Grassroots democracy in waiting….for how long?

The idea of Panchayati and Panchayat Raj is not new to the Indian Sub-Continent. Our villages have always had Panchayats to settle disputes at the local level. Mahatma Gandhi articulated the need for decentralisation and a village republic in the Hind Swaraj and other writings. The enactment of the 73rd (Constitutional Amendment) in April 1993 in a sense formalised this institution. Watching the Panchayat Raj in action (more like inaction) in the villages where I have been working over the last 5 years forces me to ask the question – Is this really decentralised, grassroots democracy? Have the Panchayat Raj institutions, specifically the village Panchayat, improve the living conditions and lives of people in rural India?

I am raising this question specifically in the context of the sham that has been taking place in Andhra Pradesh over the last 2 years. Panchayat elections were postponed indefinitely in the State for over 1.5 years and finally held in May-June 2013. During the interim period there were no functioning Sarpanchs or Ward Members. All responsibility was with the Panchayat Secretary and the Tahsildar (who has Revenue responsibilities across the Tahsil/Mandal). Nothing moved! All problems associated with water, sanitation, street lighting, was held in abeyance – nobody knew who was responsible, rural residents did not know who to go to. There was no money to fix any problems. So when the elections were finally held and new Sarpanchs and Ward Members finally elected there was a sense of hope in our villages. We finally had a Dalit Sarpanch and she was one of the residents. Everybody felt that now funds would come in and maybe we could address sanitation, waste management and water issues. But not so fast……..Along came the State bifurcation issue and the formalities of according cheque powers to the Sarpanch were delayed. The Sarpanch and the Ward Members had no clue what their responsibilities were, who does one approach for funding, where does the funding come from, how is it allocated and disbursed, what are the various Government Programmes which can be accessed to improve the infrastructure in the villages, what is the power of the Gram Sabha etc. Meanwhile dengue and chickanguniya are running rampant thanks to the stagnant water in drains (where they exist) and lack of drainage in other places. Works under NREGS programmes are being selected and implemented in the absence of Gram Sabha decisions and so on and so forth. What this has led to in our villages is people putting in their money to get the drains cleaned, trying to collect contributions to fix street lights etc. People whose lives and finances are already stretched as a result of food inflation and unpredictable income from agriculture as a result of the very evident changes in climate are forced to find their own resources to fix services which the State must provide. This is the reality!

In the public domain however reports abound about how the Panchayat Raj has resulted in grassroots democracy and women’s empowerment. Reservation of 50% seats for women in A.P. since 2011 is reported as an achievement. Panchayat Raj has worked at best in Kerala and possibly parts of Tamil Nadu as a result of their history of social movements. In other States it has made a difference only where NGOs and other Institutions have provided support to Panchayats. If we are to make any difference to the lives of rural Indians or hope to improve even marginally the appalling state of malnutrition in India, a social movement with more urban Indians is essential. More of us will have to serve as bridges between the Government and the rural communities, more of our young people must be involved in the process and our education system must recognise the need for place based learning – be aware of and learn from what is happening around you….be the change that you want to see (as Gandhi said).

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