Local Self-Governance in the Indian Constitution


Local Self-Governance in the Indian Constitution

Date: 08 Aug 2017
Prof. Y.K. Alagh, Chancellor, Central University of Gujarat
Shri S. M. Vijayanand, Former Secretary to the Government of India


                                                      Speaker's Research Initiative Cell


                                                      Subject   : Local Self Governance in Indian Constitution

                                                      Date        : 8 August 2017

                                                     Speakers      : Prof. Y.K. Alagh,

                                                                             Chancellor Central University of Gujrat

                                                                             Shri S.M. Vijyanand

                                                                             Former Secretary to Government of India


A workshop on local self governance in Indian constitution under the auspices of Speakers’ Research Initiative (SRI) was organised on 8th August, 2017 in the BPST Main Lecture Hall, Parliament Library Building.  This was 15th Workshop of SRI in 16th Lok Sabha and 2nd under the constitution category in ongoing monsoon session.

The workshop began on 1600 hrs with welcome speech and introduction of the speakers by Shri Rahul Dev, Honorary Advisor to SRI.  Justice (Retd.) Shri V.S. Kokje, Advisor to HS acted as the moderator for the workshop.  While introducing the subject he highlighted the contribution of local self government institutions and leaders emerged from them in the freedom struggle.  He said, even the current speaker Smt. Sumitra Mahajan started her career as a corporator.  He highlighted the journey of Panchayati Raj institution in free India, landmarks achieved in 1992 and issues and challenges in contemporary times.  After his inaugural remarks he invited Shri S.M. Vijyanand, (Retd.) Chief Secretary, Govt. of India to deliver his talk on the topic. 

SHRI S.M. VIJAYANAND: The modern local governments, arose out of the industrial revolution basically to provide sanitation and water supply and though India had panchayat from time immemorial, the modern local government laws including panchayat  laws were made by the British more or less fashioned on the British local government law.  During the freedom struggle, as has been mentioned by the Justice, there was a very interesting debate between local self-government and national self-government. The freedom fighters wanted national self-government and British were willing to give local self-government.  Because of that, probably, local self-government is not treated as very important when India became independent.

He said, unfortunately, India has been missing all the opportunities for strengthening local self-governments at both urban and rural level. Early days of  freedom was a great opportunity.  We left it. We did not implement the Constitution in the beginning.  Planned development started in 1952 and Panchayat were not given any space in the First Plan. In 1959, there was a lot of enthusiasm after Balwant Rai Mehta Committee gave its report and panchayat raj was inaugurated but only three States followed it up seriously, namely, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan but then Rajasthan went back and Maharashtra and Gujarat have reasonably good panchayat raj.In 1960s we lost a whole decade  due to the wars and food crisis.  So, the focus was on technology and agricultural production and not on local governance.  In 1977, after the Ashok Mehta Committee report, there was again some enthusiasm but here again, it was lost. When government fell and this was followed up only by West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh but Andhra Pradesh withdrew after sometime. In the mid 1980s,  there was a lot of talk of power to the people, the constitutional amendment could not be passed.  In 1991, the economic reforms came and at that point of time, several people said that for economic reforms to sustain, you need governance reform.  But we did not spend much time on governance reforms.  The 73rd and 74th amendments brought in a constitutional mandate for local governance and it raised a lot of hopes.  But in the rural areas, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh only followed it up to some extent.  Most other States did not follow up.  

Expressing his concern he added, in urban areas no State has given more powers after the 74th Amendment. In 1996, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act was passed by Parliament. But even after twenty years, its implementation is still very rudimentary. In 2004 the Ministry of Panchayati Raj was created with a lot of hope, but nothing much could be achieved. In 2005, the MNREGA Act came into being giving panchayat a lot of powers, but here again much could not be achieved.  Now, again there is a bit of a hope because the 14th Finance Commission has given Rs. 2,00,292 crore only to gram panchayat. So, if that is combined with the MNREGA resources from 2015 to 2020, panchayat will have Rs. 4,00,000 crore. So, this opportunity can be used to strengthen panchayati raj.

                        While assessing the implementation of the constitutional provisions he said, Interestingly, the first article in the Constitution in part 9, after the definition, deals with gram sabha. I think, gram sabha meeting of electors and meeting of voters is there only in the Indian Constitution. But unfortunately studies have proved that gram sabhas are not functional in most parts of India. Hardly 10 to 20 people attend the meetings. Though the Constitution says powers can be given to gram sabhas, but the function is very weak. But there is a way forward. Now, a lot of self-help groups are coming. In about 1,500 blocks, self help groups are there. They represent the bottom half of the population. If they could be motivated to attend gram sabha meetings then probably the poor, the women can reap the benefits. In the municipal areas, there is no gram sabha concept. But there is a concept called ward committees. That is article 243 (S). municipalities are there for three lakh and more population. That is more of a democratic body. Wards Committees do exist in many States, but they are also very weak and they have not been given very important functions. Section 243 (b) speaks about ‘constitution of panchayat’. Except Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, in 26 States of India and all the Union Territories we have panchayat.  Municipalities are there in these States.  But there is one weakness. The size of the panchayat has not been mentioned. So, the size of the panchayat in India varies from less than 1,000 to more than 75,000. "This is a very important feature. Unless you have panchayat of viable size, you cannot give them staff, you cannot give them functions, and you cannot give them meaningful powers and resources". So, in India, especially in Central India, panchayat are sub-optimal in size. That is the decision of the State. The Government of India cannot do anything. That is part of the constitutional freedom given to the States.

