A series of assessment reports on performance of panchayats in this newspaper points to a gross dissatisfaction with their working. Although some panchayats have done better in several indices, such as garbage management, street lighting and transparency, most of them have not. Perhaps the state government can force such panchayats to improve their performance by withholding funds to them.
However, care must be taken that funds are not withheld for politically partisan reasons, as it has happened in West Bengal. Some enthusiastic partisans of the Trinamool Congress-led government in that state have stopped funds to the gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads whose officials and members belong to the CPI-M. At the same time, officials of non-performing panchayats should not be allowed to cry foul over fund stoppage if they have not been functioning. Non-performing panchayats should be treated as non-performing panchayats, no matter whether a political party in power or opposition dominates it.
In the era of reforms, when development is to take place on fast track, panchayats cannot be non-performing. Panchayats have to crucial role in implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) and a hundred other schemes of central and state governments. A number of issues have arisen with regard to implementation of MGNREGA, such as number of days job card holders have got work and whether they have got payment in full. Panchayat officials in many villages have been found to be manipulating the muster rolls and other records in order to deny job seekers work and payments.
It is owing to the corruption in these respects that the rural development ministry of the government of India has been trying to make payment by cheques or identity cards to the job card holders on a day-to-day basis. There are common complaints that unemployed persons have been trying to get job cards for several years. There are cases of workers fighting a legal battle to get their dues under MGNREGA. Their wages have been swindled with the connivance of panchayat officials. Nearly half the fund allocations under MGNREGA are entrusted to panchayats. People do not have any say in MGNREGA. Panchayat heads and block officials decide and design projects – durable social assets meant to be created under the scheme – without taking opinion of the people. In some cases, panchayat officials allege that “the money trail goes right to the top”; in other words, it is shared between panchayat officials and government officials. Such a system can hardly be described as people’s participation and empowerment.
A number of reports from grassroots in Goa also tell such and other depressing stories about panchayats. The 1993 constitutional amendment for establishing panchayati raj had aroused expectations of the people that decentralisation of power would result in higher efficiency in delivery of welfare schemes and execution of local works; that it would lead to direct accountability, improved and balanced exploitation of natural and financial resources and inclusion of local people’s needs and choices in village development. However, inquiries and assessments by the department of panchayats of the state government have pointed to poor execution and delivery efficiency in the utilization of funds provided by government.
As it was found in several villages, gram sabhas were not regularly held to discuss and debate the pros and cons of issues coming before the panchayats. Often gram sabha meetings were on paper or ‘hijacked’ by vested interests so that their viewpoints dominated the meeting. This was a far cry from the basic objective of empowering the people through panchayati raj institutions. Also, the elected members of the panchayats resisted the provisions of making villagers aware of the amounts of funds received by the panchayats as also the heads under which expenditure was incurred. Transparency was supposed to be work as a technique to prevent corruption. But panchayat officials have deliberately not allowed transparency. In welfare schemes, it was not uncommon to find that the panchayats had made the selection or rejection of beneficiaries using vague, even arbitrary criteria. Lists of beneficiaries are made in arbitrary manner, either as quid pro quo for vote given or assured in a future election or on the consideration of bribes. As the welfare schemes are meant for the poor, they are too weak to prevail upon sarpanchas to set fair criteria for identification of beneficiaries.
All this however should not lead us to pessimism about panchayats. Corruption and inefficiency do not prove the ideals of decentralisation of power and people’s empowerment are wrong. The goals are sacred. Only the techniques of achieving the goals need to be redesigned in order to make panchayats and lower bureaucracy perform honestly and efficiently for the development and well-being of the people.