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A mortal blow to panchayat raj

by Damodar Acharya, Nandana Reddy, 16 May 2007

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sacw.net - May 2007

IN the heat and noise generated in the Karnataka legislature by the controversy over Infosys honorary chairman and chief mentor Narayan Murthy’s views on the national anthem, another equally significant and damaging event virtually passed unnoticed – the hurried passage of the amendments to the Panchayat Raj Act by both houses of the legislature. There was pandemonium in both houses when the legislature passed the bill. In the legislative assembly, the opposition staged a walkout. In the council, the vote was evenly split, and was followed by the chairman exercising his casting vote in favour of the government. Yet this event, probably one of the darkest spots in the history of panchayat raj in Karnataka, did not get anything but a cursory mention in the media.

Grama sabhas have been given a unique position as institutions of participatory governance under the Constitution. Article 243A defines a grama sabha as being a body of voters relating to a village within a panchayat. Under the constitutional pattern, grama sabhas provide the foundation for effective panchayat raj. The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act 1993 initially had provided for relatively weak grama sabhas. Under Section 3 of the Act, while grama sabhas were to meet at least once in six months. If grama panchayats failed to convene grama sabhas, then the executive officer of the taluk panchayat concerned could convene them. Grama sabhas only had recommendatory powers under the law. The law also provided that in case the grama sabha failed to identify the beneficiaries within a reasonable time, the executive officer shall, in consultation with the grama panchayat, identify the beneficiaries. Obviously, there was low confidence about the capacity and interest of grama sabhas and they were routinely ignored by higher levels.

In 2001, M.Y. Ghorpade, then Karnataka’s Minister of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, constituted a working group under the chairpersonship of the Development Commissioner, N. Viswanathan to make recommendations on panchayat raj reform. In its report submitted in February 2002, the working group recommended several measures for strengthening grama sabhas, including changes in the law to provide for ward sabhas below grama sabhas at the neighbourhood level and elaborate processes for beneficiary selection by ward and grama sabhas under government programmes. Amendments based on these recommendations were intensely debated both outside and within the legislature. In mid-2003, while presenting the draft amendment bill to the Assembly, Ghorpade himself suggested that they should be examined by a joint select committee. After a detailed examination by the joint select committee, the bill was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature in September 2003. The Act, a tribute to the wisdom and statesmanship of Ghorpade, was uniformly acknowledged as a big step forward, putting Karnataka in the forefront of good panchayat raj. The first ward sabha in the state was organized in the constituency of D.R. Patil, MLA, at Gadag, on Gandhi Jayanthi day, 2003.

The landmark changes brought about in 2003, apart from establishing a two-tier system of ward and grama sabhas for effective and greater people’s participation also listed as many as 19 functions for them, including approval of annual plans, generating proposals and determining priority of schemes, identifying beneficiaries, water supply and streetlight arrangements and promoting adult education.

In respect of beneficiary selection the new law left no room for doubt. Section 3(3) (b) of the amended Act provided that ward sabhas would identify the most eligible persons from its area for beneficiary-oriented schemes on the basis of criteria fixed and prepare lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority and forward it to the grama panchayat. These lists were then to be placed by the grama panchayat before the grama sabha, which under Section 3A(3)(c) would consider the ward sabha lists and prepare the final lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority. For good measure, the law also provided that once such detailed beneficiary lists were prepared by the grama sabha, they could not be changed by any higher authority.

Last week’s amendment has set the clock back in no uncertain terms. It inserts similarly worded provisos to Section 3(3) (b) and 3A (3) (c), stating that if the grama panchayat fails to discharge its duties in respect of housing schemes or programmes funded by the government, then a committee headed by the member of the legislative assembly of the constituency shall select the beneficiaries from the list prepared by the grama panchayat! The crudity of the amendment and the blatant arrogance of legislators takes one’s breath away. In one stroke the legislator becomes the final arbiter over decisions of the grama sabha. These provisos are dangerously open-ended. Who is to decide that a grama panchayat has failed to discharge its duties? Who will constitute the committee? Why specifically mention housing schemes? What is the implication of providing scope for taking away the powers of the grama sabha in respect of all schemes of the government?

