Local government: The Indian context
Panchayat is the ‘First Government’. Its power is based on people’s power and participatory democracy. The gram sabha (assembly) is the central institution for the promotion of inclusive and participatory democracy, providing opportunities for the exploited and marginalised communities to raise their voices against continued inequalities, denial of freedoms, discrimination and social injustice.
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments are the cornerstones for the empowerment of people and building grassroots democracy. The Constitution 73rd and 74th Amendment gave a political signal that decentralisation had come to stay in India. 33% reservation for women in elected bodies and also reservations for Dalits and Adivasis according to the proportion of their population were guaranteed.
Despite good intensions, there are certain critical gaps in the constitutional architecture and legal ecosystem that prevent the fulfilment of the promise of grassroots democracy. They are presently more nominal than functional, and are sometimes even subservient to the bureaucracy.
The Constitutional scheme however did not go all the way; it stops short of ensuring that state legislations on Panchayat government and urban local government would mandatory have to translate the constitutional scheme of decentralization into the state specific legislations. There was no compulsion to infuse the constitutional scheme of governance with a parallel List-IV for Local Government similar to the distribution of powers listed in List-I, II & III for State List, Union List and Concurrent List. The failure to clearly delineate this has contributed to various state governments opting for devolution of powers to the extent thought necessary and safe by the ruling Government.
A corollary of not instituting a List-IV in the scheme of Governance in the Constitution also left the Local Government system with no powers to legislate or adjudicate in important legislative matters concerning self – reliance dispute resolutions etc. Hence all law including Government Orders is made by the State or Central Government on behalf of Local Government. Consistent with the spirit of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution the Panchayat Government structure needs to be radically restructured towards local self-governance and strengthening of women and other oppressed peoples in grassroots democracy.
Hence constitutional amendments and fine-tuning the institutional mechanisms are necessary for the devolution of critical powers to the gram sabhas so that they can become the foundation of grassroots democracy and local governance. They should be empowered to function as independent decision making bodies, sovereign in their sphere as articulated in our freedom struggle as ‘gram swaraj’ and as envisaged in the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments for rural areas and urban areas respectively.
To strengthen local government, specifically PRIs, amendments to Part IX of the Constitution of India, specifically Article 243 A (Gram Sabha), 243G (Powers, authority and responsibilities of Panchayats) and 243H (Powers to impose taxes by, and Funds of, the Panchayats) are required. Article 246 (matter of law made by Parliament and by the Legislatures of States) should be amended to include List IV (Local Government) for detailing powers vested with PRIs for different tiers to ensure clarity in separation of powers.
The Tamil Nadu experience in local government and empowerment of the excluded
Tamil Nadu was one of the last states to hold panchayat elections under the 73rd amendments. It brought a new cohort of elected representatives, most of whom were from non-political backgrounds. Reservations for women (33%) and socially excluded communities (SCs and STs) provided an unprecedented opportunity for these sections.
Implementation revealed structural flaws, insufficient devolution, under-resourcing financially and otherwise, an ill prepared administration extending turf and capacity gaps in the elected representatives. SCs who dared to stand for elections were intimidated into withdrawing and even murdered when they didn’t. Elected women, SCs and STs (including presidents) often had to sit on the floor of the panchayat offices, were prevented from signing cheques or hoisting the national flag and were humiliated by others including the village clerk.
Voluntary organizations seized the opportunity to empower the newly elected representatives, particularly those from the vulnerable sections. Thousands were trained. They were organized into Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Panchayat Presidents and another federation SC and ST elected representatives. These created a peer support group as well as a safe space for them. The supporting NGOs formed an alliance to coordinate support.
This has resulted in 38% of the seats being filled by women (5% more than the reserved seats). Their demands are articulated in annual conventions of the federation. The elections of April 2017 will see 50% reservations for women—one of the key demands of the women panchayat presidents’ federation.
TNFWPPG: Genesis and road travelled
Madurai District Panchayat Board Women Presidents’ Conference was held in Madurai on 30 July 2002. 75 women Panchayat Board Presidents described the problems they faced, the panchayat’s activities etc. At the end of the conference, Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Presidents Panchayat Government (TNGWPPG) was created. This federation heavily criticized the termination of Madurai’s Keezhavalavu Panchayat President Mrs. Pungothai’s by the District Collector using Section-205 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act (TNPA). It presented a petition to the Collector to nullify the termination order.
The aim of the Federation to support women who have been elected to the local bodies to acquire political power, especially the ones who have been elected as the Presidents. They should be able to conduct their service in an effective manner and make sure of justice, equality, economic upliftment of the marginalized people. The federation is also to motivate them to work together by prioritizing the policies which will ensure genunine decentralized governance and empowered local government. From 2002, 1146 Women Panchayat Presidents in 24 districts have been trained and district level boides have been formed.
Training for Women Panchayat Board Presidents from 1999—2000 happened in the conferences with the support of the voluntary organizations in Tamilnadu. On 18 October 2000, 20 District associations came together for the State Level Convention which happened in Chennai. In this convention the state level committee was created with the first Federation of TamilnaduPanchayat Government Women Presidents being created. Since that day, meeting of the state level convention is being held every year. The demands of the members of the convention are being released widely by the newspapers/TV channels. Further, these demands are presented to the government and the related department officials.
A separate workshop on protection of panchayat’s land and public resources for panchayat presidents was held in Chennai in 2013. Around 45 presidents took part in it and shared the challenges they faced to protect the lands in the panchayat. A press conference was also organized regarding this. Legal counseling that was required was given to the presidents.
A workshop on legal strategies was conducted for the panchayat presidents on a day in 2012 in Chennai. More than 50 presidents took part in it and they discussed about the legal problems in panchayat administration.
District Level Consultation on Strengthening Gram Sabha held on 19th July 2016 at Thiruvallur District. Around 62 Panchayat Presidents, Ward members and Grama Sabha members participated. Mr.B.Thyagarajan, Addl. Director, Retd., Rural Development clarified the doubts to participants about the Development of Grama Sabha. At the end of the meeting participants said that they gained awareness of the Grama Sabha development and how to strengthen the GramaSabha. They said they will use the rights in upcoming Grama Sabha meeting on 15th August 2016.
Civil Society Support
Apart from capacity building, fact finding and accompaniment (in advocacy, district and state level conventions) civil society support is provided in several different ways.
The TN NGO Alliance is supportive NGO network with about 91 NGOs that support local governance. Periodic meeting held on 17th September 2016. Around 25 NGOs from 11 districts participated. The strategies are to conduct 4 Zonal meetings and Chithra will monitor all 4 zones. Resource materials have been developed by HRF for 4 zones and sent to the organisers.
Voices of Panchayat Presidents – Newsletter
To enhance the knowledge of defenders and panchayat presidents, we bring out a quarterly magzine named ‘Voices of Panchayat Presidents’ in Tamil language making it easy even for the common man to know about different views put forth by various scholars, fact finding reports, recent developments and important judgements related to local government issues. Apart from this direct issues of local government, globalization and its impacts, environment issues, budget etc., and also explained to panchayat presidents.
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