Tuesday, April 14, 2015

17 Parallel community organisations and the panchayat. Decentralized governance and forests in India-IV.

Perhaps the most vitriolic disapproval on the part of panchayati raj institution (PRI) ‘fundamentalists’ is reserved for the proliferation of ‘parallel bodies’ that work in the line departments and not under the PRIs. Many departments and externally-aided projects have spawned such committees and ‘special purpose vehicles’. For instance, Mathew (2000, p.16), feels that central ministries and state line departments by-pass the panchayati raj institutions through the creation of registered societies. If at all the sectoral line departments allocate funds to the gram panchayats, they do so as “tied grants”. Schemes mentioned as culprits in this regard include the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Watershed Development Programme, Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC), District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), the Janmabhoomi programme in Andhra Pradesh “which has come as a big blow to the panchayats”, and according to a study by the NIRD Hyderabad “has sidetracked the Panchayati Raj institutions and other local bodies by maintaining parallel systems of administration by according more importance to MLAs and other politicians”; the “District Government” setup in Madhya Pradesh consisting of the minister, collector, MLAs, MPs, ZP representatives, which makes the collector de facto the chief executive of the district, under the guise of setting up the District Planning Committee under the Panchayat Act. Similarly, the author finds the MPLAD Scheme, whereby each MP gets a discretionary fund to be spent on public works through the District Collector, “an ‘assault’ on the letter and spirit of the 73rd Constitution Amendment”, inasmuch as the list of 23 items of work that can be taken up with these funds, are from the 29 subjects earmarked for the Panchayats under the 11th Schedule. Now states are providing similar funds to their MLAs, and “dangerously enough, several municipalities have started similar schemes for Councillors…This is a dangerous portent and also a deplorable inroad into the domain of local bodies” (Mathew, op. cit., p.18).

This position is expanded forcefully by Chandrashekhar (2011), who cites studies to show that these agencies are nothing but a ploy to continue the hegemony of the official departments: according to her, there is “a certain amount of deception” in this sort of decentralisation in parallel fora, and as these parallel bodies “are expected to move centre-stage and be mainstreamed”, they will in time displace both the PRIs and the very line departments that have given birth to them, something that “does not augur well for a country like India which is characterized by wide disparities and inequalities” (Chandrashekhar, 2011, p.196). The author feels that such modes of participation are geared to immediate benefits, and in the example of a watershed project, terms it a “lackadaisical form of participation”, or a “utilitarian” approach which is unable to “capture the imagination of the people” (in contrast to the Gandhian mode, which is based on sacrifice by the leader and is able to inspire the people to great effort). Similar observations apply to most of the other departments and the societies and community-based organisations (CBOs) set up by them. Chandrashekhar is emphatic that all activities in the 29 subjects earmarked for PRIs should be brought before only the elected bodies, and not any alternative formation such as the Gram Sabha (general assembly), which is only a ploy to circumvent the elected bodies. This point about parallel bodies has been made by many observers.

Ground experience of panchayati raj

Coming back to the experience of establishing the rule of panchayati raj institutions (PRI) so far, we sense a certain inadequacy in reviews like the ones by the Institute of Social Sciences (Mathew, op. cit.), since they do not seem to tell us much about what actually has transpired in the working out on the ground of the PRI legislation, such as an objective analysis of how many of the panchayats could be considered to be working well, how many poorly, and how many are middling (as has been done in the searching studies and periodic assessments of the Village Forest Committees in the country, which will be discussed a little later). An interesting portrayal of the ground reality is given in Gopalappa’s paper in the conference proceedings “The Role of Panchayats and Bureaucracy in Rural Development” (Joseph, 2007), reflecting his interview-based study in three dissimilar districts of Karnataka, namely Mandya, Gulbarga and Dakshina Kannada (South Canara).

In Mandya in southern Karnataka, Gopalappa’ found that the elected members “by and large are ignorant, illiterate and poor”, and the panchayat is dominated by the secretary (a full-time official). Where the president is well off, his decisions are final, and if he is “non-corrupt”, good work is done. If the members are also “strong”, matters end up in court and development suffers (i.e. there are disputes and disputations). In northern Karnataka, the author found that “neither the elected representatives nor the officials take much interest”, and the dominant members take control. Caste and other factors are influential.  In Gulbarga district (relatively more backward and dry), there are “extreme cases … where the entire GP is controlled by a single family”. This is the case even of an all-woman panchayat cited by him. In this “extreme situation”, the officials are neglected and behave like “obedient servants” of the dominant family.

In Dakshina Kannada (a prosperous and forward coastal district in the southwest), things were better, and “the members, office bearers and the officials work collectively for the overall development of the community”, and often put in their own money into the development works.  Even here, though, the SC and ST members “do not have any say in the panchayat matters as most of them are casual labourers” (even after becoming members of the GP). In one instance, “The woman president of the ST category is controlled by a dominant member belong (sic.) to Vokkaliga community”, as she works as a labourer in his gardens. Except for this, Gopalappa found that PRIs in the Dakshina Kannada district are doing better compared to the other two, and their panchayat members have “service motive rather than profit motive”, while it is the opposite in Mandya and Gulbarga districts.