At first sight, though the unseemly hurry in piloting the amendment is unnerving, this was a long time in coming. Interestingly, a year back, the government tried to bring in the same amendments through an ordinance. However, saner counsel prevailed after upright officers in the RDPR department fought tooth and nail against it. The state’s law secretary also objected to this provision on the grounds that taking away powers given to panchayats and grama sabhas signified a reversal of panchayati raj and therefore required presidential assent. He also voiced the view that taking away powers specifically in respect of housing schemes would contravene Article 14 of the Constitution. On what grounds does the government justify that for all other schemes the grama sabhas have the power, and supposedly the intelligence, to select beneficiaries but when it comes to the selection of people for housing, they are incapable and therefore should not have the right?

This time around, there were no niceties of consultation. The law secretary voiced the same objections, but they have been ignored. The upright officers who objected earlier are no longer around – they have been replaced by those more compliant and spineless, who have with alacrity prepared the crude and dubious draft amendment. No select committee has been set up to consider the serious implications of such a legislation.

The amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act virtually puts MLAs in the driver’s seat in respect of the selection of any beneficiary for any scheme. Currently the grama sabhas are the deciding body in this regard; the only platform we have that recognises true participation of every citizen to participate in decision-making. This amendment revokes this right. The message is loud and clear: people are now being held to ransom by their MLAs, who want to usurp virtually all powers, including those given to constitutionally mandated local bodies. This trend is not confined only to panchayats – MLAs now want more powers in urban local bodies and university senates too. We need to ask our legislators, regardless of the threat of breaching legislative privilege: Is it their business to select beneficiaries for programmes? Are they legislators or chief executives of their constituencies? Is our vote a general power of attorney? Can MLAs take away the powers of others that we have elected to represent us in the panchayats? Can MLAs usurp the rights of the grama sabhas? Do MLAs have knowledge and insights that are superior to the members of a grama sabha regarding the needs and situation of individuals in each grama sabha?

While we are witnessing the darkest hour of the panchayats, there is also a silver lining. Not all MLAs or bureaucrats are panchayat unfriendly. At the two day sammelan organized by the Institute of Social Sciences in Bangalore recently to celebrate twenty years of panchayati raj in Karnataka, several MLAs who had risen from the Panchayats spoke of their commitment to decentralization. When the amendment was presented in the legislature, both in the assembly and the council they met with stiff resistance. In the council the vote was tied, till the council chairperson tipped over the balance with his casting vote. In these circumstances, it is time that people know exactly where their elected representatives stand on the issue of strengthening of grama sabhas – and particularly to know who has let them down at the time of reckoning.

We should remind MLAs that we have not given them open-ended powers to pass laws to usurp every privilege for themselves. People elect legislators primarily to enact laws and not to control the delivery of services that are, in accordance with the Constitution, to be delivered by panchayats. Legislators cannot look at works undertaken in their constituencies with a proprietorial air. It is public funds that are being spent by panchayats, not the pocket money of MLAs. The works undertaken or the services delivered cannot be owned by any category of elected member. Legislators have already enriched themselves by providing a local area fund for themselves. Now they can override all the decisions of panchayats and grama sabhas on beneficiary selection. The larger implications of this amendment should also not be forgotten.

What next? First, this is not the time for seminars and intellectual discussions in confined halls. Our inaction and apathy at this stage will only encourage more unconstitutional actions. Were this amendment to become law, the government could at any time, without any notice to us, revoke our participatory rights and decisions. Rather than moving towards the vision of our founding fathers and active and informed civil society participation, we are regressing towards a dictatorship of legislators over citizens and other levels of elected government. This is not an issue that concerns panchayat members alone – undermining the ward sabhas and grama sabhas truncates the powers of the people themselves. This action of the government calls for widespread protest. If we truly believe in democracy, now is the time to defend it.

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