This is a guest post by SHIVNARAYAN RAJPUROHIT : A school teacher in Rayapuram village of Mehabubnagar district (Andhra Pradesh) summed up the sentiment of the village: “Without a sarpanch [an elected village-chief], this village is like a rudderless ship. The implementation of government schemes has gone from bad to worse. The government has appointed special officers, who hardly have any bonding with villagers in each panchayat.” Recently, the state government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) decided to conduct the panchayati elections in April-May 2013, which have been overdue since July-August 2011. What were the reasons for this postponement?
First, the Backward Classes (BC) demanded 60.55 per cent reservation in the panchayats in AP. However, in September 2011, the High Court of AP upheld the 50 per cent ceiling in local bodies. After this verdict, the government of AP promised to hold the elections, but reneged on it. This was followed by the Special Leave Petition (SLP) filed in the Apex Court by the State to raise the ceiling of the reservation for the BCs. The SLP was disposed in favour of the AP government.
Secondly, the demand for reservation dovetailed well with State politics. Seemingly, the demand for further reservation was an alibi for the Congress to postpone elections. How? The Congress has felt challenged since the emergence of Jagan Mohan Reddy, who swept the by-elections in 2012. Sensing an imminent rout in panchayats, the Congress sought to postpone the elections to the local bodies.
In addition, parallel structures at the panchayat level have rendered the elected local bodies redundant. Bodies such as Water Users Associations and School Educations Committees were set up by Chandrababu Naidu when he came to power in the 1990s at the local level with strong financial support. Later, the Congress government continued this practice under different names. These parallel structures at the panchayat level have proved detrimental to the functioning of panchayati raj, encroaching upon the PRIs’ mandate.
Devolution of power has always been at the heart to establish local autonomy. These efforts date back to the Bengal Local Self-Government Act, 1885, the Bengal Village Self-Government Act, 1919, and the Government of India Act, 1935, and laid the foundation for divesting powers to the lowest but potentially the most powerful rung of the political administration. Article 40 under the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution stipulated that “The state shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.”
Rajiv Gandhi was a vocal supporter of conferring constitutional powers upon local bodies, and his aborted effort to pass the 64th and 65th Amendments Bills in 1989 laid the foundation for the 73rd and 74th Amendments Acts for rural and urban local bodies during the Narasimhma Rao’s government in 1992. It enabled the insertion of Part IX (panchayat) and IXA (municipalities) in the Constitution. These insertions ensure regular elections, functions, finance and revenue for the local bodies.The 73rd Amendment, 1992 enlists 29 subjects for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).
In AP, the allotted functions for local self-government institutions under the Andhra Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, Chapter III, are far less than what may be expected (with only 19 subjects under it). It has become a fertile ground and excuse for politicians to form parallel structures at the local level. If entrusted with all 29 subjects, the financially-empowered panchayats can implement welfare schemes efficiently and responsibly. Denying Constitutional functions and mandate to panchayats has made a mockery of the devolution of powers to the lowest rung of governance.
Power-less Panchayats in Andhra Pradesh
Despite the Constitutional provision, the government of AP has failed to conduct elections (AP is not the only outlier in this case). Since panchayati raj is a State subject, the Centre cannot intervene.
How does the virtual suspension of elected local self-government affect the people in AP? How do Special Officers (SOs), who have been given the mandate of an elected village sarpanch, perform their duties and function in the face of enormous challenges at the village-level? The State government has extended the term of the SOs by six months before the state announced its intent to conduct elections. The Minister of Information and Public Relations D.K Aruna said, “We have appointed Special Officers (SOs) in panchayats on ad hoc basis. They have the mandate to ensure the implementation of welfare schemes.”
Are these officers fulfilling their job? To give you a sense of bureaucratic apathy towards villages, take the example of Ghatuu Mandal of Mahabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. It has 24 panchayats (one panchayat has between 2-5 villages under its ambit) with only four SOs. People are disenchanted with conspicuous-by-their-absence officers. Their occasional visits (once in a month) have rendered the welfare-schemes worthless.
The stalling of panchayati elections in Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry (which has administrative problems) has become a stumbling block in the implementation of flagship rural schemes–Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Rural Health Mission, pension schemes for the elderly and the disabled. For example, the AP government organizes camps to avoid forged health certificates, but hardly anybody is informed about these camps. Thus many continue to hopelessly hope to receive Rs 400 as pension without possessing a “camp certificate”.
In this case, the folly of assuming that the bureaucracy can indeed replace people’s voices has been exposed and the need for elected representative running local self-government is evident. The pride and dignity of electing their own representative encourages villagers to pitch for their legal rights. Another drawback of not holding elections is that AP and Puducherry are losing out on grant-in-aid for the panchayats given by the Central Finance Commission. For AP, the losses are as high as Rs. 1740 crores.
The AP model of appointing special officers at local level may be followed in West Bengal and Karnataka, given the dithering of these governments over local elections. The officers are appointed on temporary basis by collectors, but no one knows how long they will continue flexing their muscles in the local bodies. As mentioned earlier, the implementation of welfare schemes is left to the mercy of the officers who the State governments consider capable of filling the shoes of elected representatives.
In the case of AP, the least that people can expect from the State government is the regular conduct of elections to the local bodies without much deference to the pressures of party politics. Panchayat elections are not fought on party lines in AP, but even then, political parties do not spare them.
A possible headway may be made if local bodies can be brought under the Union or Concurrent List. This will ensure that the powers regarding all the 29 subjects listed in the Eleventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution; that all the powers needed for planning for economic development and social justice, and the implementation of development and welfare schemes, will rest with the elected local bodies. Equally important, this may ensure that regular elections to the panchayati raj institutions will not be bogged down by murky state politics.
For AP, it will be an achievement in itself if the state indeed holds elections in April-May, because the expectation of people has been belied so many times, stalled by political calculations of the Congress — of possible political dividends or fears of hara-kiri — in the face of impending Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
The Hindu (2013), ‘Panchayat polls in April-May: Jana’, 19 Feb 2013. vailable from: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/panchayat-polls-in-aprilmay-jana/article4429096.ece