EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What was the prime reason for setting up this report?
There was a perception, validated by our committee, that while 99 percent of the mandatory provisions of the Panchayati Raj have been implemented by the state governments, the actual empowerment of these Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIS) has not taken place at all. Crucially, the Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) take up two-thirds to three-quarters of all the funds and programmes that go to the villages. They are implemented not by panchayats, but by the government officials. These officials are accountable to their superiors, not to the beneficiaries. This leads to corruption and siphoning of funds. The report spells out how we can allocate resources more efficiently to deliver the goods and services of the Centre.
Even after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, which was 20 years ago, no concrete steps have been taken to empower the panchayats. Why is that so?
The prime minister, in a speech in May 2004, had addressed the issue of bringing the functions of the CSS into the authority of the panchayats. The Cabinet secretary, in December the same year, had issued clear instructions for all the ministries to fall in line with this policy. So the political will has always been there, but we don’t know why the state governments and the bureaucracy have not paid heed.
What are the main findings of the report?
The consequences of our faulty system of delivery is staggering. Huge sums of money have been sanctioned for the social sector and anti-poverty programmes. They were never implemented by the panchayats, which is why outcomes have been completely out of sync with outlays. Our committee found that from 1991-92 till now, the outlays in the social sector and antipoverty programmes had increased from Rs 7,500 crore in 1992 to Rs 3 lakh crore in 2011- 12. No other government in the world has increased its spending on welfare programmes in such an exponential manner. Yet, the cruel irony is that on the United Nations Human Development Index, we remain at virtually the same position today, as we were 20 years ago. This is treadmill economics. Our growth model is leading to India prospering, but not Indians.
By recommending that PRIs be made responsible for delegating funds and functionaries, isn’t the bureaucracy’s role being diminished?
Far from it. We fully acknowledge that the technical and administrative competencies of the bureaucracy should be made available to the panchayats, by embedding them in the panchayats. If you make the line officers of the government accountable to the block panchayat, the sarpanch can then direct him or her to take appropriate measures as are needed by the panchayat. Today, if anyone in the block panchayat says this teacher has not been coming to school, the panchayat has no powers to do anything. But I’m not saying you have to divest the authority of the IAS, or the Centre or the states and give it to the panchayats in some anarchical, jholalwala mode. I’m proposing that what is at present, a compact between the Centre and the state government should be made triangular to include the elected panchayats.
Over the past 60 years, several reports have been tabled on improving PRIs, but the government has been reluctant to undertake reforms. Why is that so?
I think the history of the evolution of the PRIs shows there has been a dialectical movement taking place. The Constitution provides for not just reservation, but proportionate reservation. In Karnataka, in the last Panchayat elections, women formed 54 percent in the SC/ST category. Women from lower castes and tribes have been far more able to achieve political empowerment than women from the upper castes. Let me share with you a private conversation I had with Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. I asked him how long do you think we will take to implement the reforms, and he said a generation. I was stunned, and said you mean 25 years? He said yes at least that long. So we’ve reached 20 years, and I still have 5 years to beat Rajiv. Today we have 2.4 lakh panchayats, with 32 lakh elected representatives, of which 12 lakh are women. There are more elected women in India than in the rest of the world put together. That is an achievement without precedent, or parallel in the world. And yet we don’t know about it. We know what ought to be done, but we didn’t have the methodology to implement it.
A recently released CAG report has alleged misappropriation of funds by sarpanches and babus in schemes like MGNREGA. How do you tackle such things?
Now you’ve brought me to the realm of what I call the collateral measures that have been dealt with in the report. It’s the flesh of the skeleton. Sarpanch-raj is the consequence of bad panchayat. My report actually says, bad Panchayati Raj is worse than no Panchayati Raj. We insist that if a panchayat system is not collegiate, and if it is not guided by and not responsive to the block panchayat and zila panchayats, it is not Panchayati Raj at all. But when you say all panchayats are bad panchayats, I do not agree at all.
Voices From The Ground
Nearly 1,000 sarpanches gathered in New Delhi for the release of the 20th anniversary report on Panchayati Raj. Shone Satheesh Babu spoke to some of these grassroots leaders
ON THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY REPORT Getting funds was a big issue earlier. Now we are being given a bigger role and say in panchayat-level schemes.
