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20 years of the world's most ambitious experiment with democracy

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: December 28, 2012, 2:33 PM IST
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The 22nd day of December this year marked the 20th anniversary of a particular amendment to the Indian Constitution. In very boring, dry language of the constitutional amendments it is known as the 73rd Amendment. So what? There have many amendments before and there have been many amendments after. What's so special about it? It was very special indeed. It marked the beginning of one the most ambitious experiments with democracy the world has ever seen.

Transformation of India's polity

So what happened? The amendment gave constitutional sanction to grass-roots level democracy in rural India by making the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) of India the third tier of government after the Centre and the State. Previously in some states Panchayati Raj existed but this amendment made it compulsory for all states to set up the PRIs and hold regular elections. A form of direct democracy called the Gram Sabha was created, seat reservations for women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were introduced and a State Finance Commission was set up for looking into finances of the PRIs. At one stroke the fabric of independent India's polity was altered.

But why do I say that it was one of the most ambitious experiments with democracy the world has ever seen? To begin with, consider the scale. A count in 2007-08 showed that there were nearly 3 million elected representatives in the PRI bodies, out of which more than 36 per cent were women. It is true that China has a larger number but in China all candidates come from the same party.

Panchayati Raj Institutions in India
Total ER
Women ER
Intermediate Panchayats
58012 (37.1)
15581 (20.88)
District Panchayats
5778 (37.08)
2690 (17.3)
1101835 (36.84)
549664 (18.38)
330505 (11.05)
Source:; ER - Elected Representatives, SC - Scheduled Castes, ST - Scheduled Tribes; data on elected representatives as on 2007-08.

Secondly, with one stroke it paved the way for exploited and excluded sections of rural society - women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes - to enter the political arena. It became their constitutional right thanks to the reservation of the seats. Thirdly, it opened the possibility of establishing direct democracy at the village level through the Gram Sabha. Finally, it gave poor people the chance to become political leaders. India thus embarked on an unprecedented scale a programme of taking democracy to the grass-roots.

Achievements and Failures

Over the last twenty years, there have been many ups and downs, achievements and failures. Almost everywhere in India the Panchayats have been established, as is evident from the numbers shown above. Elections are also held on more or less regular basis and turnout in the elections are usually quite high. Even in troubled areas like Jammu and Kashmir, elections have seen very high turnout among voters. This clearly indicates the popularity of the institution. As envisaged in the amendment, more than 1 million rural women have become elected representatives and numbers for Scheduled Castes and Tribes are also impressive. What is equally impressive is that today no political party is explicitly against Panchayati Raj unlike economic reforms. In a country known for fierce rivalries among different political parties, Panchayati Raj is not opposed by anyone although their levels of enthusiasm vary. The amendment was initiated by the Congress under PV Narasimha Rao but by 1996-97, the most important champion became the Left in Kerala under EMS Namboodiripad. At the other end of the country, Sikkim has also taken the agenda forward under Sikkim Democratic Front. Today no party in India will dare say that they would like to reverse the process of Panchayati Raj in India.

What is also heartening to see is that over the years the Panchayats have become important agents of rural development. PRIs are responsible for the most important flagship programme of Government of India - MGNREGS. They are also implementing schemes for rural housing, old age pension, sanitation, drinking water, rural roads, so on and so forth. Fund allocations have also gone up significantly over the years. Training institutes have been established in different states and experiments with training methodologies including satellite-based distant training are taking place. Civil Society Organisations have also played an important role in pushing the agenda forward and at least some international donor agencies have also backed the experiment although promotion of democracy does not directly fall under the "Millennium Development Goals". Although comprehensive country-wide studies are absent, we can say that women, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes are beginning to emerge as leaders breaking away from centuries of traditional oppression.

There are however many limitations which would have to be overcome in the coming years before this ambitious experiment can be considered a success. In a country such as India it is not surprising that different Panchayats are at different levels of development. In Kerala one can find beautifully built Panchayat offices which make their own plans while in Haryana, I have been to villages where the President of a Gram Panchyat works from home in the absence of a separate office. The problems of elite capture and party capture have been seen in different parts of the country. Gram Sabha, the forum for direct democracy, is yet to become a thriving institution. There are fears that the money and alcohol culture of the election of the upper tiers is creeping into the Panchayats as well. It is also seen that the elected representatives and officials of the poorest areas often do not have the capacity to perform well in implementing rural development schemes. They are also finding it tough to prepare holistic development plans. In spite of the massive efforts taken at training the representatives the coverage is still not adequate. Finding so many quality trainers is also a big problem. The massive flow of funds is also resulting in corruption. Parties are finding it difficult to find so many capable candidates to stand in elections. States have been slow in devolving powers to the Panchayats.

Keep the Dream Alive

Such limitations should not however lead to a cynical reaction to the experiment itself. The biggest danger is that of losing sight of the dream of building the best local democracy in the world. India's independence from colonial rule came after many years of struggle and many ups and downs. But what remained constant was the dream of an India free from colonial rule. Similarly the dream for a vibrant Panchayati Raj must be kept alive. This is especially relevant at a point in time when there is a serious threat of fascism taking over Indian polity.
First Published: December 28, 2012, 2:33 PM IST