Raj: The imperfect pure democracy of Panchayati

The State shall 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.   – The Indian Constitution   The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny … it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.
– James Madison, The Federalist Papers

This reporter arrived in Madhya Pradesh in 2002, when the Congress party Chief Minister Digvijay Singh had a high reputation in MP for being an effective leader. In Bhopal (so went the view from Delhi), groundbreaking innovations were taking place in government policy on health, education, Dalits, tribals and, most importantly, Panchayati Raj. No doubt, decentralisation and the devolution of power to the villages was an admirable step, designed to empower the people. But throughout the course of reporting form Madhya Pradesh, it became clear to this reporter that the reality was something else.  

The first time I had to face up to the contrary facts surrounding Panchayati Raj was when starvation deaths began to be reported from Baran, a Rajasthani district adjacent to Madhya Pradesh. As I traveled to the affected villages, it became obvious that deaths were the result not of a shortage of foodgrains in the state, nor even of such a lack in individual villages. The failure instead took place at the lowest level – the sarpanch had failed to shift the grain the final 500 metres. People were dying in sight of food stocks that could have saved their lives.  

The two worst-hit villages were Suans and Bilkheda Mal. In Suans, the five quintals of wheat required to be stocked by the government were available with the sarpanch. His name was Gopal Gujjar, and he admitted: "We gave wheat only to those who had no one to look after them. I don't know the names, the patwari has a list. Not one of those who lost relatives where given wheat. This would have meant going around the village to check the condition of each person or household, and this was never done."  

To a lay observer, this situation might have seemed the consequence of the nature of the panchayats in Madhya Pradesh, each consisting of at least six widely dispersed villages. It would have been difficult to gather information from each. But further investigation showed that this was not why people were dying. The reason was not distance but neglect. When starvation deaths started taking place in Shivpuri, a district bordering Rajasthan, I found that sarpanches had never even bothered to find out the condition of Dalits who lived and died just a few hundred yards from them.  

What this episode exposed was the weakness of the much-talked-about Panchayati Raj system. My belief was shaken that the panchayat system would function better than any alternative that would involve the district administration and its bureaucrats. The sarpanch, who heads the system of village government, turns out to be the weak link, because of his proximity to and participation in local prejudices.  

Sarpanch autocrats
When the Digvijay government, in a limited but still substantial manner, decided to redistribute village grazing land to Dalits, high castes across the state suddenly drove their cattle through the standing crops planted by the Dalits. The sarpanches lent their full support to the action. As in the case of the starvation deaths, the sarpanches did not consider themselves accountable in any fashion for wrongdoing, and there was nothing at the lowest level that could make them accountable.  

It is necessary to stress the role of the sarpanch time and again, because in practice that is what Panchayati Raj reduces to. The other panches rarely if ever exercise any power, and the institution of the Gram Sabha, or village assembly, tends to be mostly defunct. In the absence of an active NGO working in an area, I have never come across villages where the Gram Sabha convenes. Thus, the entire process of administering accountability in Panchayati Raj is based on a fiction. As a result, the sarpanch is an autocrat, at the moment constrained only because a complete devolution of power has not taken place.  

None of these conclusions should come as a surprise. The Greeks, used to the idea of small city states, had often been sceptical of democracy. The founders of the American republic have put on record many of their apprehensions about pure democracy, while arguing for the division of power that exists between the executive, legislative and judicial branches in any republic.  

At the level of a village panchayat, what is missing is precisely this division of power. Any other source of authority is found tens of kilometres away. In the confines of the village, there is no media to scrutinise the aberrations that take place. The sarpanch himself embodies the caste dynamics that have always run village politics in India. In such a setting, to think of the panchayat as a positive force is to be led by belief rather than observation.  

Devolution trap
Reservation is one of the few instruments that work against the misguided pure democracy of the panchayat. For all the problems in implementation, the reservation of seats for Dalits and women does somewhat remedy the situation. But in nine out of ten cases, a woman sarpanch is merely a proxy for the sarpanchpati, in which case things remain little changed. Nonetheless, the rare exception is worth promoting. In highlighting the lack of enlightened Panchayat leadership, it becomes clear that this system can offer no check on current problems, and that these issues would only worsen with any further devolution.  

There seems to be no easy solution available. Any attempt to make the Gram Sabha a functional body would require external verification, and the vesting of the district administration with the power to act against a sarpanch who fails to convene the Sabha. Such power already exists in theory, but a more stringent use is anathema to proponents of Panchayati Raj. Neither do they look favourably upon the possibility of a division of powers between the panchayat and the representatives of the executive. Various states have come up with differing administrative mechanisms, but the inherent problems continue.  

At the time, much of the criticism levelled against Digvijay Singh dealt with his failure to devolve real power to the people, or to provide enough funds to the panchayats. But the fact was that the panchayats were failing to perform in the very cases in which powers had been devolved to them, and it was difficult to see how this would be rectified by devolving more powers. In the form of the sarpanch, the system continues to embody the power imbalances and prejudices that have always existed in village society. In such a situation, to be carried away by dogma because the work of a handful of dedicated outsiders has made the system work in a few places is to fail to face up to reality.  

Writing before the State Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2003, the current Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar, claimed: "Curiously (but reassuringly), however, it is not so much on the achievements of the past three years as on his plans for the next five that [Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit] Jogi is taking his campaign to the people. And his single most important prescription for the future is what, in my view, has given Digvijay Singh in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh his two terms in office and the imminent promise of a third – Panchayati Raj."  

Digvijay was subsequently wiped out at the polls, while Jogi was also forced to make an exit from government. The people themselves do not seem to have the faith in the benefits of Panchayati Raj, even though the proponents hold it out as an article of faith.

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