31 Jul 2022  |   06:26am IST

Has the true spirit of local self governance lost its purpose?

The 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, 1992 enjoin upon the states to establish a three-tier system of panchayats at the village, intermediate and district levels and municipalities in the urban areas respectively. States are expected to devolve adequate powers, responsibilities and finances upon these bodies so as to enable them to prepare plans and implement schemes for economic development and social justice. As we are on the verge of deciding who would be next panchas and sarpanchas in about 186 village panchayats all over Goa, SUJAY GUPTA in the Herald TV debate point-counterpoint assesses whether after all these years, the true spirit of the 73rd amendment has been upheld or not.
Has the true spirit of local self governance lost its purpose?

Local Self-Government is the third stratum of Government, the first two being the Central and the State Governments. Presently, rural self government viz Panchayati Raj system is working in accordance with the 73d Constitutional Amendment Act and Urban Self Government i.e., Municipal Bodies is working in accordance with the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. 

Though the Panchayati Raj institutions have been in existence for a long time, it has been observed that these institutions have not been able to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people's bodies due to a number of reasons including absence of regular elections, prolonged supersession, insufficient representation of weaker sections like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women, inadequate devolution of powers and lack of financial resources. 

This situation is clearly evident in Goa, where the government made repeated efforts to delay the constitutionally mandated Village Panchayat elections allegedly to maintain its control over local bodies, the judiciary has forced the administration to change its track.

The question that needs to be answered is have we have achieved the fundamentals of the local self governance as envisaged in the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act or this entire exercise electing panchas has ultimately become stepping stones for their political future?

Soter D’Souza, columnist and former panchayat member said, “As a young person of 15-16 years, I remember only our panchayat in Goa had an indoor badminton court and table tennis facility. Everything was given by then chief minister Dyanand Bandodkar and during the monsoons this was the place where everyone used to come for the State-level tournaments. Whatever indoor sports stadiums we see now have come up later.”

 “I saw how that politics crumbled and the dirty politics slowly crept in somewhere in the late 80s to the 90s. Before that the sarpanchas and even the panchayat secretaries, the talathis were always available. You could go up to them and talk to them. There was never any ego amongst the panchas and sarpanchas unlike now,” he said. 

Seeing the total hostility towards federalism, he felt panchayats are under a threat. 

“When the State government itself is not being respected, I don't see how the panchayats are going to be respected,” he said. 

Mohandas Lolienkar, a long serving sarpanch, said, “In allocating house numbers to people in panchayat areas, there is lot of scope for corruption. All want house numbers. But this is not easy since one has to go to the Town and Country Planning, deputy collector for sanads and other formalities. So nearly everybody goes for illegal construction. The Sarpanchas and panchas encourage illegal construction. But in the process, the government and panchayat loses revenue.” 

The whole self governance system has been hijacked by politicians. But the point is weren't there enough safeguards in the 73rd amendment against something like this happening and didn’t we see that this could happen? 

Kalanand Mani, Secretary, Peaceful Society said the rural India is still not finding space in urban India and this struggle or this dominance of urban India or industrial India is going on for last hundred plus years. 

“I remember that in 1919 the British were preparing the set of laws for Indians with the view to give some space for India to take part in their governance. At that time the Indian National Congress was demanding village panchayats in India along with the municipalities,” Mani said.

Viceroy Lord Ripon brought the whole concept of local self governance in India in 1882. Thereafter the biggest legal reforms took place in 1935 and even at that time nearly 83 percent of India was not recognised by the people who were designing the power for India. 

“Thereafter we had our own time for visualising, drafting and confirming the Constitution for India. We are celebrating 75 years of independence and the issue before that whether our villages are really independent in that sense. Because when the Constitution was being drafted, there was no debate about how we are going to ensure the participation of nearly 83 percent of India in the affairs of the governance of this country,” he said.

Somewhere in mid-January 1948, speaking to a journalist, Mahatma Gandhi said he was not going to accept any Constitution which does not give the maximum power to the village panchayats. 

For him, a village panchayat was not the village of that time which was dominated by the caste hierarchy and the class hierarchy. His concept of a village was very different, liberal, equal, based on all forms of equality. 

“Unfortunately people did not devote time to understand what Gandhiji was saying about the village, what's saying about the governance and why the participation of the village community was required to shape the democratic character and culture of this country,” Mani said.

It took nearly 35 years, four or five commissions to reach out to the 73rd amendment. It was realised that the money which came from the top, was not reaching the bottom. 

