Sunday, April 5, 2015

14 Decentralized governance and forests in India-I. Panchayati Raj and its discontents

Setting the scene

In academic and governance circles in India today, it is considered as almost axiomatic that villages should be self-governing and self-sufficient, and that economic and social development, improvement in living standards, and equity can be achieved only if executive and regulatory power and functions are handed over to the village community. This conviction has led to the 73rd and 74th amendments to our Constitution, giving statutory status and powers to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as an embodiment of decentralized governance in the rural and urban realms respectively, after decades of experimentation, advocacy and legislative action.

We would, therefore, expect a sense of satisfaction to prevail at this culmination of decades of effort by social scientists, political actors, and others, and be looking forward to a brave new millennium as far as these spheres of public activity are concerned. But paradoxically, there are many expressions of discontent with this edifice of village self-rule and empowerment, and a general sense of discouragement, not the least among the very proponents of PRI, that justifies a second look at the whole gamut of issues. Therefore, it becomes a matter of interest to understand exactly how this concept of village autonomy or self-sufficiency has developed in India, and how it has worked in the field, and why there are these portents of discouragement and disillusionment at a point in time when the concept seems to have overcome all obstacles.

In consonance with our central interest, this discussion of decentralized governance will be concerned with management of common property resources like forests. There is a possibility, at least, that these concepts of governance by the village community, and of its institutional relationships to the larger state, may be of more than academic interest to the natural resource manager, because they affect fairly directly the shape of the relationship with natural resources, whether at the level of the individual, the local community, or the state as a whole.  The special points of interest include the issue of sustainable use of natural resources, which are especially sensitive to institutional factors in view of their vulnerability to over-exploitation under the unbridled play of private incentives and market forces. This has of course been expressed by Hardin (1968) as the “Tragedy of the Commons”, which was understood to force a choice between the two extremes of complete privatisation or total state control, although there exists a tantalising  possibility of achieving a via-media between these two poles, in the form of a joint community-and-state control based on mutually agreed rules and enforcement (Dilip Kumar, 1991). We will explore this possibility in some detail, based on a field sample of villages in the states of Haryana, Tamilnadu and Karnataka that have demonstrated various responses to the opportunities and challenges posed by the need to manage the community’s forest resources,  both private and public.

The progress of Panchayati Raj in India

The history and chronology of events related to Panchayati Raj in India are too well documented to warrant a detailed retelling here. The details may be readily culled from reports such as the major nation-wide surveys of the state of PRI published by the Institute of Social Sciences (Mathew, ed., 1994: Status of Panchayati Raj in the States of India, 1994; and a similar report, 2000, and lately, 2013), or the numerous collected works such as Joseph (ed., 2007) or the EPW volume (Raghunandan, ed., 2012). To summarize, the British in India appear to have been ideologically committed to the concept of local government since transfer of administrative control to the Crown in mid-19th century, with Lord Rippon’s 1882 resolution on local governments, which led to the setting up of local boards with elected representatives (albeit from a restricted electorate of ‘burghers’). Apparently some of the Britishers thought of this as a new thing for India (notwithstanding our own nationalistic pride in village self-governance as an age-old institution), as illustrated by the following quote from the Right Hon. Lord Hailey’s Foreword to Hugh Tinker’s book (1954):

 “As an organized system it represented in effect the deliberate introduction to India of an institution of a purely western type… There existed in this particular field of activity no institution, if we except the village panchayat, which could be said to have formed an integral part of Indian custom... The panchayat had in any case ceased to be operative in most parts of India for a considerable period before the advent of British rule, and though attempts had been made to revive it by some of the more liberal minded of our early administrators – Munro in Madras, Mountstuart Elphinstone in Bombay and Malcolm in Central India – their efforts had met with little success.” (Hailey, op. cit., p.xii)

Hailey does soften this indictment with a back-handed compliment:

“Though the system was an importation from the West, owing nothing to indigenous custom, it became in some measure a specifically Indian field of activity, as contrasted with the official administration, which even up to the end remained strongly under influences which, to the mind of Indians, reflected its foreign origin” (Hailey, op. cit., p.xiii-xiv)

Since then, of course, Panchayati Raj has gone through a long and convoluted history, characterised in the literature as three phases, or generations, in its institutional development. In the first phase, owing to a perceived lack of success for the much-vaunted Community Development Programme in newly independent India, the Balwantrai Committee in 1957 recommended the “resurrection of local bodies” (Joseph, 2007, p.xxiv) through a 3-tier arrangement, with directly elected representatives at the village-level and indirectly elected and nominated members at the intermediate and the District levels, the “first generation” local governments. The next stage in the progress of PRI was when the Janata Party at the Centre set up another committee, under Asoka Mehta (Government of India, 1977), which recommended a Central legislation to ensure public representation and the elevation of the District-level body as the “basic coordinating and integrating unit” (Joseph, op. cit.). It was in Karnataka and West Bengal that the state governments first brought into being the full three-tiered set-up, which “played a major role in the successful implementation of various rural development schemes”, the so-called “second generation” local government set-up (Joseph, op. cit.).