In going through reports of the ground reality in the context  of the pessimistic assessment of prominent PRI protagonists (quoted earlier), one aspect that causes concern is the assumption that somehow when it comes to the panchayat institutions, people will take them as their own, and bring to bear the level of “skill, honesty and will” that are so woefully lacking in other spheres, until the State itself can comfortably “wither away” (S.K. Dey, from the Asoka Mehta report on Panchayati Raj, 1977). This anticipation, which seems to echo one of the most ardent (though unrealistic) aspirations of Marxist ideology, creates such a powerful picture of an idyllic state of human affairs, that it can be employed as a cover-all for all sorts of impractical ideas. Most factual accounts from the field would, no doubt, corroborate Gopalappa’s findings about the persistence of unequal and feudal relations among the castes and sections of rural society. In reality, it is puzzling why anyone should believe that out of the feudal and casteist ground, an egalitarian and benign structure should automatically arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

A ground-level view of what panchayats are in reality (which everyone is aware of, but no one wants to comment on because PRIs are something of a holy grail in India today), is afforded by another George, Abraham S. in his book “India Untouched”, 2004. Let me quote just a couple of passages out of many pages on this subject (p.145-6):

“Of all the corrupt practices, the biggest obstacle our foundation faces in its daily work with the rural communities is having to deal with Panchayat officials and some of the village thugs. They work in unison, with Panchayat governance offering the cover for their attempts to extract money from us on some pretext or the other. In the name of self governance and delegation of power to local officials, the government has created a monster bureaucracy of unimaginable proportions throughout rural India – layers of officials with powers to do little other than carry out extortion, take bribes, misuse funds, and dish out favours.”

A little later, he explains that

“even well-meaning government officials are unwilling to stop the activities of troublemakers for fear that they might  write false petitions to politicians…For NGOs like us, courts may be our only protection,  but there is no assurance of a prompt remedy. The system is so badly broken that only a good government with some courage can fix it. In the meantime, the way to help the poor is to “help” the rich first.”

An underlying contradiction seems to persist in the attitude toward elected representatives. For example, Mathew in his support for indirect elections “in consonance with the cabinet system of government”, does not seem to find any irony in this formulation, which may seem to an uncharitable observer to be taking away with the other hand what it gives with the one hand. Again, in rejecting the idea of giving elected MPs and MLAs  a presence in the panchayats, he fails to see any irony in his mistrust of elected representatives at a higher level and reposing of the same faith in equally or less directly representative members at the local level.

Some of the most commonly cited issues in the implementation of panchayati raj are the infrequency of elections (which was addressed by setting up independent State Election Commissions), the limited amount of funds available to the lower levels (requiring the establishment of separate State Finance Commissions), the lack of independent staff and official cadres loyal to the PRI system (rather than to the state governments), and the role of money and nepotism in elections (which makes it difficult for honest and well-meaning persons to enter into the fray). While these analyses are unobjectionable, and their prescriptions are well-meant in a generalised way, it is ironical that the very system which is expected to take the country forward is unable to manage itself, and we ultimately have to fall back upon the old pattern of a centralised and distant executive in the form of an Election Commission and a Finance Commission to keep the system ticking.

In other words, it appears that in critical situations, the decentralised pattern does not deliver as effectively as the professionalized but distant and unattached institutions (the State Commissions). Once again, the irony in passing judgement against the latter is lost on the social-political reformer, for instance that “the systems of government-elected politicians, professional bureaucrats and the variegated apparatus built around them, has failed…” (Mishra, 2004, quoted by Joseph, 2007, p.xxvi), while at the same time depending on just such a system to establish the new order, and even asking for a similar set-up in order to strengthen and make operational the district and village panchayats.

In reality, of course, neither are people’s organisations (and lately, civil society organisations and private sector corporations) so uniformly virtuous as made out in recent popular writings, and destined to prevail over all else, nor are all our other, state-run institutions so uniformly bad as to be doomed to extinction (and of course, vice-versa). Any realistic system of decentralisation would have to take into account all the foibles and weaknesses of human nature as individuals and as members of groups, and provide for training, vigilance, and other preventives, palliatives and correctives, rather than falling back upon a black-and-white view of society as consisting of the people in government being uniformly bad, and the persons outside government as universally virtuous.

Nor can we justifiably see panchayati raj as a stepping stone to a state-less society: what we should be expecting, in fact, is the reverse, the conversion of panchayats into organs of the larger state, an importation of all the aspects, good and bad, of large organisations and bureaucracies down to the village panchayat level. But we accept the negative aspects as a justifiable risk in the hope that the people at the receiving end may come to have a greater say on how things are run, and a greater control over their own lives. We will not be able to escape or circumvent the obligation to work on the details of our systems, such as they are, to make them more rational, more responsive and responsible, and less arbitrary, less dishonest and self-serving, and we may as well start with the politician-bureaucrat combine at the state and district levels, and carry over the better values and systems into the lower tier panchayat set-up.

