Blogs / Local Governments: Assessing Their Role in National Politics After Three Decades

Local Governments: Assessing Their Role in National Politics After Three Decades

The commemoration of the 24th April as Panchayati Raj Divas, amid ongoing Parliamentary elections, prompts a reflection on Mahatma Gandhi's vision for post-independence India. Gandhi envisaged a democratically elected government anchored in the Gram Sabha (village republic) and local leaders (elected Panchayat and municipal representatives). These local leaders were tasked with selecting higher-tier representatives such as those for the Assemblies  and Parliament. Had this been India's democratic blueprint, election campaigns would have taken on a different hue within each constituent assembly, emphasising the socio-economic and cultural diversity of regions, alongside the aspirations of rural youth, farmers, labourers in the informal sector, migrants, forests, small town development, and water resources.

The journey to bringing Panchayati Raj institutions to the forefront of the constitutionally mandated democratic framework was long overdue for various reasons. About three decades ago, the 73rd Amendment aimed to revive village Panchayats as local governance institutions, encountering significant contention between central and state governments. Urban local bodies, recognized under the 74th constitutional amendment, surprisingly followed as an afterthought. However, these institutions deviated from Gandhi's vision. Had local governance institutions been established post-independence as envisioned, many freedom fighters committed to India's development would have found legitimate roles in rural and urban local bodies.

The primary argument during the introduction of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Bill was to enhance administrative efficiency in delivering development programs, rather than establishing a robust system of participatory democracy. While strengthening local democracy was considered a by-product, establishing downward accountability of the administrative machinery at the district and sub-district levels was not adequately addressed. Despite these limitations, groundbreaking provisions were made, such as providing space for women as elected representatives in India's constitution for the first time, and later the Panchayats Extension in Scheduled Areas (PESA), recognizing the rights of tribal populations.

It is encouraging to note that millions of common citizens in villages have assumed responsibilities as elected representatives over the last three decades. However, only a few have exemplified excellent examples of local area development and social justice within centrally designed programs. Nevertheless, the delivery of various entitlements and scheme benefits has significantly improved due to the direct connection between local leaders and voters and their leadership in engaging with the administrative machinery on behalf of their constituents.

During the COVID-19 crisis, local governance and leaders, particularly in rural areas, surpassed expectations in protecting and promoting citizens' interests. Village Panchayats ensured rations to returnee migrants without worrying their eligibility, established quarantine centres to prevent spread, ensured water and sanitation, provided wage employment under the MGNREGS, and facilitated transportation of critical cases to hospitals. The supportive role of local governments has been well recognized by higher tiers of government in various documents.

However, challenges persist, such as the lack of employment opportunities for skilled migrants who may like to stay back or willing to return to rural areas. Apathy to invest in  comprehensive planning and capacity-building of small towns and nearby villages will continue to widen rural-urban divide. Integrated planning between small towns and Gram Panchayats remains absent, leading to swelling cities with insufficient provisions for decent wages and amenities.

With increased funds flowing to local governance institutions through the finance commission route as well as several centrally sponsored programs, coupled with technological innovations and program designs aiming to empower local bodies, opportunities for locally innovative models are emerging. Local governments require greater autonomy, trust, and support to demonstrate their potential in realizing the dream of a locally embedded yet globally connected "Sapno Ka Bharat" (Dream India). However, achieving the unfulfilled dream of Gram Swaraj or Shahar Swaraj requires structural reforms for local governance, a journey fraught with challenges yet essential for the evolution of India's democracy and sustainable development.

Submitted By: Admin | Date: 13-May-2024