The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper saw way back in the 1940s how open society was being wrecked from within, something the enemies of the panchayati raj are doing at present. All efforts to give power to the people through democratic decentralisation and empowerment of the disempowered are being undermined by the vested interests. We have created a structure but it is like an edifice without a base.
The Standing Committee of Parliament on Rural Development (2009-10) in its fourth report says it all. It is indeed shocking how grants to panchayats are not being used optimally. As the report says, the utilisation of funds and other schemes are deteriorating, technical knowhow, personnel and infrastructure in the panchayats are dismal, if not absent and the vacancies of panchayat functionaries are not filled. The pace of devolution is extremely slow. All this is because of “a flip-flop approach.”
It is universally accepted that the local governments, which are nearer to the people are the base of any democratic system. In order to give power to the people, a strong, vibrant local government is a necessary sine qua non. The creation of an independent Ministry for Panchayati Raj by the UPA government made all the difference. It gave a push for national debate on various issues affecting the lives of ordinary people and created a lot of hope in the minds of the common man. However, by failing to provide the basic structures and transfer of funds, it has provided not only enough grounds for skepticism but also enough ammunition for the Opposition. Today, an impression has been created that power to the people is an empty dream.
When one observes how the political leaders try to subvert political decentralisation and power to the local governments, I remember how true Professor Dantwala’s observation was: “Whatever may be their rhetoric, politicians are averse to the idea of decentralisation due to political compulsions to prevent the emergence of rival political forces.” Members of Parliament and legislative assemblies are there to discuss and legislate on national and state issues as well as to bring to the national attention the policy issues affecting their respective states and constituencies. But today they prefer to be development agents. How else can one explain Rs 2 crore per year (now the demand is to raise it to Rs 10 crore) being allocated to an MP for local area development fund? When the panchayats are starved of funds, the MPs get crores to create their vote banks, patronage and clientelism. Most of the states are nowhere closer to implementing their panchayat acts as the government agents create roadblocks.
The bureaucracy in our country is not at all happy to see panchayats emerge as institutions of self-governance. Our administrative culture is to retain the powers of the line departments and not to give power to the people. Their structure and procedures are deeply mired in the imperial model of governance and they retain their distrust of local governments. Hardly anything has been done to change the mindset of the bureaucracy despite civil society activism and the Right to Information Act in operation.
The contractors and power-brokers are a formidable force against the people. “To the people of India let us ensure maximum democracy and maximum devolution. Let there be an end to the power-brokers. Let us give power to the people,” said Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 15, 1989, when he introduced the first- ever amendment (64th) to the Constitution to give constitutional status to the panchayats. These power-brokers about whom Gandhi spoke continue to hold sway. They appear as contractors, middlemen, mafia and so on. They always prefer centralised corridors of power to decentralisation.
Among the politicians and bureaucracy there is a minuscule section that is committed to the principle of power to the people. Their commitment and conviction have kept our flag flying at least in a few areas. The present government has an arduous task at hand. The time has come to make decentralisation a reality. Tokenism will not do. If the enemies of devolution are allowed to hold sway, the present civil strife which has gripped more than one-third of our country will not end.
George Mathew is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal