The Petty Amusements of Panchayati Raj

Panchayati Raj as implemented imports the venality of governmental processes into the heart of the Indian village


It is not the first time that Government sits twiddling its thumbs as elected Panches bleakly ponder their future. The same thing happened after 1996 and shall doubtless repeat itself four years hence. Why, one might ask are these Panchayats not allowed to perform the duties for which they were created. The answer is a bit theoretical and needs close attention, even though it isn’t rocket science.
Article 40 of the Indian Constitution says that the State shall take steps to organize village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may necessary to enable them to function as units of self government. It is a Directive Principle of State Policy; which means it is not justiciable, unlike a fundamental right. In 1993 Parliament amended the Constitution for the 73rd and 74th time making local self government through Panchayats and Municipalities a constitutionally mandated feature. It thus introduced a third tier of government in addition to the existing two tiers of Union and State. Article 370 prevents these amendments from applying to Jammu and Kashmir and since then the centre has been pressing the State to allow their extension here. So far NC has not agreed; earlier PDP also turned a deaf ear to similar pleas from the Union government.
J&K has its own Panchayati Raj Act. We need not go into the provisions of this legislation or that of Local Bodies except to note that much of the work that Panchayats and Municipalities are supposed to do is actually carried out by departments of the State Government. This includes local roads, water supply, drains and similar minor public works that form the sinews of the patronage system of politicians and of corruption by officials. MLAs get votes by pointing out how vigourously they got development works executed; officials make something from what is spent on them. If they were executed through locally elected agency such as Panchayats or other elected local bodies, voters would hardly care for their Minister or MLA.
An elected local body is thus a threat to Ministers and MLAs because this sort of patronage, which is the font of political power, also fetches the votes. Allied in self interest with politicians are Heads of Departments under whose overall control works are carried out, as well as District level officials who release funds. Without this vast system of patronage whose tentacles extend in all directions including the State Secretariat, and which is the lubricant of governmental machinery the corridors of the Secretariat would be devoid of supplicants. The biggest opponent of Panchayati Raj is the institution that talks loudest about decentralized governance, the State Government if it means disrupting the existing channels of patronage.
A properly empowered local body must have its own bureaucracy answerable to locally elected officials. This requires local cadres of officials. It also means attenuating the district administrative system run by  Deputy Commissioners. For decades now they have had little to do with law and order because the Police no longer bother much about the District Magistrate. DCs have also stopped paying due attention to their Land Revenue duties because land revenue is no longer a significant source of income for the state. DCs were given a new role in development but with Panchayati Raj they are not required for that either. In fact even police functions in the advanced polities of the west are performed by locally answerable police chiefs appointed by county councils and in towns by the mayor. The imperial baggage of DCs, SPs, Divisional Commissioners and IGs has no place in a properly implemented system of local self government.
Opposition to a fully functional system of empowered local government will come not just from the State government; in the long run state politicians can adjust to an altered paradigm of democratic administration. Decentralization does not mean after all an end to patronage, it merely redistributes the loci. A properly run system of local government would sound the death knell of the All India Services, the IAS and IPS. There is already a great oversupply of these cadres; and with their role further circumscribed they may no longer be needed. It is this element more than any other to which the centre will most object.
Actually this outcome of genuine Panchayati Raj scheme goes against the grain of the Centre’s intent when it pushed the 73rd amendment. The local MP is generally a remote figure. Few voters flock to him for favours because he has very little to dispense locally. MPs must woo MLAs to garner votes. The Union Government is thus in a sense dependent upon state level politicians. Panchayati Raj, the strategists in Delhi theorized, could be a way to forge direct patron client relationship between Panchayati Raj functionaries in the states and Union Ministries by passing State Governments entirely. The idea, sound in theory, was easily sellable under the garb of decentralized administration; and particularly as something Gandhi always wanted, magnanimously funded of course from Delhi. Except that constitutionally it wasn’t possible to transfer funds to the Panchayats directly. State governments had already seen through the game and made arrangements to ensure that they were not by passed. Mr. Mani Shankar Iyer whose brain child the idea is originally said to have been can still be heard pontificating on Panchayati Raj as a universal nostrum.
The Public Choice theorists McLean and Muller define the process of government in terms of three games - a democracy game between citizens and politicians for the production of public goods and services and redistribution of social resources; a government game between the legislature and government officials for defining objectives of democracy, and the bureaucracy game between politicians and bureaucrats for the implementation of political decisions and delivery of cost effective services. Indian Panchayat Raj violates the principles of all three games.
How has Panchayati Raj actually worked out elsewhere? It may surprise readers to learn that Sarpanches in Punjab and Haryana are known to spend a crore of rupees or more on election. It cannot surely be worth that much money to become a Sarpanch, unless the candidate expects to recover something over and above his expenditure.  Panchayati Raj as implemented imports the venality of governmental processes into the heart of the Indian village. It succeeds not so much in empowering the villager as in corrupting him.
Is there a way out? Anarchy theorists (yes, there are such creatures) give us the hint of a solution. One such is Michael Taylor who used game theory in his book ‘Anarchy and Cooperation’ to show that voluntary cooperation among individuals to rationally create public goods is possible without a top heavy government. Anarchism holds the State to be unnecessary, undesirable or harmful and is especially opposed to governmental aid. Taylor proposed that if individuals cooperate and jointly contribute for the creation of public goods (roads, water supply, drains etc) they will also ensure that their money is not misspent. Most of us do nothing about public corruption not only because we feel helpless but because we have no stake in the hand being played. We do not care much when it is the other fellow’s money being wasted. If only a small share of it was our own we’d be a good deal more alert and resentful of wastage. Villagers who had to contribute to their own schemes would surely keep a sharp eye on the Sarpanch if their own two bits of contribution were being misused.
Libertarianism is a close cousin of anarchism. It holds that government to be best which governs the least and is particularly opposed to big government. Gandhi was a kind of Libertarian, a religious libertarian of course in tune with modern Libertarians. Panchayati Raj as envisaged by the Centre resembles the Gandhi conception of self sufficient self governing rural communities as chalk resembles cheese.
We take our models of governance from the west, but distort them to our purposes. Local government in the US is a genuinely local affair financed by local taxes and run by local bureaucracies. US counties have been allowed to go bankrupt because they weren’t careful about their finances; even New York City nearly collapsed in the seventies. Our Panchayati Raj system was never intended to be a genuine system of local governance. It innovatively distorts the principle of self governing local communities so that they can be integrated into the existing top down polity. The Panchayati Raj system is structured to blend seamlessly into an administrative and political system designed by the British to maintain imperial control. It depends for its existence, not on local initiatives but on propagating the outmoded inheritance of imperial rule, which historically speaking died in 1947; and it relies on those very bureaucratic structures it is supposed to supplant. The travails of Panchayati Raj in J&K should not therefore be a cause for regret at the waste of opportunity; rather, they should be treated for what they are; entertainment! 

Lastupdate on : Sat, 20 Jul 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 20 Jul 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 21 Jul 2013 00:00:00 IST

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