WHY IT TOOK SO LONG? Politicians don’t want to empower people. They want to keep power with themselves, and dole it out as and when it suits them. We know that if the politicians want to do something, nothing can stop them. Not even the bureaucracy.
MAJOR COMPLAINTS We have no colleges or hospitals near our village. We have to travel 20-25 km to the nearest one. Also, Punjab gets less funding than other states, because we are supposedly ‘more developed’, or maybe because Punjab provides the maximum tax collections to the Centre. Policymakers say all villages in Punjab have roads, so let’s cut their funds. But last year there was a drought, and the roads don’t help with that.
REASON FOR COMING HERE We won the Panchayat Empowerment and Accountability Incentive Scheme Award for topping the indices in Madhya Pradesh. Earlier, we were literally living in a lot of filth and there was no drinking water. Our women had to walk for miles to get water. We have fixed all those problems. A lot of people in our village die whenever the river floods during rains. There is no space or resources for the relatives to cremate them. So, we have built a new cremation ghat. And we have undertaken a lot of work on roads, electrifying homes and building houses.
ON THE SUGGESTIONS IN THE REPORT The direct cash transfer scheme will go a long way in plugging the gaps in the delivery of goods. Now, the funds go to Bhopal first, then to the district, then to the block, and finally to the villages. By this time, most of the money is siphoned off, and the process takes a lot of time.
ISSUES ON THE GROUND Dividing people into APL and BPL families is a big issue. BPL families get free medicine and ration. But there has been no real survey to establish who is APL or BPL. Officials get people of their choice into the BPL fold. So, the people who are really poor and have no clout are left in the lurch. MGNREGA also needs refinement. Farmers are finding it tough to get labour.
ON THE SUGGESTIONS IN THE REPORT It’s a good thing. Earlier, contractors didn’t get their dues on time because of red-tapism. This made them reluctant to take up new work. But if the government gives money to the panchayats, we can pay them on time. We will also get to know how many schemes the government is planning. Today, there are many sarpanches who don’t even know about all the schemes, forget about getting them implemented.
ISSUES AT THE GROUND LEVEL The Panchayati Raj system breeds a lot of discontent, and unnecessary politicking. People waste time quarreling over hierarchies, while the real scams and embezzling goes on unnoticed. The panchayats will build roads with a few lakh rupees, but have you seen the inflated budgets of the PWD? They spend 20 times more to build the same road. But no one is monitoring how the money is being spent.
YOUR OWN SUGGESTIONS We stress so much on literacy levels and education, but why is there no educational qualification required to get into politics? Panchayats should have a department that deals with local crafts. This would promote employment and preserve traditions. There should also be a granary at the village level. We talk about how FDI will bring in better storage capacity, but you can do it as efficiently at the village level. The government buys wheat from farmers but spends 30 percent extra on transport. This huge bill can be avoided by having storage space in the villages.
ACHIEVEMENTS IN THE VILLAGE We are a village of 6,000. We were the first panchayat in the country to install a public address system and run our own bus service. The sound system helps us announce various schemes to the villagers, and the bus helps the women reach the milk banks on time. We are also the only village in the country to offer free WiFi to all households. When I took over in 2006, the literacy level was 72 percent, and the panchayat had a deficit of Rs 40,000. Today the literacy level is 92 percent, and the village fund stands at Rs 75 lakh. We have five primary schools, and all of them have CCTV cameras.
ON THE SUGGESTIONS IN THE REPORT There is no dearth of funds in the country. If this report is implemented, it will bring down the mismanagement of funds. The panchayats should also audit their fund utilisation. Instead of relying on the government, we should look at revenue-generating models.
ISSUES AT GROUND LEVEL Our biggest complaint is MGNREGA wages. Haryana pays its labourers Rs 60 more than Rajasthan. Ironically, a farmer in Rajasthan pays 4 more for petrol/diesel than his counterpart in Haryana. The panchayats have no role in how money is distributed to beneficiaries under the Indira Awas Yojana. But when the beneficiary spends the money on something else, the blame falls on us.
ON THE SUGGESTIONS IN THE REPORT It’s not going to change anything. The RBI governor recently said that inflation is rising because the poor villagers, empowered by MGNREGA, have started eating better food. That’s ridiculous. The fact is 40 percent of the people are malnourished. The government does not want to admit that their flawed policies have brought about inflation.