THE Punjab Government recently dissolved the state’s village panchayats (around 13,000) before the completion of their term and announced that fresh elections to these bodies would be conducted in a few months’ time. When the decision was challenged in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the government withdrew the controversial order. At the same time, the government suspended two senior officers of the Rural Development and Panchayat Department on the grounds that they had failed to address some legal aspects before presenting the matter to the minister concerned and the Chief Minister. Opposition leaders and others chastised the government, alleging that officers were being made scapegoats for flawed decisions of the state government.
The court will duly pronounce its ruling on the validity of the order challenged before it. The matter of responsibility of the officers concerned for the imbroglio will be settled as per the guidelines for the conduct of government business. Certain standing orders of delegation specify which authority — the Council of Ministers, the Chief Minister, the minister, the administrative secretary or the head of the department concerned, etc. — is competent to take various decisions concerning the affairs of the department. As all records of the government, including any notes on files, are open to public scrutiny (under the Right to Information Act, 2005), the legal and administrative issues will no doubt be resolved after a due process.
What deserves more attention of experts and the common citizens alike are the defective arrangements for the functioning of the institution of panchayats. Our democracy rests on effective governance through elected institutions at three levels — Parliament at the Centre, legislative Assemblies in the states and panchayats and municipalities in villages and towns. The third tier — the panchayat — is the most important for village dwellers. In India, over many centuries, the village panchayat had been a model of self-governance. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal was that every village should function as a decentralised republic. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1992 to empower the panchayat bodies; at that time, there were 496 zila parishads (at the district level), 5,905 block samitis (at the block level) and 2,30,762 village panchayats. For effective empowerment, the states were expected to enact appropriate state laws and implement them.
The states have shown little alacrity to endow the panchayats with administrative and financial powers. In states like Punjab, the village institutions still function as poor handmaidens of state political leaders, who perceive them as small vote banks. The state governments control the allocation of resources, even for minor schemes such as paving of streets and village drainage. Instead of being self-governing, the panchayats are supplicants before petty government officials, who take orders from the ministers of the departments concerned.
The irony of the situation could not be more striking. States often seek more financial and administrative powers from the Central Government, but are hesitant to delegate powers to their own local bodies. States ruled by parties opposed to the ruling party at the Centre chafe at what they label high-handedness of Governors, whom they perceive as agents of the Union Government. Yet, states themselves routinely supersede panchayats at will. Dissolution of any village body is akin to the imposition of the President’s rule by the Union Government in a state. Decisions affecting elected bodies must be taken with great care.
Mature democratic nations such as the US and those in western Europe derive their strength from grassroots institutions, termed variously as counties, councils or boroughs. These elected bodies have the authority for taxation, development and regulation, police administration and even adjudication in respect of local laws. It is not so in India, except for lip service to a nebulous and ineffectual ‘Panchayat Raj’ (rule of the panchayat).
Some remarkable examples show the manner in which local bodies function at the ground level, abroad and in India. After the tragic events in the US on September 11, 2001, the world witnessed Rudy Giuliani, then Mayor of New York City, spearheading emergency relief operations from the centre stage, even as then President George W Bush stood in the background. In stark contrast, in India, the media reported just two weeks ago that a panchayat serving a population of 1,500 in Lahuria Dah village of east Uttar Pradesh was punished for its ‘temerity’ in acquiring tap water for its inhabitants because a local politician was upset with the village leaders. The village concerned had not enjoyed this basic human need during centuries of its existence. The local panchayat prevailed upon the district administration to deliver the water by a pipeline from a source several kilometres distant. When the miraculous bounty of running water was delivered, the panchayat conducted a ‘jal poojan’ (water worship ceremony). The little village event was presided over by the District Magistrate, who had helped commission the project. A leader of the ruling party complained that in serving itself without consulting him, the village had impaired his public image. The state government transferred the district head after the ceremony. With the spirited officer out of the way, miscreants damaged the pipeline, completed over a period of nine months.
In Punjab, the cavalier decision (since rescinded) to dissolve 13,000 panchayats demonstrated the distorted relationship between the second tier of India’s political governance (the state) and the hapless third tier (the village panchayat). Had elections to any civic body been imminent, the existing bodies could well have continued to work till their successors were elected, citing the analogy of Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Instead, the elected village bodies had been arbitrarily dissolved months before their term was to end.
The present institutional relationship in governance is skewed. That is why the recent imbroglio occurred in Punjab. An ideal democracy entails decentralisation of power. Elected village bodies must be accorded their proper place in the sun. Stronger bodies at the village level would only make for stronger states.
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