Raj of the Panchayats
By Pranietha Mudaliar, Revathi Palat Rao and Rashmi Mahajan

It was in the 1990’s that one of the key elements of Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of India finally began to fall into place. The 1950s and the 1960s saw laws that were passed to establish the Panchayats in various states but it was with the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendment in 1993 that actually devevolved powers to the village Panchayats. The Panchayati Raj had now come into force.

It was during the same time that a large number of grassroot level non-governmental organisations sprung up in some of the remotest regions of India to take charge of the responsibilities that were originally meant for the Panchayats. Decentralised governance had come to be seen as a panacea that would solve all the problems of rural India such as poverty and poor governance. But governance by these state-sanctioned local bodies or by a multitude of NGOs, with all their varied affiliations, strategies and priorities. 

What one questions is the need for civil society to organise and mobilise people by creating self help groups (SHGs) and village development committees (VDCs) when democratically elected bodies such as the Panchayat are already present. Are these local bodies not representative enough? Is it because they are unwilling to work according to the people’s demands? Is it that these institutions are too weak to carry out any development work? Is it that NGOs find it easier to channel their work through the institutions they create? Why is it that NGOs prefer to expend their energy in setting up new village level institutions rather than strengthening the already existing Panchayats?

The main purpose of the creation of the Panchayats was to ensure better resource allocation, participation, efficiency, equity, sustainability and to promote local democracy through this form of decentralized governance. However, Panchayats have tended to be dominated by those in the community who have traditionally been the elites. Programs such as participatory irrigation management, watershed development and community forest management have proven ineffectual. Panchayats seem to have failed to live up to expectations. Funds continue to be diverted from the programs they were intended, participation is sidestepped and the voices of marginalized continue to be ignored.

NGOs, on the other hand have become an attractive alternative for individuals and funding agencies to realize their goals in rural India. They have found formal structures to be too slow and cumbersome and unworthy of their trust. While the word ‘participation’ fails to translate into action in government schemes, NGOs take the concept seriously. That is not to say they have got it completely figured out, but there is an ongoing process of learning about the concept of participation underway.

The best NGOs develop understandings of the sociological context and the institutional arrangements existing in the village, while Panchayats whose jurisdiction can span three or more villages. Panchayat members tend to favour their own villages while ignoring those that are under represented. Many of those who have found themselves excluded from the processes underway at the Panchayat have been finding a home with these organizations.

But how different are NGOs from established governing bodies? With priorities, strategies and funds coming from outside the village, how much power can people actually have? With foreign governments, large international organizations, corporations and religious groups bankrolling development projects, one has to be wary of their motives. To what degree are NGOs working to promote particular products or religious and political affiliations?

NGO funding is inherently unsustainable. Projects are time-bound and are prone to being withdrawn at a moment’s notice. Donors and practitioners are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and oversight as governments and their officers. If a donor agency chooses to withdraw funding from an important program, who can take them to court? Who can unelect their board of directors if they do not agree with their priorities?

With limited funds available, it may not be effective to have this funding split among so many organizations and local governing bodies with their respective administrative costs.

This calls for the strengthening of the already existing Panchayats so that they can also work as effective institutions that cater to the need of the local people.

However, more often that not, it is difficult to keep petty politics out of Panchayats. This is not to say that the local community based organisations are away from the politics and much better at community based natural resource management.

To anyone wishing to realize positive change in rural India today, the choice of collaboration with either the Panchayat or local NGOs is clear.

NGOs have stepped up as a necessary reaction to the failure of Panchayats to meet the needs of people living in villages. But an over-reliance and investment in the non-profit sector to do what should be the work of government will not prove to be sustainable over the long term.

What is needed is a fresh look at Panchayats. If they are to continue to have any relevance at all they will need to be revitalized and rethought. With their access to funds and legal standing, it should be reasonable to expect that they will someday become the force for rural development they were meant to be.

If this is to happen Panchayats would need to expand their scope of concern to include the activities that have emerged as major priorities such as watershed and forest management.

A major question that researchers will need to ask is how villages will be able to develop a pro-poor politics that can work beyond the divisions of caste, religion, class, gender and spatial inequality.

Photo Gallery

View the Slideshow