Panchayati Raj system, a mixed bag

Democracy becomes effective and meaningful only when it involves people at the bottom of the pyramid, gives them direct participation in its processes and helps them to take decisions which affect their lives. The Panchayati Raj system was a step in that direction.  

After 25 years of working, some major aims of the Panchayati Raj system remain unfulfilled, but it also has important achievements to show. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, which conferred constitutional status on local self-government institutions in rural and urban areas, completed 25 years this week. The creation of the new system was historic because it added a new tier to the administration which till then existed only at the central and state levels. With the devolution of legislative and executive powers to the grassroots level, the aim was to make the system more representative and responsive and to take it closer to the people. Democracy becomes effective and meaningful only when it involves people at the bottom of the pyramid, gives them direct participation in its processes and helps them to take decisions which affect their lives. The Panchayati Raj system was a step in that direction.  

The results are mixed. The new system envisaged decentralisation of power in three ways — administratively, financially and politically. The devolution of funds and functions from the higher levels to the local level has not happened properly and evenly across the country. Some states have performed better than others. Most local bodies are starved of funds and have to depend on state governments for their development needs. The original aim of enabling the local bodies to raise the resources needed for their development has not been achieved, in spite of the efforts made by bodies like the Finance Commission. Many functions and responsibilities connected with administration and governance have yet to be devolved to the local government level. Politicians and bureaucrats at the higher levels are unwilling to relinquish or dilute their powers and pass them down. They have their vested interests, and they do not seem to have trust in the competence of local leaders. Some governments have also tried not to hold the elections in time, though they have to be mandatorily held in five years. 

The best achievement of the system was in the representation of women. Though 33% representation is the norm some states have raised it to 50%. Out of the 34 million elected local government representatives, 14 million are women. Many of them are proxies for men but the fact that so many women are in positions of power is very important. In course of time, they will become more independent and assertive, and that can change the entire system of governance in the country. Whatever empowerment of women that has happened at the local government level will hopefully move upwards to higher levels of politics and administration.

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Panchayati Raj system, a mixed bag

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