Cui Bono: Panchayati Raj System and the Structures of Power

At the core of a democracy is the idea that a person has the opportunity to represent her fellow citizens and exercise power on their behalf.

File photo of women attending a gram sabha meeting in Dungarpur district, Rajasthan. Credit: UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

File photo of women attending a gram sabha meeting in Dungarpur district, Rajasthan. Credit: UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Modi government’s budget this year allocated an amount of Rs. 2.78 lakh crore for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, which translates to Rs. 80 lakh per gram panchayat, Rs. 21 crore per local urban body and Rs 2.87 lakh crores to local government bodies.

The finance minister called this a “quantum jump of 228% compared to the previous five-year period…capable of transforming villages and small towns”.

Before we celebrate this “transformation” in the offing, let’s take a look at the democratic journey that independent India has made, and examine the basic constructs of power and the way it is exercised in our country.

Power structures and the elite

At the core of a representative democracy is the idea that a person has the opportunity to represent her fellow citizens and exercise power on their behalf, irrespective of gender, income or social status. The reality, of course, is that in democracies across the world, political representation has been restricted mostly to those who belonged to the traditional elite or those who leveraged their ownership of land, assets, class, gender, and in the case of India, caste to their advantage. This essentially meant that the upper caste male largely benefitted from and controlled power in our country.

Until 1992.

In that year, the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India, popularly known as the Panchayati Raj bill, was passed to improve the delivery of public goods by bringing decision-making closer to the people and Constitutionally empowering local village leaders. In what can only be termed a radical move for the empowerment of women and backward communities, the legislation also ensured that 33% of the sarpanch/pradhan seats were reserved for women, and that seats were also reserved for scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) in proportion to their population.

Devolution of power

As crores of rupees are spent at the panchayat level for improving the delivery of government schemes and programmes, this amendment really stood for the devolution of power and changing the existing social structures to an extent, by putting some government funds and their use in the hands of people who were part of what were called the ‘weaker’ sections of society – women and those from the SC/ST communities. This legislative change prevented historically powerful groups from continuing their hold over political, economic and social resources while allowing a vast number of people who would ordinarily never have become elected representatives, an opportunity to do so.

According to the ministry, the panchayati raj institutional network has three million elected representatives who manage the local bodies, and are involved in planning economic and social justice. Since, the law required that a third of this number include women and members of the backward communities, and these seats are reserved on a rotational basis, it would be safe to assume that since the amendment to the Constitution came into force 24 years ago, at least a million women and SC/ST citizens have had the opportunity to serve their local community, creating what could probably be the largest number of first time elected representatives (FTERs) in the electoral history of India, if not the world.

While the actual number of FTERs created by this amendment would require deeper research, it would be fair to say that it would have had some far reaching consequences. Not merely because experience in electoral office should have ideally created a pipeline of diverse people who have gained representational experience and can combine it with their knowledge of local issues to potentially better represent the 4676 political posts in legislative bodies and even parliament, but also because it provides them the opportunity to represent their community and take significant decisions that have large socio-economic localised outcomes.

Also read: In a Democracy, Education Certificates Shouldn’t Matter. So Why is No One Talking about Norti Bai?

Women in the system

Even if we take cognisance of the oft repeated criticism that in a number of cases the panchayats are being run by the infamous sarpanch patis (husbands of women sarpanchs) who field their wives as candidates as a front, there is a body of research to prove that eventually these women are able to influence the delivery of public services, especially those that address the needs of women in the community. More importantly, for the women and members of the SC/ST communities who actually function effectively as panchs, there is a lot to be said for what this experience of holding office means to them as individuals, as they take decisions and help the community address the basic issues affecting women and society as a whole.

Take the recently reported case of illiterate Ashubi Khan who, as the chief of Haryana’s first all-women panchayat in 2005, fought a number of battles, from water shortage to female foeticide, along with her then nine women panchs. According to locals, one of Ashubi and her team’s biggest achievements was upgrading the primary school into a secondary school. Thus, when Rajasthan – the state which ironically proclaims that it was a pioneer in adopting the panchayati raj system – and Haryana decide to introduce education, functioning toilets and other restrictive criterion as preconditions for elections, they deny Ashubi and her colleagues a chance to stand for elections and upend one of the most fundamental ideas behind the Panchayati Raj bill – the need for changing the traditional power structures and transforming lives at the grass-root level.

The results of panchayat elections held in Rajasthan post its decision to impose discriminatory electoral criterion indicate a worrying trend as results show that two hundred and sixty sarpanchs were elected unopposed last year, as compared to 35 in 2010. Surely an increase of seven times in the number of unopposed elections should worry a democracy whose founding fathers did not deem it fit to fix education as a criterion in 1951 when the Representation of People’s Act was passed.

Who is benefiting

It should worry us all that when the Modi government announces substantially higher allocation of funds to the panchayati raj ministry, this additional funding, counter-intuitively, may well be less than ‘transformative’ in some cases in states like Rajasthan and Haryana, where election criterion have taken away the ability to contest panchayat elections from over 50% women, 60% Dalits and 43% of the general population. If anything, additional funding could negate the very spirit behind one of the core ideas of the Panchayati Raj bill, as it might end up putting more money and, therefore decision-making, in the hands of the traditional elite of society, virtually perpetuating an age old power structure and social hierarchy.

Even though the courts have decided in favour of the new criterion, if we don’t question this ‘unintended’ consequence of the amendments to the state Panchayati Raj Acts, and if more states follow Rajasthan’s ‘pioneering’ idea of restrictive election criterion, then while we celebrate grassroots democracy via the panchayati raj system, the question that will need answering is – who benefits from it at the end?