OPINION
25 YEARS OF PANCHAYAT RAJ ACT
WE MISSED A REVOLUTION, BUT CAN IT STILL BE A GAME CHANGER?
- Dr. Pyara Lal Garg
WE MISSED A REVOLUTION, BUT CAN IT STILL BE A GAME CHANGER?



TIME MOVES ON, uninterrupted, unaffected by the happenings around. Days, months and years pass by. Just as this 24th day of April, too, will become yesterday in 24 hours. It happens every year.  Why then is it so special this time for the common rural populace but remains a mere ritual for the powers that be? 

This is the day when the provisions of the mandate of the 73rd Constitutional amendment by way of insertion of new part IX to Article 243 and the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India , came into force in 1993 —the 43rd year of the Republic of India. 

At the time of enactment it was envisaged and drafted as a game changer in favour of the common man and as an instrument of extension of the institution of democracy to the grass root level, a second attempt after the right to vote by way of universal adult franchise, for empowerment of people by entitling them to participate in shaping the country not only as a voter but also as an active actor in the process of decision making and implementation, an attempt to make them not only the ruled but also the ruler, to give legal shape to the heritage of Sangat being above the Guru.

However, due to lack of political and administrative will, this Panchayati Raj Act has remained merely a paper exercise with the honourable exceptions of a few very fine and encouraging examples.
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The lackadaisical attitude of the government, the elected leaders, the non-formal leaders and the intelligentsia towards this game changing statute is jarring.
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One can quote the decision of the tribals of Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, where the Dongia Kondh tribe pushed the powerful Vedanta group out of their Bauxite rich area. In the same vein, the people of village Lobana in District Patiala dared to undo the forced resolution which was the doing of the BDO and a result of deception. Finally, the government had to distribute more than 100 plots to the homeless landless instead of allotting 25 acre of village shamlat for the stray cattle. Similarly, the people of village Tamkot in District Mansa have run their affairs as per the Constitutional norms and even won the national level prize for implementation of the Panchayat Act.

The lackadaisical attitude of the government, the elected leaders, the non-formal leaders and the intelligentsia towards this game changing statute is jarring. The wealth and income disparity in the country as well as in the state of Punjab is on the rise. A handful of the wealthy elite are cornering the riches, pushing the vast majority into abject poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment/underemployment, disease and squalor. 

The benefit of welfare schemes does not percolate to the needy while stooges of the politically connect prey like vultures. The political field is badly plagued by the force of kinship, money and muscle.

IS THERE A WAY OUT? Indeed, there is.

The Panchayat elections are conducted only when a village/ area stands duly notified as GRAM SABHA AREA in accordance with the provisions of the Panchayat Act. Each voter of the Gram Sabha Area is automatically the member of the Gram Sabha as provided under section 4 (2) of the Panchayat Act.  

The Gram Sabha is nothing but the village parliament. It is empowered to pass the budget and estimate the income and expenditure as well as draft the development plan for the next financial year. This plan is prepared by the Panchayat and presented to the Gram Sabha during the Sauni meeting, that is the general meeting to be held in December. Similarly, the Gram Sabha in its Haari general meeting, that is the general meeting in June, shall examine and review the account statements prepared by the Panchayat and placed before the Gram Sabha. It shall also evaluate the progress and performance of the development activities of the village. 

It is patently clear from the Act that the development plan and the budget prepared by the Panchayat or by the Panchayat Samiti has to be presented before the Gram Sabha and has to be got passed in the Sauni General Meeting of the Gram Sabha. As such all experts and officials/officers preparing the development plan and the budget are answerable to the Gram Sabha in this matter. This is what the Panchayat Act does — gives real power to the people.  
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Panchayats have metamorphosed into constitutional entities and draw their powers from the Constitution of India. The Panchayat Act empowers rural voters to actively participate in planning, budgeting, execution and supervision of all development activities, identification of beneficiaries under various welfare schemes and effective functioning of government institutions/facilities in the concerned Gram Sabha Area.
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WHAT CAN THE GRAM SABHA DO?

Gram Sabha is empowered to identify all the beneficiaries of various welfare schemes of the Central and the State Government. So Gram Sabha can: 

Enlist genuine names eligible for old age, widow, orphan, handicapped pension scheme. 

Enlist the eligible beneficiaries for the 5 marla plots to landless homeless households

Enlist the eligible beneficiaries for construction of toilets

Enlist all the eligible beneficiaries under MGNREGA out of landless and those with land up to 5 acres of land and can get their job cards issued.

Can identify village common land that has been encroached upon and can get it vacated.

Can hold open public auction of village common land for highest bidder and can also ensure leasing of 1/3rd of it for the bonafide Scheduled Caste members 

Identify the repair and construction works required to be done under MGNREGA and get them completed under its supervision like repair of Anganwadis, schools, panchayat ghars, de-addiction centres , common public buildings, making all weather gravel roads, water courses etc.

Identify the fruit and shadow /timber trees for plantation on village common land and can manage the care and sale of the fruit and timber to Gram Sabha Members at subsidised rates.

Can identify and manage sowing and sale of vegetable on village common land.

Can manage rain water harvesting and thus help to raise the water table and save the people from extra expenditure on deepening of tubewells.

Can engage MGNREGA workers on compost preparing from solid and liquid domestic waste and agriculture waste like paddy straw and, thus, prevent environmental pollution by providing alternative to paddy and wheat straw burning.

