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EDITORIAL ANALYSIS : There is hardly any autonomy at the panchayat level

 

Source: The Hindu

 

  • Prelims: Parliament-Structure, organization and functioning, article 340, tribes, 73rd and 74th amendment etc
  • Mains GS Paper II: Parliament- structure, functioning and conduct of Business etc

 

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS

  • An up-sarpanch in Telangana died by suicide due to indebtedness.
    • He had taken out a loan to undertake development works in the village and was unable to bear the burden.

 

INSIGHTS ON THE ISSUE

Context

73rd and 74th Constitutional amendment Act:

 

Challenges faced by Panchayats:

  • Failure of the State government to release funds in time: It forces them to utilize either private resources or borrow large amounts to complete panchayat activities and meet various targets.
  • State governments: through the local bureaucracy, continue to exercise considerable discretionary authority and influence over panchayats.
  • Gram panchayats remain fiscally dependent on grants (both discretionary and non-discretionary grants) from the State and the Centre for everyday activities.
  • Their own sources of revenue (both tax and non-tax): They constitute a tiny proportion of overall panchayat funds.
    • For example: In Telangana, less than a quarter of a panchayat’s revenue comes from its own sources of revenue.
  • Access to discretionary grants for panchayats remains contingent on political and bureaucratic connections.
  • An inordinate delay in transferring approved funds to panchayat accounts stalls local development.
    • Delays in the disbursement of funds by the local bureaucracy have led to pressure on sarpanches leading some to end their life.
  • State governments also bind local governments’ through the local bureaucracy.
    • Approval for public works projects often requires technical approval (from the engineering department) and administrative approval
  • Higher-level politicians and bureaucrats intervening in selecting beneficiaries for government programmes and limiting the power of sarpanches further.
  • The ability of sarpanches to exercise administrative control over local employees is also limited.
    • In many States, the recruitment of local functionaries reporting to the panchayat, such as village watchmen or sweepers, is conducted at the district or block level.
  • Sarpanch does not have the power to dismiss these local-level employees.
  • Unlike elected officials at other levels, sarpanchs can be dismissed while in office.
    • Gram Panchayat Acts in many States have empowered district-level bureaucrats, mostly district Collectors, to act against sarpanches for official misconduct.
    • For example: Section 37 of the Telangana Gram Panchayat Act allows District Collectors to suspend and dismiss incumbent sarpanches.

 

Grounds can Collectors act against sarpanchs:

  • Abuse of power, embezzlement, or misconduct
  • Refusal to “carry out the orders of the District Collector or Commissioner or Government for the proper working of the concerned Gram Panchayat”.

 

Case Study:(Political intervention)

  • Survey of sarpanches in Haryana’s Palwal district:
    • They spend a substantial amount of time visiting government offices and meeting local bureaucrats, and waiting to be seen or heard.
    • Sarpanchs reported that they need to be in the “good books” of politicians and local bureaucrats if they wanted:
      • access to discretionary resources
      • timely disbursement of funds
      • able to successfully execute any project or programme in their village.

 

Constraints on how panchayats can use the funds allocated to them:

  • State governments often impose spending limits on various expenditures through panchayat funds.
    • This could include activities such as purchasing posters of national icons, refreshments for visiting dignitaries etc
  • In almost all States, there is a system of double authorisation for spending panchayat funds.
    • Apart from sarpanchs, disbursal of payments requires bureaucratic concurrence.

 

Sources of funds for Panchayats:

  • Their own sources of revenue: local taxes, revenue from common property resources, etc.
  • Grants in aid from the Centre and State governments
  • Discretionary or scheme-based funds.

 

Way Forward

  • Sarpanchs need to have administrative or financial autonomy for meaningful decentralization.
  • The situation in Telangana is a reminder for State governments to re-examine the provisions of their respective Gram Panchayat laws and consider greater devolution of funds, functions, and functionaries to local governments.
  • India has limited decentralization because if local governments get genuine autonomy to allocate the monies, power will shift from the MLAs and State government-controlled bureaucracy to the sarpanch.
  • The role and responsibilities of local governments should be foregrounded by normative values which have found expression, at least in some regard, in the Constitution.
  • As India is undergoing a centralizing shift in its politics, economy, and culture, there’s also been a renewed assertion of federalism.

 

QUESTION FOR PRACTICE

Q. To what extent, in your opinion, has the decentralization of power in India changed the governance landscape at the grassroots?(UPSC 2022) (200 WORDS, 10 MARKS)