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Strengthening the panchayats
Rajasthan proposes to revise local administration
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August 2002 : Government administration today has assumed extensive dimensions and touches people intimately in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, administration today is beset by the ills of procedural delays, a lack of both transparency and responsiveness, the absence of accountability, and the prevalence of corruption. Carrying out administrative reforms to uproot these evils and ensure a transparent, accountable, responsive and people-friendly administration is an urgent necessity. It is also a challenging task.

Article 40 of the Constitution provides for organising village panchayats and endowing them with powers and functions of self-government. As a result, nearly all the states took legislative steps to establish the Panchayati Raj System. The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee prepared a blueprint of Panchayati Raj, including a 3-tier system with transfer of powers, functions, resources and development programmes to Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). On this basis, the Panchayati Raj was introduced by Nehru in 1959.

Following this, developments toward ensuring Panchayati Raj faltered, and it was only in 1992 that the 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed, making mandatory provisions for the 3-tier structure, reservations for SC/ST candidates, women and OBC's, an independent election commission, and state Finance Commissions. This amendment, however, retained the powers and functions relating to 29 subjects in the hands of the State Legislatures. Predictably, only a few states showed the commitment toward devolution of these powers.

In Rajasthan, elections to the panchayats are now regularly held, overseen by state election commission. In 2000, over 1.2 lakh representatives were elected to panchayats. Yet, resources allocated for panchayati raj are insignificant. The First Finance Commission recommended that 2.18% of the total state resources be provided to PRIs; the Second Finance Commission's report is awaited. District Planning Committees are handicapped for want of adequate untied resources, since this gives them the most flexibility.

The Rajasthan Panchayat Raj Act (1994) assigned 33 subjects to panchayats, 58 to panchayat samitis, and 19 to zilla parishads, but these were subject to 'conditions laid down by the government'. The government has chosen to delegate very few areas; in effect the panchayats function as agencies of the state government rather than as independent self-governing bodies. No financial powers have been transferred to PRIs, except committed expenditure on staff salaries. Even when income is generated by the PRIs themselves, their use is regulated by the state government.

That's the current malaise, but reforms are in the works, at least on paper. The Rajasthan Government constituted the Administrative Reforms Commission on May 11, 1999 under the Chairmanship of none other than the former Chief Minister Shri Shiva Charan Mathur. The Commission was to examine public administration in the State and to make recommendations for reforms, re-orientation and reorganisation. The Commission was charged with the task of making recommendations to ensure the highest standards of efficiency and integrity in public services. It was to look into re-structuring the administration for speedy and efficient disposal of work; streamlining procedures, rules and regulations toward simplifying systems promoting transparency; reducing administrative costs; improving the public grievance redressal system; and inducing attitudinal changes for accountability and responsiveness to the public.

The Commission's recommendations are essentially aimed at charting the path for the PRIs to evolve into genuinely self-governing institutions. To enable them to plan and implement schemes for economic development and social justice, as mandated by the constitution, general administrative and maintenance and regulatory functions should be transferred to them. This will strengthen their rather limited role in development. The Commission therefore recommended that the State Govt should issue clear and unambiguous orders transferring all the subjects enlisted in Schedules 1, 2 and 3 of the Act. Wherever any condition is required to be laid down, it may be prescribed under the Rules within a specified period.

Proposed Panchayati Raj Reforms

The 3-tier structure proposed in the 73rd Constitutional amendment, with elections to each tier being direct, was well-intended, but this has created bodies that don't communicate well with each other. This has also created turf wars between elected representatives at different levels. The Commission therefore recommends the following structural changes urgently.

  • The original system of direct elections only at the village panchayat level and representation of chair persons of lower tier to higher tiers may be revived and GOI be persuaded to make amendment in the Constitution.
  • Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis be empowered to have powers to oversee activities of their lower tiers to ensure qualitative improvement in their working.
  • A District Council, with leader of largest opposition party in the district, be constituted to ensure transparency in the working of PRIs. Objective and critical concurrent evaluation of all development programmes should be done.
  • A 'Panchayat Sabha' for each village should be introduced, at least four meetings of which are held each year. These should assume the role of 'Gram Sansad' for planning, resource mobilization, mobilization of voluntary labor etc. It should be ensured that at least 1/3rd of the women and SC/ST should be present in such meetings.
  • 'Nayay Panchayats' should also be revived in order to ensure faster and cheaper settlement of small disputes at the village level itself.

The commission recommended a series of measures on greater financial democratisation. Most of these are based on the idea that untied monies allow greater flexibility and local decision making by the panchayats themselves, rather than merely carrying out state-directed functions.
  • The total State budget should be divided in two parts i.e. 'State Sector' and 'District Sector.'
  • All non-plan/plan funds related to 29 sectors of Schedule 11 of the Constitution and items included in Schedules 1, 2 and 3 of the Act for programmers as well as for staff should be transferred to PRIs.
  • A major chunk of plan resources should be allocated to PRIs as 'untied' which should not be less than 40% of the total State plan.
  • All land revenue should be assigned to PRIs.
  • A District Equalization/Encouragement Fund should also be created for providing grants to PRIs for correcting regional imbalances and matching contribution to those who have made additions in their income or public contribution.

A substantial number of the Commission's recommendations relate to vesting local administrations with decision-making authority and financial control. Several recommendations relate to the organization of sub-state level administrations, including comments over their salaries, independence of work, discipline, accountability to panchayats, etc.

The realization of decentralized economic development and social justice shall remain only a pious wish unless the PRIs are given powers to generate resources and statutory entitlement to share the total revenues of the State. The system of tied grants currently in use is not adequate. The entire tax revenue of the State should become distributable between State and Local Govt. with the mandatory backing and force of law. The Commission recommends that the Second Finance Commission allocate at least 30% of state revenues to PRIs. This is comparable to the 29% of Central revenues now being transferred to the states by the Union government.

The Rajasthan government's response to these recommendations is awaited.

Kiran Soni Gupta
August 2002

Kiran Soni Gupta is the Secretary to the Administrative Reforms Commission of the government of Rajasthan.

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