The Bumpy Road to Grassroots Democracy

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 signifies local self-governance of rural and urban areas through Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Municipal Bodies. Historically, informal Panchayats have existed in India since ancient times, and municipal administration is chiefly a British legacy. After independence, evolving on the Gandhian thought of empowering Panchayats for the development of rural areas, these informal bodies were constitutionalized and became justiciable on the recommendation of the L.M. Singhvi Committee. This established democracy at the grassroots level.

The 73rd Amendment added Part 9 and Schedule 11 in the Indian constitution and provisioned for establishing a three-tier Panchayat system in the rural areas of every state/UTs, i.e., Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti, and Zila Parishad. The 74th Amendment added Part 9A and Schedule 12 in the constitution. It provisioned for a three-tier Municipal bodies structure in urban areas, i.e., Nagar Panchayat, Municipal Council, and Municipal Corporations. The State Election Commission is responsible for conducting elections in these local bodies every five years. 

The idea of democratic decentralization is to facilitate greater citizen participation in governance at the grassroots. The institution of Gram Sabhas in villages ensures people’s direct participation in the Panchayat area’s local governance. This decentralization process facilitates the devolution of the state’s power and resources from the Centre to the local governments. As envisaged by our constitution, such devolution of authority and functions is not mere delegation. The legal powers assigned to the local governments are backed up with adequate financial and human resources to carry out their responsibilities effectively. Since ‘local government’ is a state subject under the constitution; hence, individual states enjoy discretion in this devolution of powers and resources to Panchayats and Municipalities.

Although the states have formally decentralized the governance process by assuring basic amenities like water, sanitation, streetlight, roads, communication, and management of community assets, however, even after almost three decades of adopting this three-tier form of governance,  the local governments are still struggling with multiple issues.

The essential requirement to carry out the development agenda in any area is adequate allocation of funds. But the PRIs and urban local bodies (ULBs) suffer from a lack of monetary funds. The allocated budget for these rural and urban governments is insufficient to meet their basic requirements. Moreover, its devolution and usage are often constrained by bureaucratic red-tapism, inflexible spending, and corruption.

The large amounts of centrally allocated funds give leeway to contractors and criminalization of elections. Therefore, these funds do not reach the intended beneficiaries at the grassroots. A market chain of corruption operates between the elected representatives, officials on the ground, and other intermediaries sabotaging elections’ fair conduct. However, it is easier to keep track of corrupt local political representatives. The corruption activities in local affairs are more visible and tend to get exposed faster than state-level corruption.

Furthermore, these local governments also do not have appropriate staff to carry out their functions. Since most of their staff is hired in the local government on a deputation basis from a higher level department, they do not feel responsible. The vertically integrated departmental system and lack of answerability serve as a hindrance in its proper functioning.

The constitution mandates elections to local bodies in an interval of five years. But the states often violate this mandate and postpone elections at their political convenience resulting in untimely and delayed elections. The lack of political will and bureaucratic support to strengthen local bodies has further derailed the process of decentralization in India. Technology-enabled central schemes have also degraded their role as the public, specifically in rural areas, are neither highly educated nor tech-savvy. The complexity of procedures and hierarchal hurdles add to their plight and restrict the schemes’ benefits to trickle down to the bottom. Ironically, the local bodies envisaged for furthering rural and urban self-governance through grassroots development are objectively left powerless and act as a piece of implementation machinery only. Theoretically, the legislations are in place with adequate provisions, but in practice, local governments are deprived of policy-making powers for regional development and cannot function effectively as an institution of self-governance. In the present state of poor service delivery, accountability, and inclusiveness, the national aspirations are yet to be translated into reality. Thus, the agenda of achieving democratic decentralization seems far from fulfilled.

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Divya Parmar

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