Panchayati Raj is a village-level form of governance in which each community is accountable for its own operations. The early days of the new Panchayati Raj system in India were seen as the most hopeful for Panchayati Raj Institutions. In 1964-65, according to the report of the Ministry of Community Development, a new doctrine of younger leadership emerged to execute their job in the decision-making process of Panchayati Raj Institutions, and there was widespread satisfaction among the populace with the functioning nature of panchayats. After 1965, however, there was a decline in Panchayati Raj Institutions, while the majority of development programmes that supported PRIs’ functionaries were maintained.
The most important factor was that finances were cut, and the bureaucracy also attempted to diminish the influence of PRIs. This was continued until 1977. During the era of national emergency, bureaucracy dominated, and the significance of these institutions further diminished. Village panchayats were compelled to work subordinately to the government in order to accomplish its policies and programmes.
Part IX (‘The Panchayats’) is one of the Constitution’s longest and most comprehensive amendments since its adoption over seventy years ago. If implemented in word and spirit, the components could bring about a quiet revolution to drastically transform the outlook for grassroots development via grassroots democracy in rural India by granting authority to the rural people. Unfortunately, the outcomes on the ground have fallen well short of expectations. Gandhiji’s vision of Poorna Swarajya remains a remote dream.
In an organisational structure, rules and procedures are strictly adhered to; this is called as bureaucratic system. A bureaucracy is characterised by an intricate administrative system operated by personnel who have no personal stakes in the functioning of the system. There are elaborate regulations, extensive controls, a rigorous structure, and highly specialised duties carried out by professionals in bureaucracy. Managers at the lower and intermediate levels are impersonal rule-followers. As long as they follow the rules and do not rock the boat, system employees enjoy job security. As each individual attempts to defend himself from several others at multiple levels of the system, managerial action is sluggish and paper work is tedious. Typically, the expression of individuality and promotion of innovation is repressed in a bureaucracy.
However, this repressed individuality and promotion of innovation in bureaucracy needs to be revamped for the growth of the Panchayat Samitis. The growth will highlight the need for a new connection between the rural administration and non-official institutional leadership at the Block level. The latter’s relationship with the developmental administrative machinery has an impact not only on the block’s programmatic success, but also on the efficiency and morale of rural public officials.
The most important thing about Panchayat Samiti is that the block it takes over becomes an “instrument of the welfare state in action” and the basic area unit of the Integrated Community Development programme, with a team of experts led by the Block Development Officer (BDO). Second, the block emerges as a general administrative unit underneath the sub-division. A bottom-up approach stresses how important it is for the local community to be involved in development projects so that they can choose their own goals and methods of attaining them. By the working and organisational structure it can be construed that Panchayat Samiti is organised according to the “escalator model/ bottom-up approach.”
Article 243G stipulates that Panchayats must be “legally empowered” to serve as an “institution of self-government.” However, in the majority of states, devolution and decentralisation are accomplished by executive orders issued according to the legislation rather than “by law”. Article 243G defines the two primary tasks of panchayats at each level as “(a) the creation of plans for economic development and social justice; (b) the execution of schemes for economic growth and social justice.” Unless panchayats engage in planning and execution, they will not serve their intended function. Article 243G stipulates that such planning and execution will be “subject to such restrictions” as may be specified by law. The primary job of panchayats, however, is planning and execution. Yet, in the majority of states, panchayats do not engage in planning, and execution has been limited to a nexus between the contractor, the chairman of the panchayat, and line department officials.
Problems resulting from bureaucratic apathy
In PRIs, a lack of political will and an obstructionist bureaucracy are seen as the major obstacles to the devolution of powers to local organisations. The performance of PRIs in an environment controlled by bureaucrats is a direct attack on the principle of local government.
The relationship between the representatives of the Panchayat and the bureaucrats as members of the development trusts has been one of estrangement and antagonism, since the former consider that the latter have seized their powers.
