Establishing Panchayati Raj Institutions in India was mandated in the Constitution through the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts in 1993-a time when neo-liberalism was in its ascendancy, with more and more countries getting incorporated in its fold.
An important aspect of this was a transformation in the thinking about the role of the state and a shift in the focus from government to governance.
With the forces of globalisation, the welfare state was being dismantled amid debate on how much of a state was necessary.
A persuasive contribution influencing the thrust of public sector reforms was that of Osborne and Gaebler (1992)who titled their book "Reinventing Government", and used the phrase 'entrepreneurial government' to describe the new model of government that they saw emerging in the world.
Decentralisation as devolution:
The goal was "de-bureaucratisation". In keeping accountability and empowerment as the building blocks of new institutions, the effort was to create autonomous institutions and community-based organisations. These autonomous institutions, called the "Special Purpose Vehicles" in India, are agencies created to provide a specific service to a specified group of beneficiaries. They are accountable to stakeholders and being market-oriented, charge user-costs for the services they provide.
Decentralisation according to the World Bank:
As international political climate became more and more preoccupied with neo-liberalism, decentralisation also came to be concerned with privatisation, with a growing belief in the idea that the creation of smaller units in which the government, the private sector and community organisations participated would be able to produce better ends. The WB endorsed this strategy.
It promoted the policy of decentralisation as a solution to the problem of state institutions being too remote from the daily realities of the lives of the poor.
The WB argues that decentralisation can be a powerful tool for achieving development goals, by assigning control to the local populace.
Thus decentralisation is not a goal of development but a means of improving public sector efficiency. The focus is on removing the afflictions of the old public administration.
The WB and its sister agencies have incorporated this in their aid giving policies.
India carries a historical legacy of neglect of human development indicators and has suffered from the lack of adequate investment in this sector even after independence.
The vision of Mahatma Gandhi:
Independent albeit interdependent villages
Life would not be a pyramid where the apex is sustained by the bottom, but it would be an ocean circle with the individual being the centre. These would be ever-widening yet ascending circles.
I. When it was noted that bureaucratically organised "Community Development Programmes" was lagging in performance, the Planning Commission appointed a study team headed by Balwant Rai Mehta in 1956 to study on "Community Development Projects and National Extension Service" with the aim of assessing their efficiency and economy.
It reported that there was a need for an agency at the village level, "which could represent the entire community".
It recommended the three-tiery structure of Panchayats.
During the 5th five year plan (1971-76), centrally sponsored schemes such as The Small Farmers Development Agency, Drought Prone Area Programme, and the Integrated Tribal Development Programme were launched.
At this time, lack of funds for panchayati raj institutions was a major constraining factor.
Critiques say that the panchayats were not seen as institutions of people's participation but as instruments to facilitate implementation of national policy.
II. Ashok Mehta committee in 1978 modified the three-tier system by introducing the mandal panchayat as the basic unit.
III. L.M. Singhvi Committee was set up in 1986 observed the need for constitutional recognition to the Panchayati Raj Institutions.
IV. Mani Shankar Aiyar committee in 2013: "Towards Holistic Panchayati Raj":
Panchayati Raj has resulted into decentralisation of corruption rather than power.
It has resulted into Sarpanch Raj.
Disillusionment prevails with respect to Panchayats.
"Bad Panchayati Raj is worse than No Panchayati Raj".
Resistance of the state governments to devolve subjects
There are limitations to the amount of resources that can be raised locally. Grants are made statutory and not dependent on the whims of central and state governments.
The second ARC points out that, despite the important role that local bodies play in the democratic process and in meeting the basic requirements of the people, the financial resources generated by these bodies fall short of their requirements.
Non-uniformity in size of panchayats across states:
No grounds on the basis of population or area have been laid down.
There are several states like Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra where gram panchayats have an average population of 2000 while in case of West Bengal and Kerala, the averages are 17,218 and 23,598.
The Constitution has provided for State Finance Commissions (SFCs) under article 143H, to be appointed by the governor within a year after the conformity act was passed.
States have been reluctant to devolve finance to the panchayats and make them as autonomous as possible. The approach differs state-wise and depends upon the discretion of the states.
Discretionary allocation of Rs. 25 lakh to each MP per year to spend in his/her constituency for development projects was done in 1992. The sum was increased to Rs. 5 crore per year in 2011.
Opposed by Left parties and the CM of Bihar on the basis of the argument that the job of MLAs and MPs is to deliberate on policy and frame laws.
In most of the states, a woman cannot be re-elected from the same constituency, once her five-year term expires. This denies a woman the chance to nurse her constituency.
Some states have introduced the two-child norm as an eligibility criterion for contesting elections. Though it is applicable to both men and women, it is more detrimental more women, as they don’t have any control over their reproductive health.
Abuse of no-confidence motions
Gender insensitive approach:
Issue of "Proxy candidate": The seat is held by the lady of the family but the real power is exercised by the male member, be it her husband, brother or son.
Reservation of seats: In order to give representation to the non-dominant sections of the population, the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts make it mandatory to reserve seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women, But as the implementation actually gets hampered every now and then, the Second Administrative Reform Commission has recommended:
to reserve a constituency for at least 2 terms rather than 1 as it exists at present.
reservation doesn't ensure participation.
Democratic decentralisation has created spaces where the meaning of development is being contested not by leaders at the central or state level, but by the people who get directly affected.
There is evidence to show that decentralisation has led to deepening of democracy. No doubt, there are conflicts and contestations, but these have only helped in evolution of the mechanisms to participate by the local.