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Panchayats have been the backbone of the Indian villages since the beginning of recorded history. Gandhiji, the father of the nation, in 1946 had aptly remarked that the Indian Independence must begin at the bottom and every village ought to be a Republic or Panchayat having powers. Gandhiji’s dream has been translated into reality with the introduction of the three-tier Panchayati Raj system to ensure people’s participation in rural reconstruction.
Evaluating the Panchayati Raj Institutions:
- PRIs has witnessed simultaneously a remarkable success and a staggering failure in the journey of 26 years depending on the goalposts against which they are evaluated.
- While the PRI has succeeded in creating another layer of government and political representation at the grass-roots level, it has failed to provide better governance.
- There are about 250,000 PRIs and urban local bodies, and over three million elected local government representatives.
- The 73rd and 74th Amendments required that no less than one-third of the total seats in local bodies should be reserved for women. At 1.4 million, India has the most women in elected positions. Seats and sarpanch/pradhan positions were also reserved for SC/ST candidates.
- Research using PRIs has shown that having female political representation in local governments makes women more likely to come forward and report crimes.
In districts with female sarpanchs, significantly greater investments are made in drinking water, public goods.
- Moreover, the states have also provided the statutory safeguards for many devolution provisions, which have considerably empowered local governments.
- Successive (central) Finance Commissions have, so substantially, increased fund allocations for local bodies and also the grants have been increased.
Issues related to the Panchyati Raj Institution:
- Unscientific distribution of functions: The Panchayati Raj scheme is defective in so far as the distribution of functions between the structures at different levels has not been made along scientific lines. The blending of development and local self-government functions has significantly curtailed the autonomy of the local self-government institutions. Again it has virtually converted them into governmental agencies. Even the functions assigned to the Panchayat and the Panchayat Samiti overlap, leading to confusion, duplication of efforts and shifting of responsibility.
- Inadequate finances: The inadequacy of funds has also stood in the way of successful working of the Panchayati Raj. The Panchayati Raj bodies have limited powers in respect of imposing cesses and taxes. They have very little funds doled out to them by the State Government. Further, they are generally reluctant to raise necessary funds due to the fear of losing popularity with the masses.
- Politicization of PRIs: It is being increasingly noticed that the Panchayati Raj Institutions are viewed only as organisational arms of political parties, especially of the ruling party in the state. The State Government, in most states, allows the Panchayati Raj Institutions to function only upon expediency rather than any commitment to the philosophy of democratic decentralisation.
- Undemocratic composition of various Panchayati Raj institutions: Various Panchayati Raj Institutions are constituted setting aside democratic norms and principles. The indirect election of most of the members to Panchayat Samiti only increases the possibility of corruption and bribery. Even the ZilaParishad consists of mainly ex-officio members. They are, for the most part, government officials. This negates sound democratic principles.
Suggestions for the improvement of PRIs:
- The Centre should play an enabling role, for instance, encouraging knowledge-sharing between States.
- For States to play a bigger role in human capital interventions, they need adequate fiscal resources.
- To this end, States should rationalise their priorities to focus on human capital development.
- The Centre should refrain from offsetting tax devolution by altering cost-sharing ratios of CSSs and increasing cesses.
- Concomitantly, the heavy reliance on CSSs should be reduced, and tax devolution and grants-in-aid should be the primary sources of vertical fiscal transfers.
Panchayats and municipalities need to be vested with the functions listed in the Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules.