It has been 25 years since the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, better known as the Panchayati Raj and Nagarapalika Acts respectively, were passed. These enshrined the goals of Gram Swaraj and Nagara Swaraj or the setting up of independent, self-reliant, local self-government (LSG), in the rural and urban areas respectively, to strengthen grassroots democracy, empower Dalits, women and other marginalised groups, ensure social justice, fulfil basic needs, and establish control over local assets and decision-making.
These goals are yet to be achieved. The functions listed to be devolved to LSGs in the Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules annexed to the constitutional amendments are only a suggested list and states may - and not shall - devolve these to local governments. Hence, the Human Rights Advocacy & Research Foundation (HRF) is building a national campaign for a constitutional amendment to create a mandatory list of functions for local governments on the lines of the State, Union and Concurrent lists.
The first mandate of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments is that local government bodies should always be governed by an elected body to give them democratic legitimacy. However, unlike the Central Election Commission, the powers of the State Election Commissions (SECs) vary in each state.
The control by state governments, such as Karnataka, over the delimitation of wards, the preparation of the reservation roster and the notification of elections has resulted in inordinate delays in the conduct of elections, for instance, in Bengaluru. SECs need to be empowered to conduct regular local government elections, without waiting for political sanction.
Though the State Finance Commissions are supposed to determine the share of LSGs in the divisible pool of a states taxes, commensurate with the LSGs functions, the grants have never been adequate for performing all these functions. Thus, three Central Finance Commissions had all urged enhancement of financial devolution, including an independent tax domain to LSGs. A formula for the devolution of finances to ULBs needs to be fixed.
States have failed to recognise the paradigm shift in powers of elected representatives, vis-a-vis the bureaucrats, that needed to be brought about with the third tier being made a constitutional body. Thus, the colonial legacy of giving all executive powers to the commissioner in urban areas has continued while the Mayor continues to remain a ceremonial figurehead. The DC continues to wield enormous powers over panchayats in rural areas. There is a need to realign these power equations.
Except for Karnataka, which has amended its Panchayati Raj Act in 2015 to better empower the panchayats, HRF notes that most states have not handed over management of the vital PDS, primary education and primary health and other sectors to panchayats. It is significant that the Twelfth Schedule does not even list these sectors as fit for devolution to ULBs.
The funds and functionaries that should go with the functions are also missing. For instance, the parastatals BDA, BWSSB and the Karnataka Slum Development Board continue to do the functions of planning, water supply and slum upgradation respectively in Bengaluru, rather than the BBMP.
District Planning Committees and Metropolitan Planning Committees were to replace top-down central and state planning by the LSGs. Few cities have set up MPCs. Bengaluru set up one after 23 years, after court orders, but remains dysfunctional.
Though the Gram Sabha is supposed to be the ultimate decision-making body, it mostly remains a disempowered body whose consent is not taken, for instance, before important projects are taken up. HRF opines that the constitutional amendment needs to bind all state government Panchayati Raj Acts to a minimum set of powers to the Gram Sabha. In urban areas, the parallel Area Sabhas have not even been notified. Except for Kerala, states have gone in for nominated rather than elected ward committees, with nepotism built in
Though empowerment of Dalits is a specific mandate of the constitutional amendments, there are still instances of lack of support from upper caste members and officials, discrimination, untouchability, murders, etc., to prevent Dalit panchayat presidents from functioning. Many Dalit panchayat presidents are not allowed to sit on the presidents chair or hoist the national flag.
As for the empowerment of women, it is commonplace for women members male relatives to discharge official duties in their place, including in cosmopolitan Bengaluru. Dalit women representatives, lacking formal education, training and skills, are hampered by dominant caste members and male panchayat clerks manipulate them, says HRF.
In fact, states can themselves amend their Acts to genuinely devolve Power to the People without waiting for a constitutional amendment.
(The writer is Executive Trustee, CIVIC Bangalore)