People's Democracy

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


No. 18

May 11, 2008


Thirty Years Of Panchayat –The Road Traversed

Dr Suryakanta Misra

1978-2008 - thirty years. Many things have changed in this period except one - regular panchayat elections held every five years. No other state in the country apart from West Bengal has this record of regular elections for the past thirty years. Whatever has changed is just the result of the struggle for a better system. In the past, during the Congress tenure of thirty years not a single panchayat election based on universal suffrage was held. The only address of the panchayat used to be the house of the pradhan. Now, the most prominent building in the village is the panchayat office. The first thirty years after independence was marked by Congress rule at the centre. They also controlled the state government and the panchayats. But, their government did not give their panchayats any budgetary outlay, power, recognition, or respect – they were not even given a place to sit. Now, the elected leaders of the opposition parties get the status of ‘minister of state’. The Left Front government gave the opposition party the respect which was never shown to them by their own party, which was in power for the first thirty years. After losing the elections, if there is even one member of the opposition party in the district council (zila parishad), she or he is ensured of the post of the president of the district council. The power of the district council is equivalent to the public accounts committee of parliament. The representation of the opposition party has been ensured in all permanent committees (samiti) and sub-committees (upsamiti) at all tiers of the panchayati system - from the zila parishad to the panchayats. Starting from the gram sangsads to the level of block and districts, committees are set up and regular systems of reporting of accounts and progress of work to the committees has been made compulsory. At the level of the gram sangsad, the losing candidate getting the highest number of votes gets a membership of the village improvement committee. They never envisaged such a system in terms of planning and implementation, during the constitutional amendment or after; these provisions do not exist in any other state in the country. The central government has now asked the other states to follow the example of West Bengal. Half of the sabhadhipatis (presidents) in West Bengal are women. Larger districts in terms of population had adivasi sabhadhipatis. Later, the districts were reorganised, the post of the sabhadhipati was not reserved anymore, but the sabhadhipati remained the same. All these things didn't happen because of the constitutional amendment or the laws passed by the state. These changes did not materialise in one single day. Little by little, all these changes came by in a period of thirty years because of unwavering political goodwill. This political goodwill of democratic decentralisation has a material basis. This system has emerged from the attempt to do away with the concentration of land through land reforms. Throughout the country and worldwide, globalisation of investments has led to concentration of assets and in parallel facilitated the centralisation of power. Many of the decisions that were in the domain of the state now depend on decisions made by Delhi. A lot of decisions that were in the domain of the sovereign state of a free country now depend on signals from Washington. But, in West Bengal, the beacon of democracy in the entire country, the struggle to break the concentration of land, the key asset in the village, continues. Because of this, in West Bengal, in all these years the land owned by small and marginal farmers has increased to about 84 percent. The picture here is drastically opposite to the rest of the country. West Bengal's decision to swim against the usual currents prevalent in the country and the world forms the basis of an alternative path. While the rest of the country is in the grips of agrarian crisis overshadowed by suicide processions of lakhs of farmers, West Bengal stands high like an insurmountable mountain for this procession of suicides. This is the basis on which West Bengal is suggesting an alternative path of industrialisation in an era of de-industrialisation led by imperialism. West Bengal’s journey on this alternate path in the face of imperialist globalisation and neo-liberalism has made it a thorn in the eyes of the class-enemies. Deepening the roots of democracy will strengthen the power of democratic and patriotic forces. The targeting of the democratic environment of West Bengal by class enemies is definitely a measure of our success and a cause to make us proud.

This is not an occasion to present the list of successes in the panchayat in the last thirty years. The aim of this article is to highlight the direction of changes that have been brought about by the road traversed in the last thirty years. The question is whether the domain of work of the panchayats is shrinking. Is there a lull in people’s effort? Has the panchayat system in the last thirty years moved towards stagnancy? Based on the experience of the past thirty years, it can be asserted without an iota of doubt that the scope of work through the panchayats has extended in different directions. The expansion of people’s effort and class struggle into new avenues is the direction of the road to be traversed now. The three-tier panchayat system is taking up the duty of breaking the clutches of moribund pre-capitalist production relations. The journey began thirty years ago with the collection of relief material and the struggle for rehabilitation in the face of destructive floods in 1978. This was followed by efforts to fight unparalleled bouts of drought through food for work programmes, rural employment generation and asset creation in villages with an outlay of Rs 25,000 and 25000 kgs of wheat for each panchayat. The simultaneous struggle for the rights of land, wages and barga continued. This phase was marked by the struggle to win recognition of panchayats as an institution. Now this struggle for recognition has been won. The element of spontaneity due to the struggles involving redistribution of land, operation barga and right to wages that marked those days do not exist anymore. The transition from a system based on temporary spontaneity to a more permanent organised institutional form embodies the evolution of the panchayat system. It is not that floods, droughts, natural calamities and river erosion need not be fought anymore. It is just the opposite, as these have become annual routine now because of ever increasing pollution of nature and the environment. Much bigger natural calamities are now being fought in a better and more effective way. Also, in spite of these problems, the success in the agricultural sector has also been achieved in this second phase. In some districts no workers can be found for rural employment generation projects during certain times of the year. Rural resource generation has come a long way from kutcha or brick-paved roads to pucca road schemes. Tubewells are being replaced by tap water supply projects for providing drinking water. To overcome the problems caused by arsenic, fluoride, iron, colliform, gastroenteritis causing germs in drinking water, more than 100 laboratories are working under the supervision of panchayats. In every panchayat, there is one homeopathic, ayurvedic, unani dispensary and primary health centers worth Rs 8 lakhs. In far-flung places, the panchayats have taken up the task of running outdoor clinics staffed with MBBS doctors. How many other states have the instances of literacy campaign and sanitation programmes for every home run by people’s effort? Based on these efforts towards universal literacy, universal health and formation of self-help groups, West Bengal has set an example for the rest of the country. Design and implementation of village plans by people in the village after the experience of many ups and downs has culminated into the institutional form of the village development committee at the
gram sangsad level. If these are not the widening forms of class struggle, people's struggle and people's administration, then what is development? One must not forget that the people who suffer from nostalgia about 1967, 1969 or 1977 or who want to bring back the era of 1970-77 in 2008, in working in their own distinct ways will complement each other’s efforts. We need to be aware and cautious about this. In this context, it is necessary to provide some statistical information on advancements achieved through the recent efforts to illustrate the pace and direction of the work being done by panchayats today.

