(Prof. Rekha Chowdhary, 57, was born in Jammu and has been a university teacher for the past 30 years. She is currently the Professor of Political Science, University of Jammu. During her distinguished teaching career, she was the visiting Fellow under a Ford Foundation grant at the Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, in 1992-1993; winner of the Commonwealth Award availed at the University of Oxford, 1997-1998; and the Fulbright Fellow availed at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, in 2005.)
The Question of Empowerment
With a year having passed after the successful conduct of election of Panchayats, the issue of empowerment of Panches and Sarpanches is still unresolved. This is despite the noise being made by the political class in the state. Not only the leaders belonging to the opposition parties but also the ruling Congress have been ‘demanding’ the empowerment of Panchayats and as if on clue, the leaders of the National Conference have also been making a commitment, almost on daily basis that the government is going to empower the Panchayats.
The seriousness of the government in this process, in the beginning, was reflected in the appointment of a high-level committee to suggest the desirable changes in the existing Panchayati Raj system. Since long, the Committee headed by the Chief Secretary of the state, has offered a number of recommendations. However, the Panchayats continue to remain as powerless as these were.
Certainly, there is a vested interest that is inhibiting the process of empowerment of Panchayats – the interest of those in whom the powers are concentrated right now. But there is no justification for concentration of powers in a truly democratic and federal system. The process of empowerment of Panchayats in democratic and federal systems is a matter of ‘right’ and not the matter of charity. It is not for the governments to make a choice whether to ‘give’ power to the Panchayats or not, but a matter of ‘obligation’.
It may do us good to revisit the concept of panchayats in order to understand as to what is being involved in the demand for their empowerment. Panchayat, as a concept has ceased to be merely an ‘administrative’ institution and is now to be understood more as an institution of ‘grassroots governance’ and a ‘third tier of federal system’. As an institution of grass root governance, it is helping democracy acquire depth, especially in states where local Panchayat Acts have followed the spirit of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. Here Panchayats not only allow people to be involved in the matters of local governance but also in enforcing accountability and transparency. The three-tier Panchayats, at the village, block and district levels provide the opportunities to people to be involved in planning, in preparing and implementing schemes relating to their economic development and social justice and, in administering the matters of local concerns. It is also providing the people belonging to marginal sections an opportunity to acquire the role of local leadership. Millions of women, members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs have attained the status of political elites at the local levels via the system of Panchayats. It is for this reason that the Panchayati Raj system is celebrated for bringing about a ‘silent revolution’ in India. But for this system, these backward and peripheral sections would not have had access to political power at the grassroots levels.
However, besides the democratic context, there is the federal context in which Panchayats are conceptualised. Due to the initiation of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment, the concept of federalism in India has undergone major transformation. The two-tier federal system has been extended, with an additional level being added to it. While the original federal context provided only a division of powers between the Centre and the state, now the powers have also been divided between the State and the Panchayats. The eleventh and twelfth Schedules of Indian Constitution (that have been inserted via 73rd and 74th amendments) provide for the matters which are now to be placed exclusively in the jurisdiction of the Panchayats. What is signified by this? First, that the pattern of governance that we are familiar with has undergone fundamental change. To the two levels of governance – Central government and State government, the governance at the Panchayat level has been added. Second, the powers of the Centre government, State government and Panchayats are exclusive and do not overlap. Third, the powers at each level are clearly delineated and guaranteed. Rather than being ‘delegated’ or ‘defined’ by the government at the higher level, these powers are ‘inbuilt’ in the institutions of that level of governance. As regards the powers of Panchayats therefore, these are not to be seen as powers to be delegated by the state government, but rather the powers that are already located in the domain of Panchayats. Fourth, a legal-constitutional arrangement is required that ensures that the state government does not encroach upon these powers.
The conceptualisation of Panchayati Raj institutions in J&K neither properly follows the criterion of democratic governance, nor that of extension of federal structures. It also does not fully aim at the ‘silent revolution’. It is half-hearted attempt to introduce the minimal structures of Panchayat without a larger vision as to what these structures are aimed at. Had it not be the case, the principle of democratic governance would not have been missing at the block and district level panchayats; the panchayats (and the Municipal bodies for that matter) would have remained in place continuously and between their dissolution and new election, there would not have remained a time gap; the matter of empowerment of Panchayats would have been resolved by a constitutionally guaranteed division of power between the State and Panchayats; the Finance Commission would have been put in place and awarded the financial powers to the Panchayats; reservation for women, SCs and STs would not have stopped at the level of Panches but would have extended to the Sarpanches and to the Block and District level Panchayats…
The ideological lag in conceptualisation of Panchayati Raj Institutions in J&K is ironical given the fact that this state had started with an ideological blueprint in the name of ‘New Kashmir Manifesto’ which had not only committed itself to the socio-economic reorganisation of the state but also a people-oriented political system. This manifesto talked of a political system ‘based on democratic principles of responsible government, with the elective principle applied from the Local Panchayat right up to the National Assembly’. Article 17 of the Manifesto written in 1944 had offered a decentralised structure of power at the district, block and Panchayat level.