Skip to content

30 years after the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, Panchayati Raj institutions still leave a lot to be desired; HP a case study

On the ground, PRIs are totally subservient to the bureaucracy and politicians of a state; participatory governance, decentralised planning and grassroots democracy cannot be realised by tokenism

The 73rd Constitutional Amendment was a watershed moment in the history of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), as that was when they were finally accorded a Constitutional status. The Amendment was brought in to implement Article 40 of the Constitution of India. This Article enshrines one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which requires the State to take steps to organise village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.

PRIs were designated as the third tier of decentralised governance and democracy in India. Their role in local-level economic planning and social justice was accorded a Constitutional status. Provisions regarding their elections, composition, tenure, financial status, etc. were made a part of the Constitution. These were to apply uniformly throughout the country. The tribal areas under Schedule V, the states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, and the hill areas of  West Bengal’s Darjeeling district (for which the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council exists) were excluded from their ambit. Though PRIs had been around for a long time in India, they enjoyed different legal status across various Indian states prior to the 73rd Amendment.

Today, after thirty years of this seminal change, if we look at the status and the functioning of PRIs, the much touted three Fs — Functions, Functionaries and Finances — are still in varying stages of devolution in different Indian states. Despite there being a legal mandate for devolution in the Constitution, the extent and scope of which shall be discussed below, we haven’t seen much work on the ground in most states. In 2006-07, the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj started a 100 per cent centrally funded scheme called Panchayat Empowerment & Accountability Incentive Scheme (PEAIS) to gauge the performance of states in empowering PRIs. The objective of PEAIS was to arrive at a Devolution Index (DI) to assess the extent of devolution of 29 subjects to PRIs on framework, functions, finances and functionaries. The assessment under this scheme was carried out by reputed independent organisations like National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) from 2006-07 to 2008-09, and the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) from 2009-10 to 2012-13. The DI of most states in all these assessments were not very encouraging.

Devolution Report 2015-16 by Tata Institute of Social sciences (TISS) — titled Where Local Democracy and Devolution in India is heading towards? — distinguishes DI in policy from that in practice. The former is devolution done at the policy level. The latter shows how that devolution translates on the ground in PRI empowerment. Among many indices, the report also has an index of devolution in policy adjusted against practice. It gives a fairer picture about the actual devolution that has taken place on the ground despite the same having taken place at the policy level. Of 26 states that participated in the exercise, Himachal Pradesh ranks 17th in the Aggregate Index of Policy adjusted against practice. It has an adjusted DI of 0.30. As per this report, only a handful of states — Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — have made some good progress on the path of devolution.

There are several complex, intertwined, legal, socio-economic, political issues and vested interests at play. These impede devolution and thus, empowerment of PRIs. However, it is interesting to highlight the fact that this Constitutional Amendment was an outcome of the recognition at the central and state government levels that the resources being deployed for social justice and rural development in the preceding decades are not getting the expected results. There was a felt need to bring about a change in the governance system, have decentralised planning and strengthen grassroots-level democracy by empowering PRIs. The Gram Sabha (GS) was intended to be the fulcrum of the decentralised democracy. PRIs were to be completely in charge of planning and implementation, with government departments being their executive arms.

73rd Constitutional Amendment’s Mandate

Before delving deeper into the status of PRIs in Himachal Pradesh, let’s understand what the 73rd Constitutional Amendment envisaged. There were some mandatory provisions in this Amendment, which were binding on the states while enacting their state laws. Other provisions were left to be fleshed out and decided by the respective state legislatures at their discretion, since local government is a state subject. Three-tier PRIs at the village, intermediate (block level) and district level, direct elections to its members for a period of five years, 30 per cent reservation for women and for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion of their percentage to the total population, constitution of State Finance Commission every five years and an independent state election commission were the mandatory provisions of this Amendment. All state-level Panchayat laws had to comply with these provisions.

