Written by: Dr Simi Mehta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)
One of the greatest human tragedies of a contemporary era unleashed by the coronavirus has become a wakeup call and provided several lessons in the conduct of all aspects of an individual’s life (personal, professional, societal and institutional) in India and every country of the world. One of the institutions that have been deeply impacted by Covid-19 has been the Panchayati Raj in India. Panchayats have been the core of functioning of India’s rural governance even before they received the Constitution mandate to the 73rd constitutional amendment in 1992, forming the basis of the spirit of decentralisation in the country.
There are 2.5 lakh gram panchayats spread across six lakhs villages, and around 4,500 urban local bodies and 4,000 census towns in the country. Panchayats have been at the forefront of village level governance and quality. With this background, the lecture on ‘Lessons from COVID-19: Empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions‘ (PRIs) was organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on August 18, 2020. It sought to provide clarity on how the PRIs have been empowered during the time of crisis so that the citizens in the villages can be assured of continuity and smooth functioning of their activities.
Prof James Manor, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK, stated that decentralisation increases accountability and transparency by drawing ordinary people in villages into democratic processes. According to the book Decentralization and Empowerment for Rural Development by author Hari K Nagarajan, Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, S S Meenakshisundaram, Panchayati Raj can assist in poverty alleviation. When the elected local councils exists for many years in the local government, poor people learn how the democratic process works at local level. They pursue their rights and participate more in democracy.
He highlighted that gram panchayats used to save lives even before pandemic because women in panchayats help in building trust among ordinary people with the health service providers since ordinary women are afraid to visit doctors because of their intimidating appearances.
Women members of panchayats even helped doctors and nurses to explain to the villagers about their diseases and treatment in the language they understood. Consequently, the number of villages taking 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 Panchayati Raj will be able to test, trace and treat the under-the-current scenario and contain the crisis.
He exemplified how 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 power being taken away at the local level, so the ineffectiveness remains. The world has a lot to learn from the Indian Panchayat system.
He exemplified how the Britain is centralising the system to tackle the health crisis, which is costing people their lives. In this, neutrality of local councils is being ignored. He also highlighted how the decentralisation system weakened in South Africa, where local councils are being dominated by people at higher levels. Thus, their efforts to implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of India in South Africa failed because of less access to financial resources. Now, the testing, tracing and treatment in South Africa has lagged.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, Former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj, highlighted the constitutional duties of a panchayats as per Schedule 9, Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian Constitution. He opined that constitutional amenders would have known that a major health problem in India would require a resolution at both rural and urban levels. So, they devised a mechanism called the District Planning committee on which members elected to the rural panchayats would be represented to a large extent than those elected to all municipal bodies.
According to legislation under Article 243G, panchayats with powers and authority enable them to function as institutions of self-government in respect of preparation of plans and implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice. But the empowerment of PRIs has to be entrusted with this responsibility by the state legislature.
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 pandemic. States have actually fulfilled the constitutional mandate to empower the panchayat 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. He was optimistic that PRIs would be greatly successful in attending to problems of Covid-19 in rural India.
There are three subjects that are affected by Covid-19 pandemic. First, women and child development, where Anganwadi workers along with the auxiliary nurses and midwives are responsible for development of child, pregnant and lactating mothers; secondly, mentally and physically challenged people who are not able to access medical care. People with money and higher in caste in rural India can get access to medical care with their influence, but it would be difficult for people with less money or from backward castes to get access. Lastly, a subject that has the public distribution system (PDS) which can provide access to food grains as mandated by Schedule 11.
He highlighted that the term ‘Panchayat’ is specifically used for rural India, but the Constitution includes metropolitan areas and districts as well. He opined that the most vulnerable state in India was Kerala because a substantial working population constitutes the Kerala diaspora, especially in the Gulf, Britain and the USA. The first Covid-19 case was introduced through China in Kerala and it was believed that it would be difficult to handle the crisis, but it is universally accepted that the state handled it very effectively.
There is a direct connection between Kerala’s demonstrated capacity and the fact that for the last 20 years with the starting of Thomas Isaac’s famous people’s planning movement, which aimed at decentralising the planning system in the state and has strengthened the local governments in matters of health, sanitation, women and child development, 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 to have a well-educated system, which does not deprive women of their rights. Professor Aiyar applauded the state of Kerala for effectively combating the pandemic with minimal loss of human life. He opined that this is possible only if there is local government operating in sectors that matter most to people.
He further exemplified the Gujarat model as alleged to be a model of how to run the economy, but this development model, through Indian politics, has converted a secular country into Hindu nation. Despite the fact that the old state of Bombay continues to be a Panchayati Raj state since 1937, Gujarat is being controlled under a centralised system. Before the partition of Maharashtra and Gujarat, the states were under the Panchayati Raj system run by Hitendra Desai, who showed that local self-government is the basis of all effective government.
Since Gujarat was being governed under the centralised system, local powers were diminished and the Ahmedabad municipality became powerless because for almost every important decision, the state government had to be referred to and the commissioners who would go into the state government would be forced to accept subordinate positions, while others were left out. He argued that when the World Health Organisation was on the verge of declaring the coronavirus a pandemic, Trump’s visit was attended by more than one lakh people in a stadium without any precautionary measures, due to which Ahmedabad became a hotspot.
Moreover, Dharavi, being the largest slum in Asia, would have witnessed a massive number of deaths had it not been controlled effectively by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Similarly, the cities of Chennai and Kolkata, and many hilly areas, which were able to contain the spread of the virus, have a long history of the Panchayati Raj system and are still governed by it. To effectively handle the crisis, it is important to look at the number of recoveries and fatalities along with comorbidities. There exists a positive correlation between operating an panchayat raj system and effective handling the pandemic.
He also exemplified Belgium, home to 10 million people, where the city of Brussels is run by no less than 19 municipalities. People in the country believe that nationalism comes from local governments. Even the authority of issuing passports lies with the local authorities.
Aiyar also highlighted that the report given by the committee formed for leveraging panchayat raj system, of which he was the chair, would be useful in practice since these five volumes of recommendations contained ways in which local self-governments can be used to effectively implement Centrally-sponsored schemes that provide a huge amount of money to local municipalities for expenditures on issues listed in Schedule 11 and 12 of the Indian Constitution.
He also emphasised the role of women in panchayat governance. He believed that the states with 50% reservation for women in local governments have performed extremely well in India in handling the crisis. He believed that reservation for women in state legislature must be raised to 50% 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 of a constituency. Panchayati Raj is the only way to promote social justice to promote 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 Gandhi, 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.” Gandhi saw both money and muscle power as integral to the democratic part of the country. Thus, India, instead of adopting any Western model of governance, must resort to democracy. Every democracy in the world develops from a local level, but the Indian democracy is a castle in the air.
He stated that the more effective a Panchayati Raj system, the lesser is the corruption. He exemplified how Panchayati Raj in Uttar Pradesh is corrupt and ineffective as compared to its counterparts in states of Karnataka and Kerala. In northern states of India, there exists Sarpanch Raj instead of a Panchayati Raj. Panchayats are barely consulted and Sarpanchs are not accountable to anyone. He also applauded Chhattisgarh for having a good Panchayati Raj system.
Professor Aiyar believes that our Constitution does not spell out the roles and responsibilities of a Gram Sabha. The only state where Gram Sabha is accountable to the administrator is Karnataka. Thus, without a well-structured Panchayati Raj system, it would be impossible to combat corruption.