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Marginalizing Panchayats

Mark Schneider

By Lalita Chanrashekhar
Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 225, Rs.695.00


With the passing of the 73rd amendment of the Constitution which empowered a three-tiered local (self) government system or panchayat raj, attention has been focused on the success of decentralization in India. Millions of local politicians have been elected with constitutional authority into the panchayat raj system since 1993. The heavy use of reservations for women and members of marginal castes has changed the face of descriptive representation, with important consequences identified by scholars in the United States and India. Despite the scope of these reforms, observers have begun to doubt the potency of these reforms. In Karnataka the term of the president of the zilla (district) panchayat has been reduced to 20 months which is also the case for the gram (village) panchayat president. The range of development policy issues over which elected local politicians have control are limited and are often indirectly influenced by State politicians or bureaucrats. And the rise of outsourcing of State development initiatives to NGOs and other parallel bodies have further weakened the degree to which local self-government is a reality in India that has a substantive impact beyond its well-documented descriptive impact. The argument taken up by Chandra-shekhar takes off from this point. She argues that panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) have become marginalized by a trend toward out-sourcing development policy to parallel insti-tutions that do not consult with elected local politicians and are not accountable to voter approval. The exception is Kerala where PRIs are given important powers over education policy implementation and are consulted by NGO-sponsored self-help groups. Here expert panels are established only to ensure technical feasibility. In Karnataka, PRIs are subservient to State bureaucrats, panchayats have no power to recruit, transfer or discipline staff, and MLAs (or State legislators) have been winning the battle for preeminence vis-รก-vis the zilla panchyat president. Moreover, commit-tees overseen by bureaucrats at the district, block, and village levels are directly linked to the State and side-step the gram panchayats. These commissions set up by the Central Government are financially autonomous and not accountable to the PRIs although some members of the PRIs sit in committees outside the formal arena of PRIs themselves. Beyond these commissions, the author focuses her argument on the effect of Societies and State-instituted User Committees (CBOs) that have taken the functions assigned to PRIs outside of their purview. The most striking example is the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Karnataka, which is a ...

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