“The money should travel from down to top, not from top to down. When money travels from top to down the evils also travel from top to down. When money travels from bottom to up then aspirations of people also travels from bottom to top. So, that was the classic character of the panchayat envisaged by Gandhiji and then later on supported by Jaiprakash Narayan, which never happened,” the Secretary, Peaceful Society said. 

The 73rd and 74th amendment created a new hope that the village republic or village democracy may come into practice after 35 years of drafting the Indian constitution. But it was not to be. 

“The state is not ready to share the power, share the responsibility and recognise the village community as a responsible community for this country and therefore they keep on imposing their policies on the village economy. 

“Therefore they kept on grabbing the space of the village democracy in this country and therefore the slogan of the 73rd amendment which was ‘power to the powerless’, is totally defeated now,” he said.

Since the state is not willing to share power, has devolution of political and financial power happened the way it was envisaged? 

“No real devolution of power has happened. Consultative powers have been given to the panchayat. But financial powers are kept with the minister. There is parallel governance going on. On all the 29 powers, the Sarpanch has to go the Director of a particular department, who is controlled by the minister. That’s not devolution,” Soter D’Souza said.

According to Mohandas Lolienkar, no Finance Commission recommendations have been accepted by the State Government in Goa. So no finances are distributed to the panchayats as per recommendations of the Finance commission. 

“Without finances, the panchayat is handicapped. Earlier the Octroi collection was done by panchayats. This was stopped by then Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. Our Loliem Panchayat was self sufficient and we were getting enough funds from VAT on petroleum products. Manohar Parrikar stopped this and diverted the funds to the state treasury and said the money would then be distributed. He was distributing the money has per his wish,” he said.

So panchayats are handicapped and at the mercy of the Minister or the MLA.

“Now the regime has changed to GST. The state has said it would compensate panchayats with VAT, but so far it has not happened,” he added.

Former South Goa MP and Former South Goa MP and Commissioner for NRI Affairs, Government of Goa Narendra Sawaikar said that the 73rd amendment enacted in the Constitution, has been implemented in its letter and spirit throughout the country. 

“So far as Goa is concerned, there is one if there are 191 panchayats which are in Goa and all those panchayats, barring some few of them, are going to polls right now. The candidates who are contesting the elections are from various stratas of the society. In spite of that, considering the fact that they have a popular vote base in their particular ward they have been contesting the elections. 

“So in my opinion, the 73rd amendment, except for some issues, the whole idea of the amendment was to have a people's participation at a grassroots level and in fact we have been seeing it right now,” Sawaikar said.

However, rather than the choice of leadership coming completely from the people, what has been increasingly seen now over the years is that ultimately MLAs are fielding panels, they are fielding panchas to contest polls.

They are having a great say over who becomes the sarpanch. The money is also flowing in from particular MLAs and ministers. Now the issue is when that happens, then the side effect of this is that it encourages corruption. Is that correct?

According to Sawaikar, in all the panchayats those who are contesting the elections in every ward, irrespective of whether the pancha the local MLA or the minister whosoever is supporting him or not, people have their own choices. “There are people who are ardent supporters of the local MLA but at the same time they are contesting the elections. They go to the people because they have their own voter base down the line. That's the beauty of this democracy,” Sawaikar said.

Responding to this, Lolienkar said that the 73rd amendment entailed that the Finance Commission would be responsible for providing funds. It gave power to the people, panchas and sarpanchas. 

“Now it is reversed. The self-sufficient panchayats have their powers taken away and the problem is that without financial powers the panchayats are handicapped. Everywhere you will find MLAs and government interference,” he said.

In the 73rd amendment, when grassroots development was envisaged, one of the powers that were supposed to be given to all the panchayats was also financial independence, where the money would flow in such a way that people at the would have power to decide on their budgets and finances and so on and so forth. To what extent has that been achieved? 

“It's in fact in a reverse order. Before the 73rd amendment the panchayat had wider options to decide about the taxation. Growingly, the options about deciding the taxation have become so limited and the panchayat is largely compelled to depend on the state and the Centre’s schemes,” Mani said.

When for financial reasons you are depending on some other system, then you also compromise with the freedom which one particular system should have. 

“Today we see that the panchayat is a system of not of the gram sabha or the people of the panchayat. It is a system of implementing only the government schemes. Since the flow of government schemes and the flow of big projects have come into the panchayat areas, the quality of the governance and quality of the panchayat has also deteriorated a lot,” he said.

What was the main mandate of the 73rd amendment? The first amendment was to have an election every five years and that is being compromised by the state government. The second amendment was the very revolutionary in the Indian history of empowering the women by giving them at least thirty three percent of reservation. 

