The two most progressive and least controversial pieces of Legislation in the seventy-one years of the Indian Republic are the Constitution 73rd and 74th Amendments Acts. They are in conformity with and intended to translate into action the Constitutional Scheme in Article 40, Part IV, Directive Principles of State Policy: Viz. “Organise village panchayats and endow (Italics mine) them with necessary powers and authority to enable them to function as units of self-government.” This principle is based on Gandhian ideology used to represent the program of reconstruction, enunciated by Gandhiji during the national movement. In fact, on 30 January 1948, the last day of his life, Gandhiji dictated to his secretaries, his idea of Grama Swaraj, in turn, Ramarajya.
After the crown took over the reins of administration of India from the East India Company, the British Govt had established local bodies; Municipalities, Dist Boards and Panchayats. Initially, they were administered by the Officials. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries, they came under the spell of the native (Indian) elected representatives. They were breeding grounds for leadership at the grassroots. An overwhelming majority of the leaders of the National Movement, including Nehru, Patel, Bose, Rajaji, Nadar, and Prakasam had their political baptism in these bodies. Natives excelled in implementing their dreams. Yet routine elections, though with limited electorate were held. During WWII, as the elections could not be conducted, elected bodies were asked to continue till the next elections; no Special Officers’ regime.
After the Constitution came into being, the universal adult franchise was made applicable to the local bodies also. They were called ‘local self -governments.’ Finding them lacking in spirit, the Panchayati Raj system was brought into force in 1959 by Nehru – S.K.Dey combination. Dey was the Minister for Rural Development in Nehru’s Cabinet and Panchayat Raj Development was a Mission for him. The purpose of the system was to decentralize the power. As CM of Karnataka between 1983 and 1988, Ramakrishna Hegde became an active votary of States’ rights within a federal set-up. But he made no concession to regional or linguistic chauvinism. Secondly, he took innovative initiatives in expanding the federal principle within the State, primarily in the area of devolving power to local bodies and in trying to enforce accountability. During his Chief Minister-ship, Karnataka pioneered legislation on Panchayat Raj that devolved a substantial degree of financial and administrative powers to a three-tiered structure of local government. He supported the tireless work of his Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Abdul Nazir Sab, in promoting devolution of power to the gram panchayats in the state, and the Karnataka implementation became a role model for the rest of India. N.T.Rama Rao, the AP, CM was one of those who emulated the system and disregarding the apprehensions of defeat for this party conducted elections to the local bodies in 1987. However, the later Governments weakened them.
Karnataka, AP, and some other states were only examples. The Constitutional direction endowing powers was not realized. Even elections were not held regularly. Hence Rajiv Gandhi went a step further and thought of devolving powers to them, continuous bodies. He publicly said: “When one rupee is sent to the village, through the State Govt only 25 paise reaches the village. There is filtration in the village. Hardly fifteen paise reaches the ground.” Realizing the ground realities, he proposed that the entire rupee must be sent to the village. “Even if there is a percolation of fifty paise, half the work will be done.” He personally initiated a national dialogue. As fate would have it, he was assassinated and P.V.Narasimha Rao took up the challenging task.
73rd and 74th Amendment Bills were referred to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament and were ultimately passed in December 1992. After the bills were ratified by the state assemblies of more than half the states, the President gave his assent on April 20, 1993. The amendments were then officially enacted through the issuance of government notifications. The Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 (commonly referred to as the Panchayati Raj Act) went into effect on April 24, 1993. They endow the local bodies with abundant power and without curtailing anybodys.
The 73rd Amendment created the Eleventh Schedule (Article 243G) detailing the subjects, 29 in number which the Panchayat Raj establishment has to oversee. They are daily needs of rural India like agriculture, land improvement, minor irrigation, animal husbandry, fisheries. small scale industries, khadi, rural housing, drinking water, roads, culverts, bridges, ferries, waterways and other means of communication, rural electrification, poverty alleviation program, school education, libraries, markets, and fairs. Health, sanitation, and family welfare, the welfare of women, children, weaker sections, scheduled castes and tribes, public distribution system, and maintenance of community assets.
Like the Eleventh Panchayati Raj Schedule, the 74th Amendment contains the Twelfth Schedule of municipal functions which are 18 in number. They include (1) Urban planning, regulation of land use, planning for economic and social development, roads and bridges, domestic, industrial, and commercial water supply, public health, conservancy, and solid waste management, fire services, slum improvement, poverty alleviation, urban amenities like parks, playgrounds and gardens, culture, burial grounds, cattle welfare, registration of births and deaths, public amenities like street lighting and slaughterhouses and tanneries. A look at the items of the schedules indicates that the Acts have taken care of a wide variety of subjects and areas where regular planning and services are needed. It preserves the existing structure of local bodies and has further provided for local institutions for better experimentation.
While the legal position stands thus, all these can be fulfilled only when there is an elected body as per the procedure laid down in the Constitutional scheme. Elections to the local bodies in A.P. are overdue. The ongoing tussle between the State Election Commissioner and the State Govt regarding the conduct of elections to the Panchayats speaks volumes of ill of both the institutions. The facts are well known. Hence I do not like to dwell on them. Both sides want to show one-upmanship. The parties are reacting and behaving with personal vendetta and grudge. It is a matter between two democratic setups. The casualty is Gram Swaraj. Civil servants are dragged into murky politics. One section is questioning the wisdom of the Election Commission, doubts the integrity of the Judiciary, and threatening non-cooperation. Never before such a chaotic situation was witnessed; a worse may crop up, leading to a constitutional crisis. Promulgation of the President’s Rule in States under Article 356 is dubbed, particularly by the regional parties, as an erosion of federalism. Same Governments, paradoxically want their thumb rule in the local bodies.
I have a suggestion to make. Both the Central and the State Election Commissions are independent creatures of the Constitution. But they have no wings to fly. For conducting the elections, they are solely dependent upon the State machinery, which is subordinate to the political executive. Therefore there must be permanent independence, at least a skeleton machinery under the Central Election Commission. It must be entrusted with the task of updating the electoral rolls for various elections, like the Lok Sabha, Legislative Assembly, Legislative Council and the local bodies and all other electoral duties. There are elections and elections, in some parts or the other. Elections to the quasi govt bodies like the cooperative societies and trade unions are also held. The services of this body may be lent.
Whatever the legality may be, the success of democracy depends on the spirit of compromise and adjustment. The Supreme Court on 25 January 2021 has rightly counseled: “Ego problems between two authorities are leading to lawlessness.TheCourt will not be a party to an ego battle…. the real issue is actually something else and not what is being observed here. We cannot allow lawlessness. How can resolution be passed against the State Election Commissioner, N. Ramesh Kumar,” Justice Kaul of Supreme Court observed while dismissing the plea of AP Government that opposed conduct of PR Elections in the state. Hope better counsel will prevail on both. Let us salute the founding fathers of the Constitution, who reposed immense faith in us.
(KC Kalkura is an advocate from Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh)