Twenty years after the passing of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, actual devolution of powers to the grass roots is still a distant dream. An expert committee on leveraging Panchayats for efficient delivery of public goods and services has recently submitted a report. Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Panchayat Raj minister and chairman of the committee explains what it aims.
Governance is getting increasingly complicated with new laws and expanding economic activities on a global scale. How can a gram sabha make sense of all these and govern? Can a billion people together take any decision?
Never can a billion people be involved in every aspect of governance. Decentralisation does not wither away the state or the central government but seeks to add the Panchayats as a third partner in the governance compact to run social schemes efficiently with local participation. We plead last mile delivery be entrusted to Panchayats, rather than to the lowest levels of the bureaucracy who are notoriously inefficient and corrupt and to registered societies who are responsible to nobody.
So the argument is that if you have a set of people whose liability are to the governed rather than upwards the chances of accountability is high and delivery is better. Do you think this argument is borne out by the experience we have of NREGA?
The experience of centralised schemes exposes their flaws. In a situation of inadequate devolution, the flaws would persist. In our report, we argued that bad Panchayat Raj is sometimes worse than no Panchayat Raj at all. We have not only provided model activity maps for major centrally sponsored schemes but also listed collateral measures to ensure Panchayat Raj is both efficient and effective.
It is the gap between the governed and the governors that is the principal cause of the corruption in our society.
What is activity mapping? Can you give an example?
For example, the School Management Committees under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are not responsible to the Panchayats. Since the SMCs are not responsible to the Panchayats, by constitutional definition they are not responsible to the gram sabhas. SMCs have a few parents represented on the body and they have no disciplinary control over the teachers or role in assessing the pupil’s performance. There is absolutely no community ownership or control over the schools and these committees are self serving, self assessing bodies that report upwards and have no responsibility downwards. In cases where functions are devolved to the school management committees and to bodies at the district, block and village level and are represented but are not organically linked to Panchayats, our recommendation is that you should embed such parallel bodies in the Panchayat system to make their transactions transparent. Once you achieve this, including appointment of teachers you would be able to ensure as much accountability in the school system in India.
Is it that the state governments are not keen to give more power to the panchayats? There is no political will it seems...
If there was no political will, I do not see how the 73 and 74th amendments providing for local governance would have been passed almost unanimously. Every political party in India subscribed to the amendments, but what remains is the actual devolution and there our committee holds the Centre more responsible than the states. And more than political will, it is the bureaucratic ineptitude that is holding up reforms and innovation in Panchayat Raj.
So the Panchayat Raj we have now is not competent. What are the priority areas you see that could be made better?
We should take up activity mapping in the centrally sponsored schemes for genuine empowerment of the Panchayats in respect of three Fs — function, finances and functionaries. We must ensure gram and ward sabha are statutorily empowered and hold elected panches and sarpanches accountable. Reservations should be rotated only once in 15 years to give elected representatives time to acquire political and administrative experience.