India’s federal evolution in the last seven decades is largely relations between state governments and centre. Though local self-governments were granted constitutional status in 1992 by 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, still they were bereft of political and administrative empowerment as a true form of government. The notion India followed to call local self-governments as a true form of government is incomprehensive because they were devoid of all other aspects of ‘democratic government’ except democratic elections. This resulted in the misplaced notion of local self-governments, impartial political decentralization, inadequate willingness to accept their significance in today’s challenges and lethargy in bringing reforms to make them truly what they intend to exist for.
Then there is the confusion of calling LSG as federal units. ‘Tier of government’ is different from ‘units of the federation’. Former is constitutional recognition as a democratic government (in parliamentary polity) for decentralised administrative and political purpose and later has a direct bearing on nature of Indian federation. This means that modifications in local self-governments will change the structure of decentralized polity and governance but a modification in centre-state relations will result in changes in the very nature of terms which made India a ‘Union of states’.
Political literature on ‘competitive’ and ‘cooperative’ governance largely involves centre and state relations. Unless local self-governments were not made ‘democratic’ politically, ‘independent’ economically and ‘executive’ administratively, they can neither be ‘competitive’ nor be ‘cooperative’. I am not going into empirical analysis for the above-mentioned propositions. One can do that after collecting facts and case studies available for inductive or deductive methodological research.
Analysis about local self-governments can be summed up in two broad areas of ‘significance of local self-governments (Gram Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies) in new challenges India facing in socio-economic development and governance’ and ‘constitutional and administrative reforms in local self-government’. My discussion in this article is limited to ‘significance of local self-governments in new challenges India facing in socio-economic development and governance’ particularly for Gram Panchayats. Discussion is divided into four broad categories. One is social structure and peace, second human development, third is creativity and technology dissipation and last is resources and climate change.
Let’s understand the social structure and peace. It includes social inequality and the role of local self-government. B.R.Ambedkar called ‘social equality’ a prerequisite to ‘political equality’. In ‘social endosmosis’, Ambedkar emphasised the primacy of society to the individual. The social hierarchy of cast is characteristics of society where there is no social mobility and communication between casts and individuals from various casts.
After implementing constitutional philosophy (fundamental rights, directive principles of state policy and fundamental duties) and affirmative action (reservation policy and various welfare measures) for 74 years, India, still substantially failed to eradicate social inequality deep-rooted in the Indian society. Dominant role cast play in parliamentary and state elections, state actions motivated by religion, targeting a particular minority community, mob lynching, excessive state action against a group of particular cast and substantial influence of religious organizations on state policies in the area of law-making, no uniform civil code, gender discrimination based on religion etc. were the clear observable facts for the existence of social inequality.
There is something hidden from all the above interpretations existing in Indian villages and hinterlands. Before that, let us understand the social efficacy of welfare measures and reservation policies. Reservation policy considers ‘inadequate representation’ as the basis for reservation in public employment and ‘historical injustice’ in preferential treatment in social opportunities. Up to a certain extent, these policies fainted or changed the nature of stark social inequality by allowing upward social mobility.
But the time has come for the saturation of ‘historical injustice’ and ‘inadequate representation’. Ambedkar himself proposed a ‘minority reservation’ principle. And now, both Parliament and judiciary were considering this maturation. In welfare measures, the word ‘welfare’ itself shows the philosophy of ‘social empowerment through economic empowerment’. It is an observable fact that, after the existence of the National Food Security Act and Public Distribution System for so many years, there still exists socio-economic inequality and discrimination. After adequate representation and economic upliftment, it seems as if Indian society is adopting social hierarchy, in its peculiar subtle way, as a ‘default’ social characteristic.
Centralised policies of reservation and welfare schemes implemented by central and state governments, with minimum psychological transformation at the grass-root level, helped to secure purchasing power but no social equality. Here comes the noble role local self-governments can play to remove this deep-rooted psyche. This ‘defaulting of social hierarchy’ can only be dismantled after inclusive citizen participation at the grass-root level, not only for economic upliftment but for creating ‘just’ villages.
Human development is a broad term. It includes ‘subjective’ things like culture, traditions, values, spiritual and religion and ‘secular’ like wellbeing, purchasing power, livelihood opportunities, income inequality and capacity to be creative etc. To limit the scope, let’s focus here on ‘secular’ aspects. Wellbeing includes the social infrastructure of health and education. There is a decade-old chain of hospitals like PHCs and district hospitals providing vaccination and non-surgical medical treatments.
