From COVID-19 Resilience To SDGs, The Expanding Role Of Panchayati Raj

By Yogesh Kumar May 25, 2024

Gram Panchayats have been trusted to make a difference in attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, as the challenge of achieving these goals is felt at the grassroots level

From COVID-19 Resilience To SDGs, The Expanding Role Of Panchayati Raj

The journey to bring Panchayati Raj institutions to the forefront of the constitutionally mandated democratic framework was long overdue for various reasons. About three decades ago, the 73rd Amendment aimed to revive village panchayats as local governance institutions, encountering significant contention between central and state governments. Urban local bodies, recognised under the 74th constitutional amendment, surprisingly followed as an afterthought. However, these institutions deviated from Gandhi's vision of Gramme Swaraj, where the locally elected leaders in villages and urban areas would have voting rights to choose their representatives in the parliament and assemblies.  

The model of direct democracy was envisaged at the local government level at the time of the drafting of the Constitution of India. For several reasons, local governance institutions could not gain prominence as the format of direct election of the parliamentarians by the voters of their constituencies was accepted. Had local governance institutions been established post-independence as envisioned, many freedom fighters committed to India's development would have found legitimate roles in rural and urban local bodies. Moreover, local issues would have gained more prominence during the national and state elections. 

The primary argument during the introduction of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Bill was to enhance administrative efficiency in delivering development programmes rather than establish a robust system of participatory democracy. While strengthening local democracy was considered a by-product, establishing downward accountability of the administrative machinery at the district and sub-district levels was not adequately addressed. Despite these limitations, ground-breaking provisions were made, such as providing space for women as elected representatives in India's constitution for the first time and later the Panchayats Extension in Scheduled Areas (PESA), recognising the rights of tribal populations. 

It is encouraging to note that millions of common citizens in villages have assumed responsibilities as elected representatives over the last three decades. However, only a few have exemplified excellent examples of local area development and social justice within centrally designed programmes. Nevertheless, the delivery of various entitlements and scheme benefits has significantly improved due to the direct connection between local leaders and voters and their leadership in engaging with the administrative machinery on behalf of their constituents. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, local governance and leaders, particularly in rural areas, surpassed expectations in protecting and promoting citizens' interests. Village panchayats ensured rations to returnee migrants without worrying about their eligibility, established quarantine centres to prevent spread, ensured water and sanitation, provided wage employment under the MGNREGS, and facilitated transportation of critical cases to hospitals. The proximity of the local government to the citizens during COVID-19 was a great opportunity for service when district administration was unable to reach out due to mobility and social distancing barriers. The supportive role of local governments in the COVID disaster has been well recognised by higher tiers of government in various documents. 

Gram Panchayats have been trusted to make a difference in attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, as the challenge of achieving these goals is felt at the grassroots level. Therefore, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj designed a People’s Plan Campaign on October 2, 2023, for the inclusion of all sections of rural society in planning and development to attain the SDGs. There are nine themes of the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) aligned with the SDG goals viz. reduction in poverty, healthy villages, water sufficient clean and green villages, socially just as well as women and child friendly villages.  

Conversion of such goals into actionable agendas and ensuring that everyone is included while planning is quite a challenging task for the GPs and the field functionaries who are trained to achieve targets determined from the top. Without building adequate capacities, it is difficult for local governments and community leaders to look beyond numbers to meaningfully attain the 9 goals of the campaign, contributing to the attainment of the SDGs. It will require strong civic action in Gram Sabhas and participatory monitoring of the plans. The top-down efforts to attain the SDG may be a necessary condition to design, allocate resources, and track progress; however, elected leaders of local government will have to invest in local level planning; tracking excluded individuals for the fulfilment of goals in real terms is a sufficient condition. 

Along with such efforts, it is also crucial that sufficient attention and investment be ensured in the comprehensive planning and capacity-building of local governments in small towns and nearby villages. In the absence of such planning, issues of unemployment, quality education, and health services will remain realistically unaddressed, widening the rural-urban divide. Integrated planning between small towns and Gramme Panchayats is one of the solutions to address the growing challenge of the swelling of large metropolitan cities that were exposed during COVID-19 for insufficient provisions for decent wages, social protection, and basic amenities. The case of Govind of Panna illustrates this quite well. 

Govind Mandal, a farmer from Udki village in Panna, Madhya Pradesh, shared his transformational journey by adopting natural farming methods. Previously working as a rickshaw puller in a metropolitan city, Govind leased 5 acres of land and now earns around Rs 4 lakh annually through natural farming practices and integrated animal husbandry. 

In 2016-17, Govind leveraged MGNREGS with the support of the village Panchayat and constructed a farm pond (approximately. 5,000 sq/ft) after which he was further linked by Samarthan, a local NGO, with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra and district Fisheries Department for knowledge and financial assistance. The family planted fruit trees and received training on bio-fertilisers and vermicompost. Their hard work led to high demand for their produce, reduced input costs, and impressive yields of organic crops and fish. Govind aims to promote natural farming and tree plantations. He says that “to achieve this, there is a need to promote natural farming among small and marginal farmers, encourage mass production of natural fertilisers and pest repellents from locally available resources, and establish effective market linkages for selling chemical-free produce at higher prices in nearby cities.” 

With increased funds flowing to local governance institutions through the finance commission route as well as several centrally sponsored programmes, coupled with technological innovations and programme designs aiming to empower local bodies, opportunities for locally innovative models are emerging. Local governments in rural and urban areas require greater autonomy, trust, and support to demonstrate their potential in realising the dream of a locally embedded yet globally connected "Sapno Ka Bharat" (dream India) envisaged by Gandhi ji. However, achieving the unfulfilled dream of Gram Swaraj or Shahar Swaraj requires structural reforms for local governance, a journey fraught with challenges yet essential for the evolution of India's direct democracy and sustainable development. 

(Yogesh Kumar is the Executive Director of Samarthan-Centre for Development Support.)