For many, panchayati raj means little more than an occasional news item. They will now get a glimpse of the great Indian empowerment drama when 2.5 lakh panchayat leaders gather in New Delhi next month for a convention. Now, many may argue that this is a logistical nightmare and a strain on the exchequer. But it will give people a chance to see first-hand just how Rajiv Gandhi’s dream of decentralisation of power has worked.
To say that panchayati raj has delivered empowerment across Bharat would be an exaggeration. But, warts and all, it has to a great extent put power back in the hands of people. In states like West Bengal and Kerala, the scheme has been a huge success. In other areas, it has not delivered as much as it could have but nevertheless has put the focus back on issues like education, sanitation and health. Since funds go directly to local councils, the babus’ ability to hold up things has decreased and political corruption has been curbed. This has, of course, created much friction among the panchayats, local bureaucracies and the political establishment as both the latter see power slipping out of their hands. And significantly, many NGOs that consider themselves interlocutors between the villages and the powers-that-be are unhappy about being bypassed.
The real success of the panchayati raj lies in the remarkable achievements made in the councils headed by women. Studies have shown that many women sarpanches started off being rubber stamps for their husbands. But now that the panchayati raj has taken root, many of them have refused to play a passive role. They have been the guiding force in bringing development to their desperately poor and neglected villages, ensuring that the funds are not frittered away on useless projects. At the beginning of his political career, Rajiv Gandhi lamented how only 19 paise of every rupee reached the intended beneficiary. Panchayats have not wrought miracles. But they have made it a little bit more difficult to shortchange the needy today.