This chain, except for vaccination, has failed significantly as observed by the substantial, out of the pocket private expenditure on health. Mission Indradhanush2.0 was implemented with more community participation to cover every uncovered child. There are issues in maternity and infant health and nutrition. In addition to this, now we have mental health, non-communicable diseases and drug addictions. These issues are well documented in cities but not in villages. Prima facie, there is no recognition.
In education, after ‘Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan’, the government of India implemented ‘Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (Schools+Teachers training) making education affordable and accessible in villages and remote hinterlands. In above, a major role is played by central and state-level administration to enforce the RTE Act and implement various schemes. Local self-government too played a role in regulating government schools according to the 73rd Constitutional amendment and 11th Schedule of the Constitution.
Another area is private investment in providing affordable education in rural areas. Those who already invested were suffering from political interference, low response and quality assessments. The main reason for this is absent of credible agency to assist, cooperate and sustain invested capital and related infrastructure at the village level. For universities, there is a central government, and at the state level, there are state governments but no one at the grass-root level. For consistency and effectiveness at the grass-root level, local-self-governments can fill the space so required.
In rural areas, livelihood is largely agro-oriented with some active MSME manufacturing. Livelihood includes agriculture, allied activities, agro-processing and non-agriculture. In agriculture, Gram Panchayats can integrate and convince farmers for mixed cropping, crop diversification, organic and cooperative farming. Gram Panchayats can best lead collective ownership for farm mechanization. In allied activities, there is a lack of administrative coherence with people.
Agro-processing and non-agriculture have a minimum private investment. In both areas, private investors were concerned about consistent raw material supply (Farm produce and industrial inputs) and market linkages. Here, Panchayats can play a trident role to revolutionise these areas. Gram Panchayats can act as an immediate layer of government to assist all stakeholders. If Gram Panchayats will be man and money empowered with collaborated technical expertise from public research agencies like ICAR and various NGOs, then it would improve the confidence of the private sector by creating localised skilled manpower.
COVID-19 lockdown saw an agriculture market failure. State governments permitted agriculture as an essential commodity; the district civil and police administration played a licensing role and APMCs were waiting for trucks. What went wrong is that there is no grass-root level agency or Gram Panchayats heavily failed to become an integrative facilitator to connect farmers, administration and markets. Not only in crises like natural calamity or situations like a pandemic, but in normal times too, Gram Panchayats can play a vital role in streamlining and integrating every aspect of livelihoods in rural areas.
There is tremendous scope for individual and collective creativity in realizing policies in health, education, and livelihood and women empowerment. Village potential in cultural tourism, agriculture tourism (as on-farm Grapes Melas in Maharashtra), folk art, crafts and traditional manufacturing industry are untouched areas. These areas have the potential to assist villages in becoming independent and self-reliant.
As far as Indian villages are concerned, technology can be viewed through three aspects. These are governance, digital literacy and handpicking of particular assistive technology. ‘BHARATNET’ i.e. ‘National Optical Fibre Network’ is an umbrella scheme to connect all the Gram Panchayats through broadband connectivity. It is the main internet infrastructure on which the edifice of rural digital connectivity can be erected. But sadly, in many Gram Panchayats, fibres were only hanging on the walls and computers were never switched; far away is their effective utilization.
The economic survey of 2019-2020 emphasised ‘data’ as ‘public good’. Gram Panchayats, if equipped, with internet infrastructure can help the centre-state and itself for data-driven policymaking and implementation. With State assistance and necessary skills, Gram Panchayats can use technology effectively in the areas like localised skill training, immigration tracking, inter-villages labour mobilization, weather communications, water conservation, watershed management and agriculture technologies like irrigation etc.
In conclusion, some of the above predictions seem mere ideas or hypothesis. But they exist in the limits of realizations. They were not utopian. Some of them may seem dynamic and others may be invariant but all were achievable by removing unpredictable hurdles. Recently, the government launched the ‘Gram Swaraj Portal’ to have all information at one place about all Gram Panchayats in the country. But Indian political leadership and Parliament need to understand that the technological dashboard will not solve the problem. Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Gram Swaraj’ can’t be realised alone with technological tokens but by concrete constitutional and administrative reforms. In short, India needs Gram Panchayats with some sort of executive to implement its policies. They must become independent for revenue beyond state and central grants and devolutions. They must be local self-governments in their true spirit.