In the urban areas, there is a concept of a transitional area, smaller urban area and a larger urban area. All are called municipalities. There is a concept of nagar panchayat. This is very critical in India because India is moving from rural to urban areas. But unfortunately the nagar panchayat are the weakest. There is no norm. That is not the weakness of the Constitution. The Constitution says, the Governor the State shall lay down the norms as to what is a transtitional area, what is a smaller urban area, and what is a larger urban area. "To my knowledge, very few States have done it. So, they just make nagar panchayat. Undo it. Make it and undo it. So, the nagar panchayat are the weakest. They are almost non-functional in India. But I would say that this is the most critical institution". With that marks the transition from rural to urban area and they have to change the transition. Otherwise, by the time it becomes municipality we cannot do anything in our urban areas. So, the problems we face in urban areas can be solved if there is an effective nagar panchayat and there is a nationally accepted system for defining what is a nagar panchayat. Of course, funds are also needed. My neighbouring State, Tamil Nadu, abolished nagar panchayat because panchayat get a lot of money from the Government of India, but nagar panchayat do not get any money from the Government of India. For this reason many States are not creating nagar panchayat.

Explaining the provisions of reservation in Local Self Governance he said, though the Constitution mandates only one-third of seats to be reserved for women, barring six States, all the States, on their own, have brought in 50 per cent reservation for women. Those six States are Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and Uttar Pradesh. They have only one-third reservation for women. All the other States have brought, on their own, 50 per cent reservation for women.There is a need to amend the Constitution so that the remaining States also have 50 per cent reservation for women. There is one more important point on which a lot of thinking is required and that is, only few States like Tamil Nadu have done it and that is rotation of seats. Now we are changing the rotation every five years. So, women and people belonging to the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes who get elected cannot contest in the same constituency because that seat becomes de-reserved. So, there is a suggestion that we need to extend this to 10 years so that women can contest again which means you can strengthen women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as they can come back to power. Once they come back to power, there is a chance that they would be empowered more. Otherwise, after five years most of them vanish. Now, there is again a Constitutional Amendment proposed for this purpose.

                        Quoting some studies on the effect of reservation and deeply rooted patriarchy in the institutions of panchayat. He said, The Prime Minister himself mentioned about the pati concept i.e. the Sarpanch pati concept. It is very bad. Now, the study shows that things have improved but very slowly in the last 20 years. But women seem to perform better. There are studies which indicate that they look after the softer aspects of development, they are closer to the people and they are far less corrupt. Explaining the concept of  delimitation he said, That is again a big issue because delimitation is done every Census. It alters the boundaries of the constituencies and that has an implication for accountability, In contrast for Parliament and Assembly, delimitation is done very rarely.

                        On the issue of  educational qualification for election he added, "Though the Constitution has disqualifications, it has not  prescribed it.  Many States have prescribed it.  But I personally feel that it is better that no educational qualification is there for fighting an election".

                        He further highlighted that  the biggest achievement of our Constitution is  free and fair elections to these bodies.  Before that, in many States of India, the local Governments were there run by offices for 15 years, 20 years.  My own State of Kerala, for 18 years, did not have any elected local Government.  But now, every five years, elections have to be there.  Even if you are having a break for some reason, beyond six months you cannot have an administrative rule.  So, this is being followed all over India; and now, we have elected panchayat everywhere.

                        Elaborating on some important articles like article 243G for panchayat and article 243W for municipalities he said, a lot of people as the Justice (Rtd.) Shri V.S. Kokje said, that the article is supposedly weak. The objectives are clearly set.  The Constitution says that the objective is economic development, which is well understood.  But more significantly, the Constitution says the social justice.  But social justice is not defined; and it is for us to give meaning to that term.  But the weakness seems to be there.  The article says: ‘States, may, by law.’  It is the ‘may’ in question. So, whatever you do, if the States do not give powers, nothing can be done; and the assessment of experts is that powers are much less all over the country. The powers of local Governments urban and rural are much less than powers of similar bodies in the developed countries.  They vary hugely across the country. It says: ‘may, by law, endow powers and authority’.  The Constitution uses the two words – powers and authority. Even the judiciary has not had any occasion to define what is ‘authority’ and what is ‘powers’ and what is ‘institution of self-Governments’.

                        He concluded with few suggestions and said some of these could be directly taken up by Parliament and some of which could be pushed by Parliament through the Central Government.

