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PANCHAYATI RAJ IN INDIA - 73RD CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT


The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act was passed by the Parliament in April 1993. The Amendment provided a Constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions in India and left no discretion with the State governments in several important matters pertaining to these Institutions. Before the 73rd Amendment was made effective, Article 40 of the original Constitution provided for a Directive to the government to take steps to organise village Panchayats and endow them with the powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as the units of self-government. But, by mid-eighties it was realised that the said Directive was not sufficient to institutionalise Panchayati Raj in India.

The practice of Panchayati Raj as per the Directive Principles of the State Policy was not to the satisfaction of the policy makers. There were several reasons for this. One of the reasons was that no uniform pattern of Panchayati Raj was being followed by the State governments. While few States followed a two-tier system, the others followed a system of three tiers. Further, many States were not holding regular elections to the PRIs. Since the elections to the PRIs were being held by the State governments themselves, their fairness and independence was seriously doubtful. Moreover, there were no standard guidelines with regard to delegation of powers to such institutions.

More important was the need to empower the people in the rural areas as well as the empowerment of women. It was observed that political power had remained in the hands of socially and economically influential people, with the poor man having little participation in political decision-making. The same was true in case of women also, whose percentage in the Parliament has remained between 4 to 7 per cent after independence. The political policy makers then began to think in terms of Amendment to the Constitution to empower the people in the rural areas, more particularly the women, and give a Constitutional status to the PRI, so as to bring uniformity in this regard in the entire country.

The Constitutional Amendment Act was passed in the year 1993 and the State governments were then required to enact revised Panchayati Raj Acts as per the provisions of the amended Constitution.

Before the impact of 73rd Amendment is assessed, it would be better to consider the provisions of this Amendment. Articles 243, 243A to 243-O were added as parts of newly inserted Part IX of the Constitution. The Amendment introduced across the board three-tier system of the PRIs at village Panchayat, Block and District levels. The electorates at Gram Panchayat level have been named as the Gram Sabha which elects the representatives to Gram Panchayat by way of direct election. Further, Article 243D provides for reservation of seats at all levels for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and women. While the reservation for the SCs/STs is as per their actual proportion in population of the concerned area, it is provided that not less than one-third of the total seats in all the tiers will be reserved for women. The States are empowered to reserve the offices of the Chairpersons at all the three tiers. There is a move now to increase the reservation for women to 50 per cent.

The Constitution now provides that every PRI shall continue for a period of five years. The States have also been empowered to allow the PRIs in their respective legislative Acts to levy, collect and appropriate several tolls and taxes. With this the PRIs at all the tiers will be able to generate financial resources at local-level and make expenditure in the desired field as per locally-felt needs. The State laws may lay down the procedure to be followed, as well as the limits of such taxes/levies. The State governments may also assign to the Panchayats various taxes and duties collected by it. The State governments are required to appoint a State Finance Commission to review the financial position of the PRIs and make recommendations with regard to the distribution of net proceeds of taxes between the States and the PRIs, assignment of certain taxes exclusively to the PRIs and the grants-in-aid.

Another set of important changes made in the Constitution pertain to the elections to the PRIs. To ensure free and fair elections to these institutions, the 73rd Amendment provides for setting up of a State Election Commission in every State and the State Election Commissioner is appointed by the Governor of the State concerned. With a view to ensure the independence of the State Election Commission, it is laid down that the State Election Commissioner can be removed only in the same manner and on the same grounds as the Judge of a High Court.

As per Articles 243G and 243H, the PRIs are entrusted with the responsibility of preparing micro-plans for economic development, beginning at Panchayat-level. These institutions are also responsible for implementation of schemes aimed at socio-economic development and exercise powers delegated in respect of 29 developmental items as prescribed in 11th Schedule of the Constitution. These items include: land improvement, irrigation, animal husbandry, fisheries, education, women and child development, etc. Most of the States have delegated these functions to the PRIs as per the spirit of 73rd Amendment and the PRIs are now empowered to function in these fields as per enabling provisions in the concerned Acts of the State governments.