Due to the proximity of a statutory representative authority to the block, the officials remain under-supervised and remotely-controlled and this in turn encourages a certain indifference to the welfare project, bureaucratic corruption, and official arrogance at the block level.
The educated, urbanised, and comparatively less free-wheeling bureaucrats, both technical and non-technical, at the upper and lower levels of administration often disparage the incompetence of the public representatives, who are perceived as being inadequately educated, unsophisticated, and narrow-minded in their attitude and viewpoint. They continue to feel a “paternalistic commitment” to determine and do what is best for the community.
In addition, instead of fulfilling their mandated function as “promoter and sometimes corrector” of Panchayati Raj institutions, top officials have often developed an indifferent attitude towards them. This is amply represented in the cavalier way in which they attend Samiti meetings and the thoughtless manner in which they execute Samiti decisions. Recently, Panchs in tandem with Assistant Commissioner Development put forward a “no confidence” motion against the Sarpanch for conducting his duties. This motion was accepted by later. Subsequently, the High court of Jammu & Kashmir found it to be not in compliance with the law and in conflict with law and established procedure. In the lack of sufficient direction and oversight, extension officials have established a practice of working little and often choose sides in the political game between the BDO and the President of the Samiti.
Bureaucrats may not always extend common social courtesies to those who are genuinely entitled to it. The authorities forget that they protect the interests of the public. This attitude annoys the populace, causing them to lose interest in village matters.
Need for a shift in the bureaucracy’s outlook
To guarantee that the government is decentralised and follows a bottom-up methodology, the PRIs were given a constitutional basis. However, the PRIs have not yet been able to achieve this capability. Even though these institutions operate as agents for implementing government initiatives involving health, employment, and poverty alleviation, etc., the bureaucracy binds their hands.
Owing to their inaccessibility, strict adherence to rules, regulations, and procedures, and high-handed approach stemming from their misunderstanding of being “big bosses” and “mai-baap,” which is out of place in a democratic and free society, the bureaucracy has alienated the people. Therefore, bureaucrats must modify their views toward the public to reflect that they are “public servants, friends, and guides of the public”, who are readily available, helpful, and empathetic. This will increase interest and participation in the Panchayati Raj Institution.
In the majority of states, panchayat corruption at all levels has grown prevalent since chairpersons are not accountable to the panchayats’ committees or general body. In association with the bureaucracy, chairpersons have a tendency to usurp the duties that belong to the whole panchayat. It is vital to form standing and ad hoc committees of the panchayats at each level so that ideas are vetted by these committees and then presented to the panchayat’s general assembly for approval prior to, during, and after the execution of works.
Although Article 243H (a) allows panchayats to “appropriate” the earnings of taxes, etc., collected by them into their own finances, only few governments seem to have encouraged this beneficial method for panchayats to generate their own resources. A recent report by Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) finds that Jharkhand’s panchayats don’t have the tools they need to make their own money. The average gram panchayat doesn’t collect any taxes and doesn’t use the value of public resources to bring in money.
The association of people’s representatives with the rural bureaucracy at the block level is a relatively novel experiment in local government and public administration intended to integrate the governmental process of efficient, coordinated administrative action with the democratic process of enlisting participation of citizens in the ‘self-helping’ programme of change at the regional level.
The initial tendencies of the pattern of relationship between non-officials and rural civil servants that has developed over time at the block level are neither conducive to the sound growth of local authority intended to quicken the pace of rural development programmes nor to the morale of the civil servants.
The establishment of a network of institutional training centres for educating and orienting officials and non-officials in their commitments as adjacent role-players in rural development efforts, as well as for proper attitude-building, is an area that requires renewed and increased attention if Panchayati Raj is to march in tandem with the administrative developmental methodology as a vehicle for socio-economic change and political development.
- An episode from ‘The Seen and Unseen’ podcast which discusses, among many other things, how rural self-governments can play a more instrumental role in public health.
- Ashok Pankaj’s review of Integrating the Third Tier in the Indian Federal System: Two Decades of Rural Local Governance by Atul Sarma and Debabani Chakravarty.