Covid-19 hits our Villages, Where are the Panchayats?
| George Mathew May 6, 2020
It is a sad story that in India, millions of people in our villages are undergoing enormous suffering after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The acute health problem is spreading and many are losing their lives. Moreover, the impact of COVID-19 on the livelihood of crores of our people is a wakeup call for all those in the seat of power as well as for every citizen of this country.
The critical issue is that if only our Panchayati raj system were in place, active and dynamic as mandated by the Constitution of India in all the States and Union Territories, we could have handled the present crisis in a different way by saving people’s life and livelihood. The role model for success in this context is Kerala. How did this state which was susceptible to the corona virus as nearly 30 lakhs Keralites live, work, study outside India and in thousands, arrive and depart through the four international airports along with the tourists who consider Kerala as “God’s Own Country”, combat the coronavirus? Only because of Strong Panchayats in the state.
Let me go back to the Panchayats in India today. When on April 24, 1993 Panchayats and on 1 June 1993 the Municipalities were endowed “with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government”, it was the beginning of a silent revolution. Moreover, it was historic. The dream of Mahatma Gandhi and all those advocated “power to the people” came true after 43 years of India becoming the Republic.
In the initial years, almost all the states irrespective of the party in power, had defied the constitutional provision with all the power at their command. The states were not enthusiastic to hold the elections at all. It may be mentioned here that the first state to hold the panchayat elections according to the provisions of the 73rd Constitution Amendment was Madhya Pradesh (1994). Then, Digvijay Singh ji was the Chief Minister and he held two terms because of his popularity as a champion of Panchayati raj.
It may be recalled here that the civil society organizations took the initiative to fight the anti-constitutional approach of several states by filing public interest litigations (PILs) and the judiciary at different levels effectively intervened.
The Government of India has declared April 24 as the National Panchayati Raj Day. This year on the Panchayati Raj Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a unified e-Gram Swaraj portal and mobile app as part of the new initiative aimed at providing Gram Panchayats with a single interface to prepare and implement gram panchayat development plan. This is indeed a big step forward.
But there is a basic question. Where are the Panchayats today? Are they functioning as the third tier of the federal government? We have nearly 2,40,000 village panchayats and more than 30 lakhs elected panchayat members. As mentioned in the Constitution of India, 29 subjects are allocated to the Panchayats. Have all the states in India devolved powers to the local governments? Today after 27 years, can we say that all these subjects come under the purview of panchayats in the respective states?
Do these panchayats have well equipped buildings for the president, elected members, officials to function from? Moreover how many panchayats have the modern offices equipped with latest computers and electronic systems? Except very few states, no state has created a political ethos for Panchayats to function as “institutions of self- government”. Are the elected panchayat members getting regular training and exposure visits?
We have a unique distinction of creating a constitutional forum for direct democracy – the Gram Sabha and Ward Sabha – with special powers for overseeing the local development and expenditure in rural and urban areas. Are they working in letter and spirit?
Of late, schemes have been envisaged to promote digital financial transactions at the village level to promote the benefits of cashless and paperless processes to benefit villagers in rural parts of the country. Schemes such as financial inclusion projects in tribal areas, working women hostels, geo-informatic block panchayats are of course progressive, but are they effectively working across the length and breadth of the nation?
In this context, what will happen to the promise made by the Prime Minister on this year’s National Panchayati Raj Day? How will the villagers in India access the unified e-Gram Swaraj portal and mobile app?
The critical issue is that the Union Government must have the political will to bring into operation, the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act 1992. The centrally sponsored schemes will not reach the people. Even today one is reminded of what Rajiv Gandhi said: “out of one rupee allocated for the people in the villages, 15 paisa reaches them.” It is fundamental that the funds from Union government must reach the state governments and each state government must allocate every year, through the annual budget presented in the Assembly, funds for each and every panchayats. The best example for this is Kerala. The middlemen between state capital/finance department and the panchayats will become irrelevant.
Given the severe social and political constraints – social inequality, caste system, patriarchy, feudal setting, illiteracy, uneven developments – within which it had to function, the New Panchayati Raj has opened a new chapter in local governance, but has it happened? No. Except in very few States, there is no District Government, Block Panchayats or Gram Panchayats. At the district level we have Collector raj and down below the officials control all aspects by encapsulating governance into administrative structure.
Every State must organize a campaign to conscientize the people: “Our Panchayats, Our Future”, it must happen sooner than later.