Matters related to Functions, Functionaries and Finances — specified from Article 243A to Article 243G of the Constitution — were left to the discretion of the states who would amend or enact state Panchayat laws, making provisions regarding all these aspects. Powers and functions of the most important aspect of grassroots democracy (the Gram Sabha or GS), composition of Panchayats and election of their chairpersons are left to the discretion of states. Powers, authority and responsibilities of Panchayats are also left to be determined by state laws in a manner that PRIs can function as institutions of local self-government. The state laws determine the powers of Panchayats at appropriate level so that they are empowered to prepare plans for economic development and social justice and are empowered enough for carrying out other mandatory and discretionary functions within their area of jurisdiction. State laws are also expected to confer powers on PRIs for the implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice including those in relation to the matters listed in Schedule XI. There are 29 subjects enumerated in Schedule XI of the Constitution which are matters of local concern, impacting peoples’ lives. The community, or the GS to be specific, is expected to participate in the planning and decision-making process vis a vis these matters following which, the Gram Panchayat (GP) is supposed to implement the mandate given by the GS. The states were and are expected to use their discretion in the spirit of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, which envisaged decentralised planning and governance, making PRIs institutions of local self-government. State laws were also supposed to enable Panchayats to impose taxes, raise funds and give them grants-in-aid from the consolidated fund of the state.

The situation in Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act 1994 (HPPRA) was enacted to make the state’s laws conform to the Constitutional mandate as envisaged by the 73rd Amendment. Unfortunately, even after 30 years, all GPs in Himachal cannot boast of having a dedicated Panchayat secretary and technical assistant. Vigilance committees at the GP level from among the GS members are mandated to be constituted to monitor the functioning of the GP. It is ironic that in some GPs, the functionaries themselves are part of these committees despite a categorical prohibition in this regard in the law itself. The apparent reason seems to be non-availability of people who are willing to sit on these committees.

Village-level functionaries of the agriculture, animal husbandry, primary education, forest, health and family welfare, horticulture, irrigation and public health (I&PH), revenue and welfare departments are required to attend the meetings of the GS in whose jurisdiction they are posted. In actual practice, no one bothers to do so. To realise the aim of decentralised planning and for empowering PRIs, the state government issued a notification on July 31 in 1996, whereby the functions concerning 15 departments were devolved upon the Panchayats at all three levels. Most of these 15 departments have issued further notifications, memorandums and guidelines in the name of operationalisation of devolution of these powers. A close examination of all these devolved functions makes it evident that most departments got village-level committees constituted at the Panchayat, block and district levels. These committees are in addition to the standing committees of the Panchayats (which are mandated to be constituted as per the Act/Rules) in the name of strengthening the involvement of PRIs, without giving them any real power or control over funds and functionaries. To illustrate this point, the forest department notified constitution of Panchayat-, block- and district-level forest committees, with a view to strengthen the role of PRIs in the management of local resources and for promoting participatory forest management. These committees are in addition to the village forest development society made under joint forest management. Some departments like agriculture, I&PH, veterinary dispensaries, health and education, etc. gave power to PRIs at different levels to monitor their grassroots-level functionaries’ presence in office and reporting to relevant authorities if they were absent. The power to identify beneficiaries is given to the GS under various central and state government schemes run by several departments, as per the guidelines issued by them. Some departments like agriculture and horticulture have given powers regarding initiating Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs) of some of their field-level officials to PRI functionaries at Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad level. PRI functionaries were also given some sense of participation in the appointment of grassroots employees by the education department. This was done by making them a part of the selection committee for part-time water carriers and primary assistant teachers in primary schools and appointing these people in the name of the Panchayat. Some village-level institution buildings belonging to departments like veterinary dispensaries as well as primary school buildings were transferred in the name of the Panchayat. The fisheries department has given powers to the Pradhan (village head) or Up-Pradhan (deputy village head) for issuing fishing license to anglers for sport fishing. The chairperson or vice chairperson of the block Panchayat Samiti have been given powers for issuance of fishing licenses to professional fishers for general and trout water.

