Mani-Talk: Modi the Centralizer

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

Through his 12 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Panchayat Raj in the state stagnated under Modi Raj. That is principally why his performance on growth rates - worse than Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and even Bihar, but better than several others - was not matched by any improvement in human development. On the HDI index, Gujarat never rose above 15th position out of some 30 states and Union Territories.

In respect of devolution to Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs), Modi the Centraliser could not bring himself to allow decentralization to get any headway. Hence, notwithstanding Gujarat having been the home state of the three Great Pioneers of Panchayat Raj - Gandhiji, Balvantray Mehta and Asoka Mehta - Modi failed to build on the strong foundations laid by these great predecessors.

Not only Kerala and Karnataka, but a whole raft of relative new-comers ranging from Maharashtra to Haryana to Rajasthan and recent performers like Tripura, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh far outdistanced Gujarat in moving along the path of participative democracy. Modi was too busy being authoritarian to push his economic agenda to care for the inclusion in development of the garib and the aam admi. (And no wonder either that he consistently refused me permission to visit Gujarat as Union Minister of Panchayati Raj - he was too scared that he would stand exposed).

Without waiting for wisdom to dawn on Modi, the Congress government in Karnataka under Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has taken a giant step to restore Karnataka to the prime position in the country in Panchayat Raj and to take the lead over Kerala and Maharashtra who have in the past decade and a half stolen a march over Karnataka.

A committee on amendments to the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act, chaired by former Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar, has last week submitted its report to the state government titled The Path to Gram Swaraj in Karnataka, containing radical proposals for course corrections based on the accumulated ground-level experience of the last 20 years, indeed, the last 30 years if one takes into account, as one should, the pioneering innovations in the 80s of Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde and his unforgettable Panchayat Minister, Abdul Nazeer Sahib.

The proposals include giving statutory powers of supervision and control over the Panchayats to Gram Sabhas defined radically as representative assemblies of each habitation, in addition to ward-level consultations and panchayat-level consolidation. In one stroke, the biggest conundrum of effective Panchayat Raj has been solved - namely, the need to reconcile the imperative of effective staff support, possible only for larger basic units, with smaller and more homogeneous units which would facilitate effective people's participation.

This legal empowerment of the panchayat with a careful spelling out of their duties and responsibilities is significantly reinforced by vesting in the Gram Sabhas the authorization of the issue of "utilization certificates", which means that no payment to contractors is validated till the Gram Sabha by consensus agrees that the work has been undertaken economically and completed satisfactorily. Thus, not only is the community satisfied but the scope for corruption and malfeasance is sharply reduced.

Besides, the proposals tend in the direction of establishing a District Panchayat Service, supervised by a Panchayat Seva Pradhikar, to ensure adequate staffing at the bureaucratic, accounting and technical level for each level of Panchayat, thus compensating for the want of experience and training of panches and presidents of panchayat units.

If Karnataka takes up the offer of the Institute of Public Accountants of India for the provision of a trained chartered accountant for every 10 panchayats at a highly affordable fee, the demands of modern, computerized, on-line administration can be easily married to the indispensability of representative local government to ensure responsible local governance and, therefore, responsiveness to local demand.

The menace of Sarpanch Raj is countered by ensuring the collegiate functioning of the panchayats by statutorily ensuring that all panchayat work is done through subjects committees and decisions are taken with all panchayat members present. To mitigate money-and-muscle power in panchayat elections, the Committee has recommended State funding of elections, to the exclusion of any private or party funding, combined with statutory autonomy for the State Election Commission to decide everything election-related, from delimitation to disqualifying candidates who break the code or the law, without any interference from the political authority.

But by far the most exciting recommendation of the Report relates to the process and ambit of endowing powers and authority to the Panchayats. Resting on a detailed parsing of Article 243G of the Constitution, the Report delineates the procedure and content of the kind of devolution required for rendering the panchayats as "institutions of local self-government". Annexed to the report are detailed Activity Maps (Responsibility Maps) for each of the 29 subjects listed in the Eleventh Schedule (plus four more) regarding the methodology for the simultaneous devolution of the 3Fs - Functions, Finances and Functionaries - which would ensure the effective empowerment of the panchayats in their legally - designated spheres to have control and supervision over the planning and implementation of plans, programmes and projects of economic development and social justice.

This is reinforced by the proposal that State Finance Commission recommendations should have the same automacity of acceptance and implementation as has been the practice for the recommendations of the (central) Finance Commission.

Karnataka does not need Central permission to go ahead with these revolutionary proposals. They can decide all the issues in Bengaluru, of course with legislative support. If the state government acts quickly, it will sweep the panchayat polls due in April 2015 - and perhaps that would teach the anti-Panchayat Modi government that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time!

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