Understanding panchayats- the issues and concerns
By: Dr. Satyawan Saurabh
Nowadays we are getting to hear and read such news that the sarpanch of a certain village in the country committed suicide due to debt. Why is this happening? In India’s Panchayati Raj system, there is a Gram Panchayat or Gram Sabha at the village or small-town level, which is a major component of India’s local self-governance. The Sarpanch is the elected supreme representative of the Gram Sabha. Since ancient times, Panchayat has had an important place in the social, political, and economic life of India. Every aspect of public life was governed by it. At present, in protest against e-Panchayat, village secretaries are holding dharnas in gram panchayats across Haryana state and BDPO offices are being locked, the government is going to start an e-system in gram panchayats. The Sarpanchs of Haryana says that such a system will not work in the Gram Panchayat. In such a situation, the development work of the villages will be affected. If the development work is not done, the villagers will also come to the streets.
By the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in the Indian Constitution, a provision has been made for the participation of local people in the development of rural areas through the Panchayati Raj system. More than three decades after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, state governments, through local bureaucracies, continue to exercise considerable discretionary power and influence over panchayats. In India, the powers of local elected officials (such as the sarpanch in Telangana) are severely limited by state governments and local bureaucrats in several ways, undermining the spirit of constitutional amendments to empower locally elected officials.
Gram Panchayats are financially dependent on grants (discretionary and non-discretionary grants) from the state and the Center for day-to-day activities. Broadly speaking, panchayats have three main sources of funding – their sources of revenue (local taxes, revenue from common property resources, etc.), grants-in-aid from central and state governments, and discretionary or plan-based funds. Its sources of revenue (both tax and non-tax) constitute a small proportion of the total panchayat funds. Access to discretionary grants for panchayats depends on political and bureaucratic ties.
Inordinate delay in transferring sanctioned funds to panchayat accounts stalls local development. There are also severe restrictions on how to use the funds allocated to them. State governments often impose expenditure limits on various expenditures through panchayat funds. Like recently in Haryana government going to start an e-system in Gram Panchayat. This type of system will not work in the Gram Panchayat. In such a situation, the development work of the villages will be affected. If the development work is not done, the villagers will also come to the streets. The Panchayat provides for the dual authority to spend the fund. Even with sarpanches, bureaucratic consent is needed for payments. Sarpanch and Panchayat Secretary should co-sign the check issued for payment from Panchayat Fund.
State governments bind local governments through local bureaucracies. For example, approval of public works projects often requires technical approval and administrative approval from local officials of the rural development department, a tedious process for sarpanches that requires repeated visits to government offices. The capacity of the sarpanches to exercise administrative control over the local staff is limited. In many states, local functionaries reporting to the panchayat, such as village watchmen or sanitation workers, are recruited at the district or block level. Often the sarpanch does not even have the power to dismiss these local-level employees.
Unlike elected officials at other levels, sarpanches can be dismissed while in office. Gram Panchayat Acts in many states have empowered district-level bureaucrats, mostly district collectors, to take action against sarpanches for official misconduct. Across the country, there are regular instances of bureaucrats taking decisions to dismiss sarpanches from office. More sarpanches have been dismissed from office in recent years.
Sarpanches need administrative or financial autonomy for meaningful decentralization. The Ministry of Panchayats should monitor the release and expenditure of Finance Commission grants to ensure that there is no delay in their release. Panchayats should be encouraged to conduct local audits regularly so that Finance Commission grants are not delayed. The Ministry of Panchayats should make serious efforts towards recruitment and posting of supporting and technical staff to ensure the smooth functioning of Panchayats. Strengthening of Panchayats through capacity building and training should be given more encouragement from the Central and State Governments. This will enable them to prepare better Gram Panchayat Development Plans, as well as become more responsive to the needs of the citizens.
This a wake-up call for state governments to re-examine the provisions of their respective gram panchayat laws and consider greater devolution of funds, functions, and functionaries to local governments.
The writer is a Poet, freelance journalist, and columnist, All India Radio and TV panellist.