“It never happened in the whole history of India. What kind of empowerment has taken place among the women in Goa? In the State assembly you hardly find one or two women and how they come to the State Assembly that we all know. Today we could have seen a different kind of gender equality or gender empowerment in the State like Goa, which is not happening,” Mani added.

 Women are hardly holding positions of sarpanchas and panchas. Her role is played by the husband and that is the insult to the Constitution, insult to the women. It also called for empowering of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes through the political process in panchayats. 

“Empowerment doesn’t happen just through numbers. I think Goa had and still has a possibility of becoming an ideal State in terms of empowering the women, SCs and STs,” Mani said.

There are MPLAD and MLA schemes and a lot of this money is only also utilised in the panchayat areas. Do the panchayats have to prepare their own budgets to generate their own income? Ultimately grassroots development would mean that they become financially sufficient. What has been the success in this regard and the gaps that needs to be filled?

Sawaikar said that Goa is a very small state where the panchayats wherein there are panchayats with different population sizes.

“As far as the panchayats are concerned, now they prepare their own budget, they prepare their own estimates. When the panchayat sits, they prepare so many plans because those panchayat members also have their own priorities,” the former MP said. 

 When all these things are taken into consideration, there will be some issues requiring immediate attention. Others can be taken up subsequently. 

“So in that case also you require the support of the government. We say that financial powers should be devolved to the local panchayat. That is fine. But at the same time we should also take into consideration their financial capacity, their financial power or the revenue that is available for each panchayat,” Sawaikar said. 

According to Soter, in 2001 all the industrial estates were removed from the purview of the panchayats so there also their finances were chopped. 

“There was a strong reaction from Cortalim panchayat and till today as per the 73rd amendment, every district has to have district development plans. But till today there is nothing. Everything which comes with the 29 powers are at the mercy of the directorates which are under their control,” he said.

Why aren't political dispensations across political lines thinking about providing powers to the panchayats to determine their own financial requirement? 

“Across the political lines, irrespective of which political party comes to power, they should sit together and should decide. When we blame ‘X’, at the same time we should also blame ‘Y’ because irrespective whether ‘A’ is in power or ‘B”, it has been the same thing. Since the size of panchayats is very small, therefore in some cases you feel that there is a parallel administration which is going on,” Sawaikar said.

At the same time, the people are becoming aware of their rights. “We should in fact appreciate that the 73rd amendment so far as Goa is concerned has been brought into force and the people are in fact the powers are slowly being devolved upon the panchayats,” the Goa NRI Commissioner said.

Kerala is one example of strong government support to local bodies. There as soon as budget is done, 40 per cent of its budget goes straight to the local bodies.

Isn’t it a matter of regret and probably shame that Goa is languishing behind as far as the devolution of power is concerned?

“The Government of Goa, irrespective of all the parties have been cooperating with all the panchayats throughout. Every government tries to devolve the powers to every panchayat. So therefore I won't say that this is not happening in our State. So far as Goa is concerned, definitely the government in power or whichever government is in power, they will have to devolve the powers,” he said.  

But it's not been done. Goa is one state where gram sabhas are extremely active. The point is what can we do further to ensure that the resolutions passed in gram sabhas and gram sabha mandates and the will of the people are reflected or taken up by  the political dispensation so that the voice of the people is completely heard? 

Or is the other argument also true that the ruling dispensation also feels that sometimes the gram sabhas are politically motivated and they become a hindrance to development projects?

“No, they are not being seen as hindrances,” Sawaikar said. “There are gram sabhas where people make a decision. Now it is for the dispensation of the government or whichever power to respect the graham sabha's decision. But at the same time the gram sabha’s decision is not binding,” the ex-MP informed. 

So what happens is that people are actually contesting panchayat elections to make money. If one would be appalled to see the riches following in some of the panchayats. Where does this wealth come from overnight?

Rejecting this observation, Sawaikar said, “No sorry, I don't agree that panchas contest the elections to make money. I won't say that. There could be some exceptions, but they can’t be the norm,” he said.

Citing example of co-panellist Mohandas Lolienkar, Sawaikar said the former was a panchayat member but he never contested elections for money.

“There are many people like him. Now see there are people who are elected numerous times. Are they elected because they want to make money? No, because, people have faith in those representatives. There are people who are good and who really want to work hard for the development of their panchayat. I've seen some panchas roaming around on cycle.  It is up to them and their wisdom how they elect their representatives,” Sawaikar said.