This inspired the Union government in 1989 to introduce two constitution amendment bills dealing with local government, but due to various political and other causes, these amendments could be passed only by 1992, in the form of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts for, respectively, the rural and urban areas. This “major watershed” legislative framework is thought to have finally ushered in the era of “third-generation” people’s self-governance, (Joseph, op. cit.), providing for the Gram Sabha (village council) as a general assembly of all the electors at the village level, representative institutions at the village (panchayat), taluk and district levels, mandatory elections every five years, reservation of seats and chairmen’s positions for socially deprived classes, reservation of one-third of the seats for women, and so on. Finances are arranged through the independent State Finance Commission, and elections organised by an independent State Election Commission, so that now states cannot escape the onus of actually implementing the regular elections and provisioning of these constitutional bodies, although they have some leeway in the subjects that they do entrust to them. Thus, finally, panchayats were given a firm legal and constitutional status by these amendments to the Indian Constitution.

In the 2000 status report, George Mathew takes forward the story after the passing of the 73rd and 74th Amendments (Mathew, 2000, p.10 et seq.). As he points out, a major achievement of this system has been the massively widened democratic base, with some 500 district panchayats, 6000 block panchayats, and 250,000 gram (village) panchayats in the rural sector where some 73% of the population resides. In the urban sector, which has around 27% of the population, there are now some 96 city corporations, 1700 town municipalities, and 1900 nagar (town) panchayats. Every five years, about 3 million representatives are elected by the people, of whom one-third are, mandatorily, women. Moreover, thanks to the reservation schemes, women head about 175 district panchayats, more than 2000 intermediate level panchayats, and around 85,000 gram panchayats and 630 city corporations and town municipalities (Mathew, 2000). This massively widened democratic base, in his view, has brought about a fundamental “qualitative change” to India’s federalism, in that that the popularity and electoral success of the political parties now depends on the sincerity with which they devolve power to the local bodies. Mathew ascribes losses and reverses suffered by the ruling parties in Rajasthan and Karnataka during the assembly elections in 1998 and 1999, and similarly the reverses suffered by the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections in 2000, to their neglect of Panchayati Raj. The continued success of the ruling parties in West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh were likewise ascribed to the seriousness with which they took up the cause of panchayat system.

Will Panchayati Raj ever be established firmly?

In the midst of this triumphal march, it is all the more surprising to find that the protagonists of panchayati raj are still dogged by a sense of defeat and disillusionment. Thus, George Mathew, writing as recently as April 2013, gives this bleak judgement:

“Although panchayats got a constitutional status 20 years ago, politicians have managed to subvert the decentralisation of power, out of fear of the emergence of rival political forces. So panchayati raj remains a pipe dream while the bureaucracy’s writ runs large.” (Mathew, article in The Times of India, 15 April 2013)

Mathew charges that politicians champion panchayati raj when they are out of power, but try to “weaken” it when they come to power; he blames the bureaucracy, “from the village level to the highest level”, for continuously subverting the ideals of local government – since 1882 (sic.). In this they were “hand-in-glove with the state-level politicians”. According to Mathew, “Hardly anything has been done to change this mindset of the bureaucracy and of political leaders in the country”. In Annie Besant’s metaphor, like a baby that has been tied up and therefore never learnt to walk, panchayati raj has never been allowed to play its role, which explains “the inability of the panchayati raj institutions to become institutions of self-government” (Mathew, 2013). 

In his Introduction to the earlier 1994 Status report, George Mathew points to the initial gains from the panchayat system, but states that “nevertheless, the panchayati raj system has been moving downhill” (Mathew, 1994, p.6); he quotes various authors who use such disparaging phrases as “a living caricature of local government”, “a focus of frustration”, “the gram sabha is something of a joke”, and so on. This, Mathew feels, could have been set right if there had been regular elections, but this was seldom achieved, a particularly unhappy example being Tamil Nadu, where elections were postponed for some 20 years on one pretext or another.  Mathew and others ascribe this failures to a “conspiracy” by the bureaucracy, which launched development programmes like the IADP (Intensive Agricultural District Programme), by-passing the panchayati raj institutions, with the intention to maintain its control over the planning and execution of development plans.  Other schemes and programmes, like the SFDA (Small Farmers Development Agency) and the DPAP (Drought Prone Areas Programme) or the ITDP (Intensive Tribal Development Programme), were also launched outside the purview of the elected zilla parishads, whose plan allocations were “tapered off” (Mathew, 1994, p.7).

