People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXII

No. 23

June 22 , 2008

 



Social Composition Of Panchayats

Jayati Ghosh

IT is now taken for granted in different parts of India that locally elected panchayats can be important instruments for ensuring more effective delivery of different public services and government programmes, as well as means of social and political mobilisation for more democratic outcomes. But even when the panchayati raj institutions were given prominence two decades ago through the passing of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, this was not so obvious.


In fact, West Bengal was a pioneering state in this regard, which set the agenda for the rest of the country. The positive experience of West Bengal's own panchayat legislation and subsequent measures at decentralisation of different powers was what set the tone for the attempts elsewhere in the country.


However, there was one significant feature of West Bengal's experience that made the decentralisation process much more democratic - the fact that it was preceded and accompanied by significant land reforms. These increased the power and status of previously marginalised and oppressed groups, encouraged them to participate more actively in gram sabhas and panchayats, and increased their proportion in the elected representation.



It is this feature of decentralisation being associated with progressive land reforms that has made West Bengal's positive experience much harder to replicate in other states, with a few exceptions such as Kerala and Tripura, since there have hardly been significant land reforms in the rest of the country. But it is particularly important because it prevents or reduces the possibility that the panchayats get dominated by village elites, especially large landlords, moneylenders and traders, and thereby reinforce power equations that are already skewed against the poor and socially marginalised groups.


Data on the current composition of panchayats indicate that less well-off categories are more numerous in the panchayat membership, and traditional elite groups are hardly represented. Agriculturalists and household workers dominate in terms of the major occupations, but agricultural labour is also reasonably well represented even at the panchayat samiti level. Teachers do have disproportionate representation; however, landlords and those involved in business, who tend to dominate in the panchayats of most other states, are insignificant in number and as a proportion of total panchayat members.

Related to this has been the different social composition of panchayats in terms of caste categories, which is also different in West Bengal compared to other states. While data on occupational background of panchayat members are not easily available for other states, we do have some information on social background and gender for other states, based on a study commissioned by the ministry of Rural Development of the government of India. The table presents the results, which refer to five states, in comparison to data from West Bengal.

All the most striking feature to emerge from the table is the much greater representation of SCs at all levels of panchayats in West Bengal, compared to all the other five states. This cannot only be explained by the greater presence of SCs in the population of West Bengal (which is quite high at 23 per cent). The share of SCs in total population is just as high in Maharashtra yet SCs are significantly less in proportion to total elected representatives. Indeed, the representation of SCs in the panchayats is well above their share of population in West Bengal.



The same is true of STs. The proportion of STs in total elected panchayat membership in West Bengal may appear to be small at 7.2 per cent, especially in relation to the higher figures evident for tribal-dominated states such as Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. But it is higher than the share of STs in the total population of West Bengal (5.5 per cent). It is also worth noting that both SCs and STs have been relatively well represented not only at gram panchayat level, but even at the higher tiers of district government such as the zilla parishads.



Another significant aspect relates to the empowerment of women through participation in panchayats. West Bengal has had a history of substantial representation of women in panchayats well before the 73rd and 74th amendments were passed by parliament; in fact, more than one-third of panchayat members have been women throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The table shows that this continues and that the proportion of women panchayat members at different levels is somewhat higher in West Bengal than in four of the other states. Only Uttar Pradesh has a slightly higher representation, but in that state the evidence on actual empowerment of women as a result of this is more mixed.


The participation of women, SCs and STs in panchayats tends to have dynamic effects on the social and political empowerment of these groups in general, and also has been seen to have positive effects on the general functioning and responsiveness of panchayats to people's needs. There is therefore enormous potential for progressive social change in such a process. Indeed, there is also need to ensure adequate representation from minority communities such as Muslims, for which we do not have the data at present to analyse the actual extent of participation.



Panchayats in West Bengal are charged with a very wide range of powers and responsibilities, and these duties have been increasing over time. It is therefore very important to ensure that panchayat members are provided with the requisite facilities and enabled with administrative and technical resources to carry out their many functions.


It is encouraging to note that the state government has recently announced that for the newly elected panchayats as of  June 26, 2008, pradhans of the gram panchayats will be declared as whole-time functionaries, and their remuneration and honorarium will be revised accordingly. This was a much-needed measure to enable proper functioning, and along these lines other measures need to be taken to provide sufficient administrative support to all panchayat members. This is especially important for elected representatives who come from weaker sections and have less in the way of their own financial and other resources.

The Social Composition of Panchayats



Table : Social Composition of Panchayat Members
(Per cent of Total Elected Representatives)

 

Bihar

Chhatisgarh

Madhya Pradesh

Maharashtra

Uttar Pradesh

West
Bengal

Gram Panchayats

SC

16.1

12.5

10.3

11.5

13.7

28.6

ST 

0.7

42.0

17.9

13.7

0.0

7.5

Women

35.0

33.7

33.8

33.3

37.9

36.6

Intermediate Panchayats (Panchayat Samitis)

SC

16.0

12.1

10.6

11.5

15.0

28.8

ST 

0.8

40.2

17.6

13.5

0.0

7.4

Women

35.0

34.3

33.4

36.1

36.0

35.4

District Panchayats (Zilla Parishads)

SC

16.1

10.9

10.6

11.5

14.7

26.8

ST 

0.8

40.9

16.6

13.7

0.0

7.2

Women

35.3

34.7

33.8

33.7

37.1

34.2

 



MACROSCAN 2008