Though reservation of seats for the SCs/STs is based on their actual proportion in the population, yet some States have also reserved seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). But there is no discretion with the States to reduce the reservation for women, which is prescribed to be not less than one-third of the total seats. The actual reservation for women in the PRIs ranges from 35 to 42 per cent in various States. As a result, people belonging to the backward and the vulnerable sections, including the women, have almost 50 per cent seats in the PRIs to themselves, which is expected to result in their actual empowerment.

The PRIs have been made responsible for preparing District, Block and Panchayat-level plans for ensuring economic development in their respective areas. The flow of funds for economic development would be based on such plans. With the power to levy several taxes at Panchayat-level, these provisions would empower the PRIs financially and make them self-reliant.

Most of the States have also taken necessary steps to enforce most of the provisions provided for in their own Panchayati Raj Acts. But there are serious problems in actual practice. Though in most of the States the PRIs are functioning as per the Constitutional provisions, yet it is seriously doubted whether the objective of empowerment of people at the grass root level has actually been achieved.

Bottlenecks

Illiteracy has been one of the most glaring stumbling blocks in achieving the laid down goals of the new Panchayati Raj system. There is a fair chance that many of the women representatives elected to all the three tiers of the PRIs may be illiterate. Further, with several social handicaps, most of the female representatives of these institutions do not feel at ease to visit the government offices for various works and their authority is exercised by others.

Many States have not delegated the powers and functions to the PRIs in the true spirit of 73rd Constitutional Amendment. Even if the functions have been delegated, the required powers to execute the said functions are not with the PRIs. There is a general reluctance on part of the bureaucrats and the ministers and MLAs to share their existing powers and authority with the newly created PRIs. As a result, while on paper the delegation has taken place, actually the PRIs are not in a position to perform the assigned functions. In other words, the objective of empowerment of people and women at the village-level has not been achieved.

There is a general lack of manpower in the PRIs, particularly at the village level. With a limited number of officials, even after the complete devolution of powers, it may become difficult for the PRIs to look after all the works assigned to them by the State government. Unless the PRIs are equipped with adequate staff to discharge their functions, the objectives set forth under the 73rd Amendment may not be achieved.

Approach Paper to the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) had dealt with the PRIs at great length. It observed that the objective of enhancement of participation and empowerment at the village-level was not achieved. It was also observed that the excessive controls provided at three tiers have not been able to enhance the efficacy of the PRIs. The excessive controls at the three tiers have rather been found to be counter-productive. The Approach Paper has also made certain recommendations on the basis of experience of the previous few years. Some of the important recommendations made were: (i) Enable the States, by amending the Constitution, to abolish Block-level or the District-level tier, as the excessive control is proving counter-productive; (ii) Union Finance Commission funds and other PRI development funds from the Centre may not be released to the States unless the required powers were delegated to the PRIs by them; (iii) The PRIs should be empowered and encouraged to levy and collect taxes at their own level; (iv) It is also recommended to increase accountability of the PRIs, strengthen their financial management and audit procedures and provide the required orientation to the elected representatives so that the laid down objectives are achieved.

Even the strategies proposed by the 11th Plan revolve around (i) improving Panchayat Raj Institutions; (ii) Strengthening the administrative machinery; (iii) Convergence of resources; (iv) alternative delivery mechanism; and (v) removing bottlenecks in scheme guidelines. Monitoring indicators for the Eleventh Plan reflect on providing one electrified school building in each village panchayat, one library with books, one drinking water source in each village panchayat, linking up SHGs that have obtained revolving fund with credit assistance and increasing resources to the rural local bodies.

The above would reveal that the policy makers at the highest level are fully aware that the goals of empowerment have not been met fully and a serious thinking is required to be done by the Union as well as the State governments. But it would also be wrong to conclude that the situation is hopeless. There are many success stories and at many places female and SC/ST representatives have done a wonderful job in the PRIs. The objective of empowerment is not far from being achieved. But some procedural and legislative changes may be necessary. Most necessary are the attitudinal changes.

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