Autonomy at Panchayat Level

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    Context

    • Sarpanch in Telangana’s Jayashankar Bhupalpally district died by suicide due to indebtedness.

    What are the Challenges of PRI?

    • Problem of Autonomy at the Panchayati Level: More than three decades after the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts, which gave constitutional status to local governments.
      • State governments, through the local bureaucracy, continue to exercise considerable discretionary authority and influence over panchayats.
      • In India, the powers of local elected officials (such as sarpanches in Telangana) remain seriously circumscribed, thereby diluting the spirit of the constitutional amendments seeking to empower locally elected officials.
    • Issues of Funding: Broadly, panchayats have three main sources of funds — their own sources of revenue (local taxes, revenue from common property resources, etc.), grants in aid from the Centre and State governments, and discretionary or scheme-based funds.
      • Their own sources of revenue (both tax and non-tax) constitute a tiny proportion of overall panchayat funds. Gram panchayats remain fiscally dependent on grants from the State and the Centre for everyday activities.
      • Access to discretionary grants for panchayats remains contingent on political and bureaucratic connections. When higher levels of government allocate funds to local governments, sarpanches need help accessing them. 

    Delays in the disbursement of funds: By the local bureaucracy have led to pressure on sarpanches leading some to end their life. Sarpanchs are forced to use private funds for panchayat activities.

    • Double Authorisation for Spending: The sarpanch and the panchayat secretary, who reports to the Block Development Officer (BDO), must co-sign cheques issued for payments from panchayat funds.
    • State Control and Political Supervision: Gram Panchayat Acts in many States have empowered district-level bureaucrats, mostly District Collectors, to act against sarpanches for official misconduct. Unlike elected officials at other levels, sarpanches have been dismissed while in office.
      • For Example, Section 37 of the Telangana Gram Panchayat Act allows District Collectors to suspend and dismiss incumbent sarpanches.
    • Less Discretionary power with Sarpanches: The ability of sarpanches to exercise administrative control over local employees is limited.
      • Sarpanches need to be in the good books of politicians and local bureaucrats if they want access to discretionary resources, timely disbursement of funds and be able to successfully execute any project or program in their village.
    • No Conceptual Clarity of Power distribution: While establishing Panchayati Raj bodies, no uniform pattern is adopted for creating units and identifying the units of planning and development.
      • The distribution of functions and powers:
        • among the Panchayati Raj Institutions, 
        • between the Panchayati Raj Institutions and State government  
        • between the Panchayati Raj Institutions and the Central Government have not been made on the basis of any sound principle. 
      • There is a great deal of confusion, overlapping, and sometimes duplication in the function.
    • Structural Challenges: The expertise available to the Panchayati Raj Institutions is very limited, particularly in the field of planning, implementation, or monitoring of various developmental schemes.
      • Planning at the grassroots level remains on paper while there is a strong tendency towards centralization in the country.
    • Socio-Economic and Political Condition: The elected members at all the levels of Panchayati Raj Institutions and the Office bearers are normally from the rich and dominant sections of the rural society.
      • They have vested interests in preserving the existing system and would not do anything that would strengthen the position of the downtrodden in their areas.
      • Sometimes leadership of the Panchayati Raj Institutions acts as a gatekeeper to prevent the flow of benefits to the weaker sections of the rural community.
    • Absence of Statutory Provisions: States may or may not constitute the Panchayati Raj Institutions. For Example, in Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram Panchayati Raj Institutions are not established. 
      • Similarly, in a number of states, elections have not been held regularly. The superseded bodies have not been revived and they are kept under the charge of special officers drawn from the civil service. 
      • The Panchayati Raj Institutions have been undermined by several constraints, particularly, the constitutional constraint which is a very serious matter. 

    Way Forward

    The 6th report of the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission (ARC) can be implemented for better and effective functioning of the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

    • Clear-cut demarcation of functions of each tier of the government in the case of each subject matter law. In the case of new laws, it will be advisable to add a ‘local government memorandum’ to state their role.
    • Fiscal autonomy accompanied by fiscal accountability (Genuine Fiscal Federalism) can provide a long-term solution.
    • Capacity Building for Self Governance: In rural areas, local self-governing institutions must attend to both the organization-building requirements as also the professional and skills upgradation of individuals associated with these bodies, whether elected or appointed.
    • Access to debt capital markets can provide them with the scope for planned infrastructure development. Local bodies need to substantially improve their overall administrative and technical capacities to access debt, particularly long-term bonds.
    • Training should be imparted to the Members of Panchayats which require expertise and resources from various subject matter-specific training institutes.
    • Setting reasonable tax and fee rates, improving collection efficiencies, and expanding financing mechanisms to ensure the buoyancy of revenues over time.
    • Members of Parliament Local Area Development Schemes (MPLADS) fund can be utilized in an effective manner.
    • The State Finance Commission (SFC): States have to set up State Finance Commissions to synchronize with the Central Finance Commission. The Action Taken Report on the recommendations of the SFC must compulsorily be placed in the concerned State Legislature within six months of submission and followed with an annual statement on the devolution made and grants given to individual local bodies.

    Source- The Hindu