Both work and financial outlays have increased in the duration of the sixth panchayat. Expenditure and attainment of targets have also registered increases. The revenue generated by the three-tier panchayat system has crossed Rs 100 crore today. Tax revenue amounts to Rs 22.52 crore; this is just a little more than 1/5th of the total revenue. The total collection per person has increased from Rs 7.13 in 2002-03 to Rs 17.36 in 2006-07. Several new posts have been created from the panchayat upto the district levels to enhance capacity. The administration is being modernised to achieve the aims of speed, efficiency, honesty and transparency, through increased use of information technology and satellite based communication systems. Efforts are on to ensure that the panchayats benefit from modern communication systems and the results are visible too. The finance accounts of all zila parishads, 156 panchayat samitis and 876 Gram panchayats have been computerised. The rest of the panchayats and panchayat samitis will be covered in the next two years. West Bengal has been the first to set up and maintain accounts using double entry computerised cashbooks. West Bengal also was the first state in taking the National e-governance programme to the
gram panchayat level. From the Tathyamitra Kendras in the panchayats, paying electricity or telephone bills, booking railway tickets, getting advice for plants, crops, animals or even medical treatment, is now within easy reach. 65 such centres have started operating.

The financial devolution to the panchayats has increased from Rs 831 crore in 2002-03 to Rs 2023 crore in 2006-07. The increase in terms of expenditure on wages in this period is from Rs 187 crore to Rs 210 crore only. So both outlay and expenditure for developmental work has seen a significant increase. The state has recorded an average expenditure of 70.5 percent of the outlays. There are disparities among the different districts. There is lacuna in infrastructure. The task ahead lies in bridging this lacuna to make the panchayats more active and effective.

The labour-days generated through the various rural employment generation programmes have increased from 4.16 crore in 2002-2003 to 7.47 crore in 2006-07. Generation of labour-days has consistently increased in the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana. From 4.16 crore in 2002-03, it increased to 4.46 crore in 2003-04, 4.84 crore in 2004-05 and reached 5.39 crore in 2005-06. When the National Rural Employment Generation Programme was started in February 2006, both of these programmes were merged. Till January 2008, job cards have been issued to 82.74 lakh families. The expenditure till January 31, 2008 was Rs.607 crore. 39.14 lakh families have found employment. A total of 6 crore 11 lakh labour-days have been generated. This is a record in terms of generation of labour-days in any single programme in panchayats. In terms of the number of job cards distributed and the number of families finding employment, West Bengal ranked first amongst all the states last year. The share of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes was 50.6 percent out of the total labour-days generated although their share of population is 32.5 percent. Women accounted for 17.30 percent of the labour-days generated through the programme.

We believe that the struggle for education and health like the struggle for land and wages is part of class struggle. Before the introduction of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the state government through its own efforts had allocated funds for running child education centres through the panchayats. Later, funds were allocated though on an irregular basis, from the outlays for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Since the SSA budget has no provisions for these centres anymore, the state government is bearing the full cost of this programme. Ten years ago, the journey started with the opening of just 413 child education centres. In 2002-03, 14699 child education centres were functional with 4.34 lakh students in class one and only 34000 students in class four. In 2006-07, the number of such centres stood at 16054 with 6.36 lakh and 2.99 lakh students in class one and class four respectively. Out of the total number of students, 50.1 percent were girls, 29.4 percent were from scheduled castes and 12 percent from scheduled tribes. In 2002-03 there were no madhyamik education centres in the state. By 2006-07, 1752 such centres were functional and the number of students per centre increased from 76 in 2003-04 to 162 in 2006-07. Last year, three teams from these centres attended the National Children's Science Congress in Pune. There is success. But there are failures too. Panchayats have to put more emphasis on this work. The panchayats have to play a very important role to universalise education up to class eight. This year, some of these centres need to be upgraded to vocational training centres. The literacy campaign needs to be taken equally seriously.