfortunately every successive government in Goa has only tried to wash its hands off when it comes to devolving all powers to village panchayats and gram sabhs which is a reality in many of the other states in the country today. Kerala is one state where grassroots governance has been exemplary. As recipients of various government schemes and welfare measures, villagers have had a lot to thank their panchayats for.

Yet, the system has not been above reproach with the modalities of criticism changing with every successive government that helms the affairs of the state. It was however heartening to hear about the Chandor panchayat readily coming to the aid of a helpless widow in the village by undertaking the reconstruction of her dilapidated house.

But for a quintessential Goan, panchayats have never been anything more than for applying and obtaining certificates and NOCs for various purposes. Many of the panchayats in Goa hence need to move over from their ‘token’ mode of existence to emerge as new power centers with the common man being the biggest beneficiary.

(Pachu Menon is a senior columnist based in Goa).

Leave a Comment