  1. The share of local Governments, urban and rural, in Government expenditure is 50 per cent in China, 28 per cent in South Africa, 20 per cent in Brazil and in India it is about 6 to 7 per cent.  It is actually 3 per cent; now because of NREGA and 14th Finance commission, it is expected it has gone up to 6 per cent or so.  So, the countries which are equivalent to us, Brazil, South Africa and China, are spending lot of money through local Governments. 
  2. The Central Finance Commission will have to give money to the States based on the recommendations of the State Finance Commission. But since States have not been constituted with State Finance Commission, this recommendation is not being implemented by the Union Finance Commission. So, they had recommended that they should reduce the time so that they can synchronize and this is accepted by the Union Cabinet.
  3. Another area where they could be strengthened is a normative human resource support to the panchayat that is staff support.  Normally, the Government of India has nothing to do with the staff support of panchayat. But we are giving a lot of money; under NREGA – 6 per cent, 14th Finance Commission – 10 per cent, PMAY – 4 per cent and all this. We are giving the money but if we pool this money, probably the local Government thing could be done.
  4.   Parliamentary Committees are normally ministry related but I know that there is one Committee on Women which cuts across ministries.  If there could be a Parliamentary Committee on Local Governance cutting across all ministries, not just urban development and rural development and Panchayati Raj, that will give a lot of push to local Government as the consent and not as a Departmental activity.

Prof. Y.K Alag: He said local self-Government really started in the freedom movement and we must remember that some of our great leaders Subash Chandra Bose, Jawahar Lal Nehru , they all cut their political teeth in local self-Government. This all started with the Government of India Act, 1935. He said that still there are instances of State and District Administration superseding the panchayati Raj Institutions. The present business of the relationship between strengthening Local Self-Government and the relationship with planning goes back to the 72nd and 73rd Amendments which were initially discussed in the late 80s of the last century and then implemented in the next decade because of which there is now defined responsibility for the  third tier of Government. So that added on teeth to it which it earlier did not have.

He also discussed the issues of Allocation, Devolution, Utilisation of funds. Citing examples from Gujarat he said, he have seen people managing resources on their own in case of resources not divulged to them or paucity of funds. Adding on he also cautioned about the misappropriation of funds at panchayati level if  vigilance is not observed. He talked about the concept of elasticity of panchyati raj resources to district income. He said there is a correlation between the spending ( capital expenditure) at district level and tax collection at Panchayat level.

Touching upon the Role of panchayts in Land Legislation he said panchayat can play a significant role in tenancy legislation. Local bodies should be encouraged in this regard . This should be taken as a challenge as to how to integrate panchayat into newer development that are taking place in India. Posing a question in this regard he said  "How can you integrate local bodies with growth impulse of the country in the ratio 1:5?. India is going to grow at a rate of 7 per cent to 8 per cent. It will grow at the rate of six and a half per cent if you fail but it will grow at 8 per cent if you succeed. So, in this growth, how do you see your panchayat? To me, that is a central question. Now the growth agent should be integrated. That is why, I am saying that those organisational forms which are leading the growth process, whether they are farmers producers’ group, whether they are self-help cooperatives, whether they are artisan groups, those should be integrated with the panchayat. The panchayat should be a place which helps them, which creates the infrastructure. Where there is healthy competition between panchayat, to get it not in the other village but in their village, we want to make the panchayat, the local Government a live part of the India that is emerging in this decade".


He concluded by saying that there is a need to revive the institution of  panchayat by focusing on their autonomy, ability to generate funds, utilisation of funds, participation of masses, training , regular elections, evolving partnership, synergy between different stakeholders etc.

Intervention by Shri Ajay Mishra Theni, MP: said Shri Vijayanand mentioned that Local Self Governance Institutions worked well before Independence. Its only after 1991 that the constitutional amendment came, all the developed countries have strong local self governance institutions. Regular elections needs to be conducted for these institutions to truly succeed in their objectives. He said in Uttar Pradesh one panchayat secretary has to listen to four or five gram sabhas which make it difficult for them to contribute qualitatively as they are overburdened.

Response by Prof. Y.K. Alagh:- giving an example of Gujarat, he said panchayts used to be apolitical institutions earlier. Politics or political affiliations of the people did not affected the institutions. He said regular elections should be conducted for better functioning of these institutions. Simply because they are from the other party, it doesn't mean that we have to remove them.

Intervention by a Hon'ble Member, MP:- He said that "District Magistrate should not supersede. The Direct benefit transfer scheme sounds very nice. It is aimed to check corruption in the country. We have more than one billion population. Every individual beneficiary gets the money directly credited in his account from the centre itself. It is not a kind of suppression of powers of the local Self Government Institutions who are projected as the democratic bodies".

Response by Prof. Y.K. Alagh:-  The technology could be used to transfer resources from Local bodies to Individuals also. As the NITI Aayog has said, you have got every individuals name and addresses. You have the socio-economic census. So, your local self government can become completely effective because you can transfer resources in a transparent manner. You have talked about management of resources giving the example of some panchayats.

Shri Rahul Dev, Honorary Advisor, SRI thanked the Resource Persons for sharing their experiences and vast knowledge on the subject and candidly addressing to the emerging dimensions of the subject matter.

The Workshop then concluded.