A fully functional, responsive grassroots-level system of self-governance is a sine qua non for an effective democracy. The NDA government is working towards making gram swaraj a reality by strengthening local self-governments since Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly believes that the three Ds — decentralisation, devolution and development — go hand in hand.
National Panchayati Raj Day is celebrated on April 24 every year as it was on this day that the panchayati raj system got constitutional recognition during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure as PM. Seeking to empower rural local bodies financially and politically, the 73rd constitutional amendment stipulated transferring 29 items to local bodies, setting up state election commissions and finance commissions to conduct elections and enhance resources for local bodies, reserving one-third seats for women and, in proportion to their population, for SCs and STs in all three tiers, apart from forming gram sabhas with people’s participation.
Even though it has been more than two decades since local bodies have been constitutionally empowered, the devolution of 29 subjects to panchayats is not satisfactory in many states. It appears that a majority of states are showing little interest in devolving power and funds to local bodies and are taking only half-hearted measures.
While states are seeking more powers and rightly so, they are not showing the same interest in devolving powers to local bodies along with the three Fs — funds, functions and functionaries.
With the country’s democratic structure operating at three levels — national, state, and panchayats and nagar palikas — democracy would be more meaningful and robust when people participate in running their own affairs. However, this can be achieved only when states fully empower rural local bodies in terms of devolution of funds, decentralisation of powers, and allow people to have a greater say in local area development.
Modi’s “Gram Uday Se Bharat Uday” programme underlines the importance of the concept: “Ram rajya would be incomplete without gram rajya”. The 73rd constitutional amendment gave effect to Article 40 of the Constitution, which is actually part of the directive principles. It states that the state shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.
While it is mandatory on the part of the states to implement some of the provisions, such as constituting a state finance commission every five years, fixing a tenure of five years for panchayats, holding indirect elections for the posts of chairperson of panchayats and intermediate and district levels, etc, certain others such as granting financial powers and authority to panchayats, reserving seats for backward classes fall in the voluntary domain of the states.
In a historic decision, reflecting the spirit of cooperative federalism, the Modi government has accepted, in toto, the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission for providing grants to the tune of Rs 2,00,292 crore between 2015 and 2020 to gram panchayats (GPs) directly, and also released the allocations to rural local bodies this year. It needs to be noted that the grants awarded by the NDA are three times higher than the earlier period, that is, between 2010 and 2015. The grants are only for GPs, unlike in the past when they were meant for all the three tiers, including district and block panchayats. The fund availability at the GP level would now be Rs 2,404 per capita over five years and Rs 17 lakh a year (Rs 85 lakh for five years) for the average GP. Based on the plans prepared by panchayats, the grant has to be spent on basic services, such as sanitation, drinking water and maintenance of community assets.
In addition to the funds received from the Centre and the states, the panchayats are also mandated by the 14th Finance Commission to generate their own resources. The commission had also observed that state governments are expected to take care of the needs of the taluk and zila panchayats, and it is incumbent upon the state governments to utilise the enhanced fiscal space made available to them by the 14th Finance Commission on account of higher devolution from 32 per cent to 42 per cent of the Centre’s net tax receipts.
Nearly 10 lakh engineers and technicians are being trained to help GPs prepare plans in many states, and as many as 300 clusters (each comprising up to 30 villages and 50,000 population) will be developed as “rurban” clusters.
In a study conducted by the ministry of panchayati raj in 2014-15 on the Panchayat Devolution Index, which looked at the devolution of powers to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) in terms of the three Fs, Kerala topped the list in all parameters except funds while Karnataka was best in transferring funds to PRIs. Though Sikkim did well in transferring functions, it was low on other parameters.
I personally feel that holding elections to local bodies every five years should be made mandatory and there should be no discretion or scope for the states to either postpone or advance them. The states on their part should understand the constitutional spirit and devolve the three Fs to the local bodies without exception. Also, the elected bodies should have supervisory powers to monitor and execute schemes. The funds allocated to local bodies should go into the accounts of panchayats, municipalities and corporations, and should be spent in accordance with the resolutions of the respective bodies, and not by other agencies like the jal board or develop-ment authorities.
By devolving administrative powers and substantial funds directly to panchayats, and also by discussing the proposals to bring amendments to increase reservation for women in panchayats to 50 per cent, from the existing 33 per cent, the NDA government has proved its zeal and commitment to usher in a responsive and meaningful self-governance at the grassroots level. The time has come for the states to do their bit in the true constitutional spirit.
The writer is Union minister for urban development, housing and urban poverty alleviation, and parliamentary affairs