The ineffectiveness of these cosmetic measures are acknowledged by the government itself. The HP Annual Administrative Report 2022-23 mentions that functionaries, finances and functions — as per the mandate of Article 243G — are still pending. In the absence of these, the GPs are unable to send development plans to the district planning committee. As of today, the exercise of making Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) is undertaken. But it is nothing but a shelf of works, a wishlist mostly in the form of roads, lights and sundry things that the GS approves for undertaking. Work is undertaken if it falls under any of the schemes that the Panchayat gets money for or within the ambit of guidelines in case of untied funds from the Central Finance Commission (CFC) and for spending their Own Source Revenue (OSR). There are several decentralised planning programmes — Mukhya Mantri Gram Path Yojna (MMGPY), Sectoral Decentralized Planning (SDP), State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF), Vidhayak Keshetra Vikas Nidhi Yojna (VKVNY), Vikas Mein Jan Sahyog (VMJS) — under which GPs are given money. A Regional and District Planning Division has been set up in the planning department for the implementation and monitoring of decentralised planning programmes and Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) in the state. Funds under these programmes are placed at the disposal of districts as “United Funds”, to be utilised for redressal of small financial implication. These funds are used for minor works on the recommendations of public representatives and other local-level agencies with the approval of district planning, development and 20-point programme review committee. There is a scheme monitoring information system, under which various schemes on which this united fund is to be spent are monitored. Curiously, national Panchayat awards have been instituted to encourage a healthy competition among PRIs. But in reality, they have further clipped the wings of the already not very empowered GSs. This award scheme has identified nine themes for development in villages. The GPs have to necessarily focus on one of the themes each year till 2030, while drawing up their GPDP.

There are mostly parallel institutional mechanisms for implementation of national and state schemes. PRIs carry out central or state government schemes in a limited role, that too as and when they are given that authority. PRIs’ finances are supposed to come from grants provided by CFC, State Finance Commission (SFC), Own Source of Revenue (OSR), schematic transfers under various schemes by the central and the state government, Grant-inAid from the state government money or support received under corporate social responsibility or loans. PRIs are usually financially dependent upon the state government as their OSR component is very low in terms of taxes and fees cess that they are allowed to levy. Recognising a lack of resources at the command of PRIs, the 15th CFC gave all three tiers of Panchayats untied grants, which constituted 40 per cent of the money granted to them by the commission. Contrary to the recommendations of CFC, even this so-called ‘untied grant’ is hemmed in by the state government by imposing various conditionalities in the name of convergence or efficiency.

Most of the money received by PRIs are earmarked for specific tasks, that too without much consideration for special local context. An interesting example is the Swachh Bharat Mission, under which each family is given a grant of Rs 12,000 for making a toilet. In some far-flung villages in the hills, this barely covers the transportation cost of material required to build a toilet as per the specification which, in any case, is not of very high standard. As a result, despite getting the support of the government, the toilets don’t get made.

Most functionaries (read elected representatives), despite multiple trainings on paper (which seem quite exhaustive looking at the training material available at the website of the state Panchayati Raj Department), are not well aware of the scope and extent of their powers and functions — neither the ones devolved upon them nor the ones that should be devolved upon them. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India have developed a certificate course for the accountants of PRIs and urban localbodies (ULBs). It is surprising that the Skill India programme run by the central government is not utilising this opportunity to create quality accountants for PRIs and ULBs.

Unfortunately, PRIs themselves have also not shown much initiative in the areas where they can make a difference. A case in point is GPs’ power to make general orders (20 items are mentioned) regarding various aspects of administering a village, including removing encroachment and fines for littering. GPs have power to control and regulate construction of buildings by making a model plan for the village which is approved by the GS and the prescribed authority. This plan can regulate new construction and alteration in existing buildings and GP can pass orders in this regard. Anyone violating the GP order can be fined and violations can be reported to the sub divisional officer who, after giving the errant party an opportunity to be heard, can pass an order for demolition of the building made against the village model plan. In reality, and in fact on the contrary, villages are witnessing a boom in rampant haphazard construction with the complicity of GPs, without anyone taking notice. None of the GPs have made model plans and even if they have, no one bothers to implement it.

There is an urgent need in India to sensitise all relevant stakeholders to make PRIs as institutions of local self-government in the spirit of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. This includes the elected representatives and other functionaries of PRIs, line departments and people in villages, who need to be made more aware of their rights. PRIs’ elected representatives, as of today, do not command the respect they deserve from line departments and bureaucrats, considering the fact that they are democratically elected representatives of village residents. On the ground, PRIs are totally subservient to the bureaucracy and politicians of the state. Participatory governance, decentralised planning and grassroots democracy cannot be realised by tokenism.

Archana Vaidya is a Natural Resource Management & Environment Law Consultant

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth