Short on development

Decentralised Governance

This year, India completes 25 years of the decentralised governance experiment. The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1992-93 envisioned the twin objectives of local ‘economic development’ and ‘social justice’. The motive behind these amendments came from the ‘Power to the People’ decentralisation reforms in Karnataka under former chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde and his rural development minister Abdul Nazeer Sab. This year also marks 35 years of the passage of the radical decentralisation Act — the Karnataka Zilla Parishads, Taluk Panchayat Samithis, Mandal Panchayats and Nyaya Panchayats Act, 1983.

Theoretically, decentralisation is expected to bring governance closer to the people through their participation in local planning and development. In this context, it is essential to revisit the mandate of ‘power to the people’ through the lens of (i) participation of people in local planning (ii) deepening of democracy at the grassroots, and (iii) role of panchayats in achieving the development outcomes in Karnataka and its implications for local governance across India.

The first indicator is the people’s participation in governance. Gram Sabha and Ward Sabha are the institutional mechanisms for people to come together to deliberate, discuss and debate the issues affecting their lives at the grassroots. In the context of decentralised planning, it is the place where prioritisation takes place, based on local people’s concerns, demands and needs.

A study conducted by the Government of Karnataka indicates that while the Panchayat Act, 2015, requires the participation of 10% of the total electorate, or 100 persons, for quorum to conduct Gram Sabha, on average, only 39 (minimum) to 58 (maximum) persons participate in these meetings. These numbers show that the level of people’s participation is poor, lower than even the minimum quorum required.

It is clear that the Gram Sabha as an institutional set-up has not yet been able to persuade people to come forward and participate in the decision-making process. This is a general critique about the poor participation of people in discussions and decision-making processes via Gram Sabha not just in Karnataka, but throughout the country. Gram Sabhas have been increasingly reduced to merely identifying/selecting beneficiaries of state and central schemes.

The second most important thrust of decentralised governance reforms is the political inclusion of the voices of women and SC/STs, who are traditionally excluded from the decision-making process. As per the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, 53.4% of the elected representatives in the three tiers of panchayats in Karnataka are women. This is much higher than the national average of 46.14% in 2016.

As per Census 2011, out of Karnataka’s total population, 17.5% are SC and 6.95% are ST. In terms of elected members of panchayats, the figures are 18% and 11%, respectively – higher than their proportions of the population.

The state has been witnessing continuous growth in the number of women entrants into the panchayats and is ahead of many other states in empowering women at the grassroots. A normative understanding is that women, especially from SC/ST communities, have improved their self-esteem, art of governance and leadership skills by involving in the local decision-making process. It was also noted by the Government of India in 2013 that “the performance of women representatives who belonged to a younger age category (21-35 years) was better than those who were above 35”. This indicates the social diffusion of democracy to the grassroots.

Role of panchayats

The third and final indicator is the role of panchayats in delivering development outcomes. Currently, the state is witnessing agitations for separate statehood, especially in the northern parts due to the regional imbalance in socio-economic development.

One of the main factors is the poor human development indicators in these areas. This is corroborated by the recently computed (2015) Gram Panchayat Human Development Index (GPHDI) across the panchayats in the state. It found that the HDI in the panchayats of the districts of Bagalkot, Bidar, Gadag, Kalaburagi, Raichur, Vijayapura and Yadgir is less than the national average. Panchayats have been playing an important agency role in implementing schemes such as MGNREGA, the National Rural Health Mission, Indira Awas Yojana, RTE, Annabhagya and Ksheerabhagya.

The role of panchayats is critical in discharging the 29 functions of the Eleventh Schedule under Article 243G. The reasons for underperformance of panchayats in delivering development outcomes is the lack of finances and functionaries. A critical factor is ‘political will’ and commitment to the ‘principle of subsidiarity’. The institutional efficacy of panchayats is directly dependent upon the knowledge, skills and attitude of the staff working in the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

However, there are certain constraints that prevent panchayats from optimising their performance. Some of them are (i) Lack of vision and local leadership; (ii) Weak capacity-building of elected functionaries, panchayat officials and other functionaries; (iii) Quality and quorum of Gram Sabha meetings; (iv) Institutionalisation of ‘bottom-up’ planning process through strengthening of District Planning Committee (DPC)s; (v) Bureaucratic control of decentralisation, especially in the development planning process; (vi) Reluctance of Line Departments to function under the purview of Panchayats; and (vii) Inadequacy of staff (especially at Gram Panchayat and Taluk Panchayat levels) and insufficient finances; (viii) Proxy participation; (ix) Jaati (caste) based discrimination and; (x) Illiteracy.

The 2015 amendment to the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act is one of the most comprehensive and consists of a broad template for decentralised governance through panchayats to enable Gram Swaraj. One important way to do this is to fiscally empower panchayats by publishing the report of the Fourth State Finance Commission (FSFC) and to implement its recommendations at the earliest. Let’s hope the HD Kumaraswamy government draws inspiration from the radical reforms of 1983 to decentralise ‘power to the people’ and enables the deepening of democracy and development.

(The writer is PhD Fellow & Research Associate, ISEC, Bengaluru)  

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