Panchayats have been the core of India's rural governance even before they received the constitutional mandate through the 73rd constitutional amendment in 1992, forming the basis of decentralization in the country. There are 2.5 lakh gram panchayats; over 6 lakhs villages; around 4500 urban local bodies and 4000 census towns in the country.
Panchayati raj is one of the institutions that has been deeply impacted by Covid-19 in India. A lecture on ‘Lessons from Covid-19: Empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions’ was organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on August 18, 2020. It dealt with how the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) have performed during the Covid-19 crisis so citizens are assured of continuity and smooth functioning of the activities.
“Decentralization increases accountability and transparency by drawing ordinary people in villages into democratic processes. According to the book ‘Decentralization and Empowerment for Rural Development’ authored by Hari K. Nagarajan, Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, S. S. Meenakshisundaram, PRIs can assist in poverty alleviation. Poor people learn how the democratic process works at the local level over the years and pursue their rights as well as participate further in democracy,” said Prof. James Manor, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London (UK) speaking at the event.
He highlighted that gram panchayats used to save lives even before the pandemic because women members in panchayats help in building trust among ordinary people. They helped the doctors and nurses to illuminate about diseases and treatment in simple language to villagers. Consequently, the number of villagers accessing medical services without fear increased a lot. By creating a sense of trust, panchayats saved lives. In times of Covid-19, the trust developed by PRIs will be able to test, trace and treat the patients and thus contain the crisis.
“Civil servants in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh understand that PRIs help to achieve their plans. But legislators are wary of their powers being weaned away at the local level and pose hurdles. The world has a lot to learn from the Indian panchayati raj system. Britain is centralizing its local governance system and ignoring the neutrality of local councils to tackle the health crisis, which is costing people’s lives. The weakening of the decentralised local governance system in South Africa led to local councils being dominated by people at higher levels. South Africa’s efforts to implement an act on the lines of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act failed because of less access to financial resources. Now, during Covid-19, the testing, tracing and treatment in South Africa have been lagging,” said Prof. Manor.
“Constitutional amenders would have known that in the event of a major health problem in India, a resolution would be required at both rural and urban levels. So, they devised a mechanism called the District Planning Committee in which members elected to the rural panchayats and municipal bodies would be represented. According to legislation under 243G, panchayats with powers and authority enable them to function as institutions of self-governance in respect of preparation of plans and implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice. Empowerment of PRIs has to be entrusted with this responsibility by the state legislature,” said Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj.
He highlighted the constitutional duties of the panchayats as per Schedule 9, Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian Constitution. According to the entries in the Schedule 11 of Indian Constitution, item 23 relates the empowerment of PRIs to health and sanitation including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries which is significant in the current scenario of the pandemic.
States have fulfilled the constitutional mandate to empower the panchayats to look into health and sanitation, which are intimately connected with Covid-19 and where such responsibilities are institutionally exercised through hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries under the overall supervision of the PRIs. Aiyar was optimistic that PRIs would be greatly successful in attending to problems of Covid-19 in rural India.
Three subjects are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. First, women and child development where anganwadi workers and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANM) are responsible for the development of child, pregnant and lactating mothers. Second, mentally and physically challenged people who are not able to access medical care. Also, while upper class and caste people in rural India can have access to medical care with their influence, which the marginalised poor and low caste people lack. Lastly, public distribution system which provides access to food grains as mandated by Schedule 11 has got affected.
There is a direct connection between Kerala’s demonstrated capacity to handle Covid-19 and the fact that the people’s planning movement aimed at decentralisation of the planning system in the state has strengthened the local governments in matters of health, sanitation, women and child development, the welfare of the weaker sections and public distribution system.
In rural Kerala, Kudumbashree movements linked women self-help groups to the panchayat system. Moreover, in the sphere of education, Kerala has included primary and secondary schools in the panchayati raj system and district colleges under the overall supervision of the District Panchayat. It has a good education system, which does not deprive women of their rights. He applauded the state of Kerala for effectively combating the pandemic with minimal loss of human life. He opined that this is possible only as there is local government operating in the sectors that matter most to the people.
Dharavi, being the largest slum in Asia, would have had massive deaths if it was not effectively controlled by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Similarly, the cities of Chennai, Kolkata and hilly areas that have a long history of panchayati raj systems and are still governed by it were able to contain the spread of the pandemic. To effectively handle the crisis, it is important to look at the number of recoveries, the number of fatalities along with comorbidities. There exists a positive correlation between operating panchayat raj system and effectively handling the pandemic.
Aiyar also exemplified the handling of Covid-19 by Belgium, home to 10 million people and where the city of Brussels is run by no less than 19 municipalities. The people there rely on local governments and even the authority of issuing passports lies with the local authorities.
The report of the committee formed for leveraging panchayat raj system, of which Aiyar was the chair would be useful in practice. The five volumes of recommendations contained how local self-governments can be used to effectively implement the centrally sponsored schemes which provide a huge amount of money to local municipalities for expenditures on the issues listed in Schedule 11 and 12 of the Indian Constitution.
He also emphasized the role of women in panchayat governance. States with 50 per cent reservation for women in local governments have performed extremely well in handling the crisis in India.
He believed that the reservation for women in state legislature must be raised to 50 per cent and every parliamentary constituency should be divided into two parts, one represented by women and the other half by men. Alternatively, there could be a double constituency party where men and women from different parties can each govern half the constituency. Panchayati raj is the only way to promote social justice to uphold the dreams of Gandhi and Ambedkar in the country.
Covid-19 should be a lesson for the current government to make panchayati raj an inclusive part of governance in the country.
He quoted Gandhiji, who said, “I shall live for an India in which the poorest shall feel this is his country in the making of which he has an effective voice”. Gandhiji wanted India instead of adopting any western model of governance must resort to democracy. Every democracy in the world develops from a local level but Indian democracy is a castle in the air at present.
The more effective the panchayati raj system, the less is the corruption. In the northern states of India, there exists sarpanch raj instead of a panchayati raj. Panchayats are barely consulted and sarpanch are not accountable to anyone.
He stated that our constitution does not spell out the roles and responsibilities of the gram sabha. The only state where gram sabha is accountable to the administrator is Karnataka. Thus, without a well-structured panchayat raj system, it would be impossible to combat corruption.