Can engage MGNREGA workers for vermicompost and thus move towards natural manure

Can instal and manage community Biogas Plants and thus provide cooking gas to Gram Sabha members and protect the environment, too.

Can cleanse ponds and manage them for rain and kitchen water collection, use them also for pisciculture. 
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The wealth and income disparity in the country as well as in the state of Punjab is on the rise. The benefit of welfare schemes does not percolate to the needy while stooges of the politically connect prey like vultures. 
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THE CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS

All rivers of Punjab stand polluted, the water of Ghaggar has plunged to ‘E’ class from ‘D’ right from Jharmal river up to Sardoolgarh. That of River Satluj has become ‘D’ class at Budha Nala confluence and ‘E’ Class at ‘East Bein’ confluence. Even the water of Ravi has degraded from ‘A’ class at Madhopur headworks to ‘B’ Class in the last five years.   
 
As per a study conducted by Sushil Gupta, Regional Director of the Central Ground Water Board, the ground water of Punjab is depleting very fast. A whopping 78% area of the state is over exploited, comprising 103 community development blocks while the situation is critical in 5 blocks and semi-critical in another four blocks. The soil is also getting barren and the process of desertification has set in due to depletion of ground water level. 
 
The forest cover in the state has come down to just 4.85% of the total area as per figures of 2015-16, whereas the normal cover for eco-economics must be varying from 16% to 33% from area to area and climatic zone to climatic zone. All education and health statistics have dwindled down drastically. As per the figures thrown up by the Socio-economic and Caste Census, 58% of the adults in in Rural Punjab have not crossed fifth standard while 33% are totally illiterate. The state has only 3.02% graduates in rural areas, way below the national average. 

In the health domain, the NHFS IV data of 2015-16 depicts that the rate of anaemia has increased very fast. While 38% of the women were reported anaemic during 2005, the percentage of anaemic women has increased by 15.5%. That means more than half (53.5%) of the women are now anaemic. Hepatitis C has become an epidemic. During the last two years, till April 13, 2018, there were 43,944 cases under treatment. 

The disease has spread its tentacles in the Malwa region and the adjoining district of Tarn Taran. Out of these 43,944 cases, 31,024 have been reported from 10 districts of Sangrur, Barnala, Mansa , Bathinda, Moga, Faridkot, Muktsar, Fazilka , Ferozepur and Tarn Taran. Similarly, in the last six years, till March 14, 2018, under the Punjab Chief Minister’s Cancer Relief Fund, the facility has been availed in 47,279 cancer cases.
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The political field is badly plagued by the force of kinship, money and muscle.
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The gap in wealth and income is also really frightening. The top 1% in India possess 58% of the wealth while the top 10% have 79% of the wealth. They get the major share of total annual income of the country, too. Last year, 73% of the income was pocketed by the top 1% super rich. The state has 31.94% population of the Scheduled Castes. A majority of them, especially the Valmikis, have not been able to reap the benefit of reservation. It is estimated that around 98% of the SC population has not been able to get any benefit of reservation.  Education in government schools, especially in rural areas, is in doldrums and the children studying in government primary schools mostly come from scheduled castes, backward classes or very poor of other castes. Among 11,11,222 students in Primary Schools, 7,06,263 (63.56%) are from Scheduled Castes. Their education has been adversely affected by the indiscipline, absenteeism, lack of interest, misdistribution of teachers, lack of books, etc. 

WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE PANCHAYAT ACT? 

On April 24, the Panchayat Act became effective throughout the length and breadth of the country — everywhere, in the hills and the plains, islands and mainland, among tribals and non tribals. Under this Act, enacted in compliance of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, the Panchayats have metamorphosed into constitutional entities and draw their powers from the Constitution of India. 

The Panchayat Act has empowered the rural voters to actively participate in planning, budgeting, execution and supervision of Development activities, identification of beneficiaries under various welfare schemes, effective functioning of government institutions/facilities in the concerned Gram Sabha area. In fact, this is a quantum jump in the empowerment of people from being mere voters or electors to be the rulers.  
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The lackadaisical attitude of the government, the elected leaders, the non-formal leaders and the intelligentsia towards this game changing statute is jarring.
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THE POSSIBLE IMPACT:

An annual income of Rs. 40,000/- per landless household and farmers with land up to 5 acre. The same shall solve day to day problem of cash and shall reduce farmers’ and farm labours’ suicides.

The provision of cheap and easily locally available vegetables and seasonal fruits at an affordable cost shall provide nutrients; the anaemia shall be treated and prevalence of diseases shall come down due to increased immunity.

Individual indebtedness due to expenditure on disease shall decrease due to lessening of the overall disease burden and also due to the decrease in man-days lost on account of illness.

The trees and the rain water harvesting shall be helpful in raising the ground water level and thus save the expenditure on deepening of tubewells.

Increased income of the village and the management and better upkeep of public use buildings can dissuade people from the Marriage Palace Culture and save them money. 

Gram Sabha by ensuring proper functioning of government institutions and functionaries can ensure improvement in the delivery of education, health care, animal care and childcare services.

Transparent, democratic, accountable functioning shall lead to leadership development among common people and reduce the role of money and muscle power.

If consensus is generated that elections up to Zila Parishads are not to be contested on party symbols, then the unity of the people shall be the likely outcome.

Forest cover shall increase, environment shall improve and biodiversity is likely to be preserved. 

 

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