Rural Decentralization is Crucial for Strengthening Grassroots Democracy and People-Centered Development. A Reminder to Resist Over-centralizing and Corporatization Trends
Today the 30th National Panchayati Raj is being observed in India. On this day we remember the passing of the 73th constitutional amendment for panchayati raj and rural decentralization in 1992. Although panchayati raj existed earlier also but the system of rural decentralization was significantly strengthened by this amendment.
The structure of rural decentralization created and maintained in this strengthened form has been a source of pride for India. At the same time, its potential is much higher and we should have been able to achieve much more. In addition the frequent reports of corruption in panchayati raj institutions and the persistence of less than just attitudes towards elected representatives from dalit and tribal communities point to need for significant reforms. While the election of a very significant number of women in Panchayati Raj , taking advantage of reservations, is again a matter of pride, the fact that they are often denied an effective role remains a cause for senior concern.
Himachal Pradesh is one of those states where women have a more effective participation. Yet it is from this state that the youngest elected woman ( Neha Verma, from Palampur region) who initiated important reforms was attacked inflicting serious injuries. Again another young woman, winner of several awards, who had attained an iconic status in Mandi district of the state after implementing many important reforms has been recently implicated in corruption cases widely believed to be false and attributed to narrow political motives. Such incidents of victimization of those women who have become symbols of reformist, highly successful panchyati raj leadership sends a very wrong signal to rural women and girls aspiring to similar roles
The high levels of inequalities in most rural areas of India are well-known, as also the oppressive conditions faced by those at the lowest rungs of rural society. In more recent times important rights based initiatives, particularly land redistribution in favor of the landless have been curtailed. These inequalities and absence of serious government efforts to check inequalities is also manifested in a rural decentralization system which is not adequately responsive and sensitive to the needs of weaker sections despite reservation of seats for them, and is often seen to be even oppressive towards them. The situation may be better in a state like Kerala with is previous record of pro-poor actions and programs. On the other hand even in a state like Tamil Nadu with its history of resistance to dominant castes/groups, several cases of shocking injustice to dalit elected members have been reported.
Another cause of concern relates to increasing corporatization of agriculture and related activities in India. Last year there was a prolonged agitation against this by a determined, strong movement of farmers. The movement was successful in the repeal of three laws aimed at corporatization of farming and food system, but the wider trends and the official thinking behind these have still persisted, as is evident from the decisions relating to fortification of rice, or the decision made regarding edible oils.
Several projects involving displacement of people and environmental ruin are being pushed by the government regardless of the opposition of gram sabhas or village assemblies. In fact this is even being done in scheduled areas for whom more protective panchayati raj law has been enacted ( PESA). Another problem is that the union government places more emphasis on its own programs which may or not may be in tune with the priorities of the elected panchayat, while the free funds available for spending according to local priorities can be very limited.
In fact there is a danger that the over-centralizing tendencies on the part of the union government may become more dominant with the increasing pressures of powerful corporate interests. Despite the widespread resistance to GM crops due to their extremely harmful ecological and health impacts, the government has been trying to push these crops and recently some efforts in this direction have been seen again. If such efforts succeed, the centralization of seeds and related inputs will increase even more while the efforts based on rich local biodiversity will suffer even more.
Hence the full potential of panchayati raj, the existing system of rural decentralization, cannot be tapped because of the increasing tendency of the union government (as well as some of the state governments) towards increasing inequalities, over-centralization and corporatization. Such trends which obstruct true rural decentralization must be resisted.
At the same time panchayati raj at implementation level also needs important reforms for protecting elected members from weaker sections as well for more effective role of women members. There should be better protection for those members who initiate important reforms such as for curbing liquor sale and consumption but are victimized precisely for this. At the level of structure, reforms to correct some distortions in the three tier structure and in elections to this are needed.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.