After more than two decades of 73rd amendment of Indian Constitution, panchayats are an essential feature of Indian democratic landscape, and are being engaged in implementing and monitoring development and social protection programs with varying results across different states. Establishing a localized institution of panchayats on the basis of regular elections with universal adult suffrage was a major step towards deepening of democracy in Indian villages. There are, however, widespread concerns that panchayats are not evolving as units of decentralized governance within Indian democracy. Their performance appears to be falling short of being satisfactory when judged with respect to participation of people, especially women and the poor, efficiency of delivery of various development programs, and accountability of panchayat leadership towards their electorate.
It has been generally observed that societies characterized by patron-client relationships are more vulnerable to corruption and elite capture, as the nature of social and economic engagements between elites and non-elites does not allow non-elites to claim their rightful share of benefits and rewards. The panchayat system along with many other state-sponsored measures and ever-increasing integration of the village economies with the larger economies has transformed the patron-client relationships across the country. It has given rise to a new class of elite with newly acquired political and economic power. Although a whole bunch of erstwhile patrons has migrated to this class but it no longer retains the same hold over its clients. This new class of elite is attempting hard to monopolise the benefits of government and other programmes in collusion with the government bureaucracy.
Panchayats in their existing form are individual-centric and sarpanchs are tempted to use their power for their own personal gains and in the interests of the people close to them, for want of effective accountability mechanisms. The arrangement also suits local government functionaries who seek rents, as it is easier to collude with one person and take decisions on the delivery of government programmes in a manner that improves their chances of rent-collection. Such collusion therefore favours granting the benefits of government schemes to the relatively better off households within their broader delivery norms.
Identification of development program beneficiaries
Various studies, including my own, suggest that there are serious exclusion and inclusion errors while identifying beneficiaries for schemes such as pension, PDS, and subsidized housing. Such identification largely depends on decisions of sarpanch and panchayat secretary. Criteria for such identification are never known to villagers who feel that rent-seeking government officials and relatively more affluent people collude with sarpanch to include non-deserving households.
Panchayat system allows villagers to overtly participate through two important formal instruments; elections that normally take place once every five years and Gram Sabhas that are prescribed to be held twice in each year. Gram Sabhas consist of a large number of people and can be very intimidating for the poor people with low self-esteem. Agenda of the Gram Sabhas are monopolized by the relatively affluent and powerful. The poor, especially those belonging to the socially and economically depressed communities, and the women, are generally observed to be avoiding meetings of Gram Sabhas
Implications of imposed-from-the-top institutionalization
Once-in-five-year-elections create animosity among various groups of people, and deepen and widen almost all existing fault lines in the village constituency. They also make candidates spend money beyond their means to win elections which they attempt to recover in their tenure. Losing candidates also lose out substantial amount of money and some of them spend their entire energy to ensure that winning candidates do not succeed even when they may be doing best for their village communities.
Formal institution of panchayats somehow seems ill-fitting in the informal village societies in India. In any case, dialogue and interaction naturally occur and continue among the villagers on all the issues affecting their lives. In that sense, it appears to be artificial to formalize it through elections mandated to be held once in not less than five years thus constraining the scope of naturally occurring interactions among the people. Democratic structures in Indian villages may therefore be better served by having a character of continuous dialogue and feedback allowing the poor to claim larger political space for themselves and expand their political participation.
It seems logical to have one representative representing a large number of people in a state assembly or national parliament. Such representation cannot be altered very frequently as it would be very costly and will disrupt normal life in their constituencies, but in a village level setting, it is possible to change such representation more frequently depending upon village communities’ formal or informal meetings and resolutions. Lessons may be learnt from historical traditions of village republic in India and elsewhere as well as successful modern community organizations established around activities such as thrift and credit, watershed development, and joint forest management.