Context: Local governments in India remain hamstrung and ineffective. What is the problem with India’s way of devolution of power and possible solutions to strengthen local government in India?
What is devolution of power?
Devolution is one of the most fundamental changes to the way decisions are made for local areas and how public services are funded. Devolution is the transfer of power from a central government to local authorities. It usually occurs through conventional statutes rather than through a change in a country’s constitution. In India, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts devolved a range of powers and responsibilities and made them accountable to the people for their implementation.
Importance of Devolution:
- It is important because it ensures that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses they affect.
- Devolution will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning panchayats/municipalities can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.
- The result will be more effective, better targeted public services, greater growth and stronger partnerships between public, private and community leaders in local areas.
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act:
- 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments were passed by Parliament in December, 1992. Through these amendments local self-governance was introduced in rural and urban India.
- The Acts came into force as the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 on April 24, 1993 and the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 on June 1, 1993.
- These amendments added two new parts to the Constitution, namely, 73rd Amendment added Part IX titled “The Panchayats” and 74th Amendment added Part IXA titled “The Municipalities”.
Features of the Panchayati Raj Act: The Act has five main features:
- a 3-tier system of Panchayati Raj for all States having population of over 20 lakh
- Panchayat elections regularly every 5 years
- reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women (not less than one-third of seats)
- appointment of State Finance Commission to make recommendations as regards the financial powers of the Panchayats
- constitution of District Planning Committees to prepare development plans for the district as a whole.
Thus, the Panchayats have been endowed with such powers and authority as may be necessary to function as institutions of self-government and social justice. Providing real functional autonomy at the village level is at the core of the amendment Act.
The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996:
- Enactment of “The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996” (PESA) was a step taken by the government of India to provide for the extension of the provisions of the Part-IX of the Constitution relating to the Panchayats to the Fifth Schedule Areas with certain modifications as provided under Article 243M(4)(b) of the Constitution.
- This legislation has not only extended the development, planning and audit functions to the Gram Sabha in the Fifth Schedule Areas but has also endowed it with the management and control of natural resources and adjudication of justice in accordance with traditions and customs.
Issues with the panchayati raj system in India:
- Although the political decentralization can be clearly seen in the regular Panchayat elections with good participation of people, the administrative and fiscal decentralization have remained rather limited. The State Governments have failed to give up their control on matters of local administration and finance.
- Inadequate finance: The inadequacy of funds has also stood in the way of successful working of the Panchayati Raj.
- The Panchayati Raj bodies have limited powers in respect of imposing cesses and taxes. They have very little funds doled out to them by the State Government.
- Further, they are generally reluctant to raise necessary funds due to the fear of losing popularity with the masses. As a result, they only have limited functional autonomy.
- Recommendations of State Finance Commissions (SFCs) are generally not taken seriously.
- Lack of cordial relation between officials and people: Introduction of the Panchayati Raj aimed at securing effective participation of the people. But in reality this hardly happens since the key administrative and technical positions are manned by the government officials. Generally there is lack of proper cooperation and coordination between the people and the officials like Block Development Officers, the District Officers etc. Again the officers fail to discharge the development duties more efficiently and sincerely.
- Disillusionment on structural-functional front: The performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been vitiated by political cum caste factionalism. Corruption, inefficiency, scant regard for procedures, political interference in day to day administration, parochial loyalties, motivated actions, power concentration instead of true service mentality- all these have stood in the way of the success of Panchayati Raj. Furthermore, the power to supercede the local bodies on the part of the State Government clearly violates the spirit of democratic decentralisation.
- Administrative Problem: The Panchayati Raj bodies experience several administrative problems. They are the tendency towards politicization of the local administration, lack of co-ordination between the popular and bureaucratic elements, lack of proper incentives and promotion opportunities for administrative personnel and apathetic attitude of the government servants towards development programmes etc.
- Powers given to the State Election Commissions also vary from State to State. They should have been given powers to deal with all matter relating to Panchayat elections namely, delimitation of constituencies, rotation of reserved seats in Panchayats, finalization of electoral rolls, etc.
- Gram Sabhas have not been empowered and strengthened to ensure greater people’s participation and transparency in functioning of Panchayats as envisaged in the Panchayat Act.
- Decentralisation And Panchayati Raj:
- Transfer of the three Fs functions, funds and functionaries to the PRIs, commensurate with the responsibilities assigned to them.
- Empower the gram sabhas, which are the foundation of the panchayati raj system.
- Give greater attention to training and capacity building of the gram sabha members.
- Notify the division of functional responsibilities between the three tiers of the panchayati raj system on the basis of activity mapping.
- Institutional And Administrative Reforms:
- Enhance the productivity of the civil service through rightsizing of government. Identify the surplus staff, set up an effective redeployment plan and devise a liberal system for exit.
- Ensure openness and transparency in the functioning of government. Press for the adoption of Right to Information legislation across the country. Subject departments with extensive public dealing to social audit at periodic intervals.
- Ensure accountability of public servants for their actions.
- Persuade the States to institute mechanisms for providing security of tenure to civil servants and discouraging their frequent and arbitrary transfers.
- Speed up reforms that will speed up the judicial process. This has to be done through:
- Empowering the presiding officers of the courts to exercise better control over their case lists or List of Businesses.
- Bringing the counsel-client relationship and counsel feepayment system under some principled regulation
- Providing greater finality to the adjudicatory processes
- Moving from a two appeal system to a single appeal system
- Financial Devolution:
- Local governments should be allowed to raise their own funds through collection of tax.
- The connection between tax payment and higher accountability is well established. The people participation will be automatically be huge and the local government would work since it would directly held accountable.
Conclusion: Mahatma Gandhi was among the first and most important leaders to advocate for Panchayati Raj. His vision of a village panchayat was a small self-sufficient republic with individual freedom, opportunities for all, and full participation of the people. While the idea seemed revolutionary at the time, it was Gandhi’s endorsement of it that perhaps explains why the PRI system was partially accepted by the makers of our constitution. PRIs were mentioned in Article 40 only as a Directive Principle of State Policy in 1950. It stated that steps shall be taken to organise village panchayats, and endow them with the powers and authority necessary for them to act as units of self-government.
The time has come to move from political representation to power devolution. There is a need for the state political leadership to accept the importance of PRIs, and devolve power to them as mandated in the Constitution of India. Building the capacities of the PRIs not as mere implementers of the projects but as planners and evaluators would help strengthen the institution.
There is also a need for elected local leaders to come together with their constituents, and demand more control and autonomy as enshrined to them by the Constitution of India.