In discussing the emergence of women as a separate force, apart from describing the obstacles they face such as not being taken seriously, or being used as a front by men, or having to face the threat of violence to their person if they dared to come out alone to attend meetings, Mathew (2000, p.11) also lets fall some of the less desirable aspects of politics in the panchayats.: “…the general atmosphere of politics has been vitiated by corruption, violence and petty-mindedness. Great deal of money is involved in contesting elections. All these factors affect the choice of deserving candidates among women and also their efficiency after they are elected.” Other writers have also commented that women representatives are often put up by the men-folk to grab power (Vyasulu and Vyasulu, 1999).
In a similar vein, Mani Shankar Aiyar, former minister for PRI in the central government, says in a newspaper interview that panchayati raj has no hope unless all the powers of the district administration are handed over to it, and the gram sabhas are put in charge of all social sector schemes, but he also says (ironically, to my mind), that it is the bureaucracy that will have to produce the methodology of devolution (Aiyar, 2013).

George Mathew, bemoaning the lack of strong demand for such institutions from the bottom, calls for: 1) strong demand for devolution from below – the village assembly (gram sabha), village panchayats and district panchayats as well as “enlightened citizens’ organisations”; 2)  creating a separate cadre of civil servants for the panchayats, not depending on the line departments of the states, 3) making efforts to change the attitudes of state politicians, 4)  creating a “new culture of democracy” in the government servants, 5) eradication of feudal values, casteism, low levels of literacy etc., to be a part of the agenda of change, training, etc. (Mathew, 2000).

Why should there be this feeling of defeat and dejection, in the face of the tremendous institutional effort and financial inputs, and the ostensible endorsement of PRI by all sections of the polity, in the very midst of its triumphal success, so to speak? The answer may lie in the actual experience of PRI in the field, in the underlying divergence between intentions and perceptions of the reality on the ground. In the next section, I will suggest how the PRIs as realised in the present dispensation satisfy neither the ideas presented by our leaders in the past, nor do they actually serve the purpose of grass roots or decentralized governance, which may be one source of this anomie. It also will become clear that PRIs by themselves are not sufficient to facilitate this aspiration, and why the much-reviled lower level, community based organizations (CBOs) and government departments are also going to be necessary in the foreseeable future.


Aiyar, Mani Shankar. August 2002. Panchayati Raj. The Way Forward. Economic and Political Weekly 37 (31): 3293-97. Reprinted in T.R. Raghunandan (Ed.), 2012.
Aiyar, Mani Shankar. May 2013. Put Gram Sabhas in charge of all social sector schemes. Interview with P.V.Srividya. The Hindu (newspaper), 22 May 2013.
Dilip Kumar, P.J. 1991. Between common property and state monopoly: the institutional context of wasteland management in India. In “Managing the Village Commons”, Proceedings of national workshop 15-16 December, 1991, Bhubaneswar, Orissa. IIFM, Bhopal.
Government of India. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayat Raj Institutions 1977-78. New Delhi.
Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-48.
Joseph, T.M. (Editor). 2007. Local Governance in India. Ideas, Challenges and Strategies. Papers presented at the National Workshop on Decentralised Democracy and Planning, Thodapuzha, 19 December 2003. Published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi-110059.
Mathew, George (General Editor). 1995. Status of Panchayati Raj in the States of India 1994. Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi-110059.
Mathew, George (General Editor). 2000. Status of Panchayati Raj in the States of India 2000. Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi-110059. 
Mathew, George. 2013.  Panchayati Raj or Collector Raj? Article in the Times of India (15 April 2013.
Mehta, Asoka. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayati Raj Institutions. Government of India, New Delhi.
Raghunandan, T.R. (Ed.). 2012. Decentralisation and Local Governments. The Indian Experience. Essays from Economic and Political Weekly. Orient Blackswan Private Limited. Hyderabad.

Vyasulu, Poornima and Vinod Vyasulu. 1999. Women in Panchayati Raj. Grass Roots Democracy in Malgudi. Economic and Political Weekly 34 (52): pp.3677-86. Reprinted in T.R.Raghunandan (Ed.), 2012.

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