Institutions of 'little government'

While PRI purists insist that the PRIs are the only legitimate body that should operate in the districts, others, like the line departments of the state governments and the public sector or quasi-statal corporations and boards, are continually being entrusted responsibilities to implement various schemes and programmes, apart from maintaining the basic law and order in the countryside and safeguarding the physical integrity of the resource. This is especially true of the forest department, which is the primary custodian  of some 25% of the land area of the country, much of it remote from centres of population and rich in biodiversity, timber, minerals and of course land and water resources.

It is all the more intriguing, therefore, that PRI protagonists are still dreaming of a structureless polity, while operating through the central government and especially its centres of top-down power to impose their model. Similarly, ‘social environmentalists’ also think that the only hope for conserving the environment and natural resources (like forests, common lands, water resources) is through the autarchic village republics, which will be imposed by fiat from the centre. There is a close parallel in this ambivalence between grass-roots empowerment and imposition from above of environmental values of their choosing, and the ambiguity in Gandhian thought on the relative merits of grass-roots, bottom-up democracy and top-down, centralised national governance structures. Perhaps the only thing that we can say about these dichotomies is that they are more in the mind (of the polemicist) rather than out there among the general public, and that the essence of the democratic idea (which the people who vote in elections doubtless understand) is not so much that it is an ideal system, to be run by ideal humans, but that it is amenable to constant course correction and modification as influenced by personages and experiences. As Fukuyama (2011, p.188) says, “The experiences of China and India suggest then that a better form of freedom emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centres of power that are better able to balance and offset each other over time”. 

Everybody loves a good draught, as observed by Sainath (1996), and perhaps the same is the case with local self-governance, or ‘little government’, whose importance in the US system has been described and analysed at length, for instance in the volume of readings edited by Erwin C. Buell and William E.Brigman (1968), The Grass Roots. Readings in State and Local Government. In introducing their chapter on Local Government, the editors comment (p.393) that:

“Faith in local government is an outgrowth of the frontier concept of democracy. The frontier, or Jacksonian, concept of democracy contained many values that still have vitality. The belief that small, local government is better than distant, big government still possesses propaganda value. Direct election of nearly all decision makers is preferred to any form of indirect selection on the assumption that officeholders will be more responsible and honest if directly elected. ...most Americans probably believe that rural government is more effective, efficient, and honest than its urban counterpart.”

However, that is only the ideal; the reality is a little different, according to Roscoe C. Martin, who “challenges these stereotypes of local government” in his paper “The Physiology of Little Government” in the volume (op. cit., pp.395-400). Martin contends that “even in the rural areas where grass roots concepts should be most viable they are invalid. The government closest to the people is not necessarily the best government: it may be the most biased, inefficient, and corrupt government” (ibid., p.393). In Martin’s words (p.399):

“Little government, being personal, intimate, and informal, is supposed by some to be free of politics. In simple truth, no concept concerning local government has less merit… politics is found wherever people debate issues of public import. Grass-roots politics frequently involves little of public policy; on the contrary, it may be largely of a personal character, and it may indeed be cast in terms of personal loyalty … The smaller the unit or area is, the closer the government is to the grass roots, the less meaningful is the distinction between politics, government, and administration. ...Grass-roots government is therefore pre-eminently the domain of the generalist, big government that of the specialist… The differentiations in process common in big government are hardly known at the grass roots.”

This pattern is expected to obtain in the Indian scenario too, as in any other country, and it is well that we are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of either alternative, and indeed of any others, so that our expectations are tempered to match the potentialities, and we are not left with the sense of almost obligatory disappointment with the pace of progress and public support of ‘little’ government that characterizes the writing of many PRI protagonists.  

In the next section, we will hear some views of actual villagers in three states of the Indian union.


Chandrashekhar, Lalita. 2011. Undermining Local Democracy. Parallel Governance in Contemporary South India. Routledge.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2011. The Origins of Political Order. Profile Books Ltd, London.
George, Abraham S. 2004. India Untouched: the Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty. East West Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd., Chennai.
Gopalappa, D.V. 2007. The role of panchayats and bureaucracy in rural development. In Joseph (2007, ed.).
Government of India. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayat Raj Institutions 1977-78. New Delhi.
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.
Martin, Roscoe C. 1968. The Physiology of Little Government. pp.395-400 in the volume by Buell, Erwin C. and William E.Brigman (eds.). The Grass Roots. Readings in State and Local Government. Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois.
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.
Mehta, Asoka. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayati Raj Institutions. Government of India, New Delhi.

Sainath, P. 1996.  Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Penguin Books, New Delhi.

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