Not From A Bhavan In Delhi, How Indian Democracy Actually Runs From Villages

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If one thinks about it, managing an entire nation with a booming population of 133 crores is not remotely possible from a single room in Delhi. The reality, which we rarely realise, is that the administration of the country actually rests upon one concept – decentralisation of power.

No matter how many acts and ordinances are passed in the parliament or how many policies are debated, the functioning of the government depends upon the very root of the governance hierarchy – Panchayati Raj.

Twenty-six years ago, on April 24, 1993, the Panchayati Raj was officially enshrined in the Constitution following the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (1992). A quarter of a century later, the concept is the main driving force of development throughout the country, one panchayat at a time. On National Panchayati Day, Efforts For Good takes a walk down the lanes of history to revisit the origin of Panchayati Raj in India.

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The soul of India lies in her villages

As per the 2011 census data, Indian demography constitutes 68.84% of rural distribution. Understandably, the figure was much higher at the dawn of the Independence era, when a newborn country was slowly warming up to the concept of democracy.

At the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi declared, “This is not India. You people are seeing Delhi. This is not India. Go to villages; that is India. Therein lies the soul of India,” – wrote R.V. Jather in his book Evolution of Panchayati Raj In India. His statement holds true for India since the times of ancient kings and mythical folklore, where decentralised administration featured heavily.

Local governance during the colonial regime

In the pre-independence times, the British have time and again tried to adopt decentralisation models to properly administer India from the grassroots level. Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the precursive strongholds of the East India Company witnessed the introduction of a municipal administration in 1793, which evolved in policy and structure over the upcoming two centuries. Villages were under the control of regional monarchy at that time; they did not feature in British governance until 1863. By then, the colonial rule had penetrated the very veins of the country and further decentralisation was an urgent necessity.

The framework of local governance under the British evolved over the next few years, with the focus being shifted down the provincial pyramid, from states to districts to villages. The Government of India Act of 1919 mandated the creation of the Gram Panchayat system in eight major provinces.

During the Second World War, the British administration in India witnessed a chaotic setback, not only due to the rising nationalistic sentiments but also due to the failure of local governance, since village population became a neglected entity at the time of the biggest war in history.

Gandhiji & Ambedkar’s differences over local governance

Mahatma Gandhi, the proprietor of Grama Swaraj, first tabled the idea of self-sustainable village units. “This Panchayat will be Legislature, Judiciary and Executive combined, to operate for its year of office. Any village can become such a republic today without much interference,” he had described.

However, post Independence, when the Constitution was being drafted, somehow the crucial concept of decentralised governance did not find much prominence. In fact, the First Five Year Plan of 1952 completely overlooked the local governments. One reason often cited for this was the ideological differences between Gandhiji and B.R. Ambedkar in this regard. While Gandhiji advocated the importance of local democracy, Ambedkar was concerned about the existent casteism in villages which might hinder equalist legislation.

Balwant Rai Mehta – Father of Panchayati Raj

Balwant Rai Mehta, recognised as the Father of Panchayati Raj, came into the picture in 1957 when the government appointed him as the head of a committee to decide on the structuring of local governments. The Balwant Rai Mehta committee recommended ‘democratic decentralisation’ which paved the way for the establishment of Panchayati Raj much later.

Though the committee’s recommendations were made before 1960, implementation was halted due to an imminent agrarian crisis, political turmoil and two consecutive wars that marked the 1960s decade and the early years of 1970s.

Final recognition in 1993

In 1977, when the Janata Party government assumed power, the Ashok Mehta committee reiterated the need for establishing Panchayati Raj. The consideration was abrupted by a political turnaround. The same happened later as well during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure from 1984 to 1989. The idea was there, but the question of local governance found little attention amid the tumultuous political scenario at the Centre.

Eventually, in 1993, officially Panchayati Raj came into being which segregated local government into three tiers, namely, Gram Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block level and Zilla Parishad at the district level.

Panchayati Raj – evolution over the years

Since then, the attitude of the Central government towards Panchayati Raj can be deemed as quite lukewarm, though there had been occasional adoption of progressive measures like the enactment of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005 under the UPA-I regime. There had been consistent upgradation of the scheme in every financial budget ever since.

Perhaps another great success of the Panchayati Raj is 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) since 2009. Speaking from a grassroots level perspective, the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) constituted by women in Panchayats across India are highly effective in initiating immense socio-economical change.

Success rates differ from state to state

Recently, annual Panchayat awards were introduced in diverse categories to identify the best Panchayats in the country who have spearheaded substantial development. Still, the overall success of the Panchayati Raj in terms of development cannot be coalesced simply in binary terms. In states like Kerala, Panchayati Raj has been instrumental in bringing forth many changes, while states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab or Jharkhand have grossly failed to utilise the local government institutions. At the same time, progress at Panchayati levels has stagnated in the traditional Panchayati Raj States like West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, with some isolated exceptions.

Efforts For Good take

Imagine one of those gigantic machines you find at factories. Outwardly, the fully automated robotic giant might evoke awe, but malfunctioning of a single cog will send the entire mechanism into complete disarray. Such is the significance of the local governance units or Panchayati Raj in the context of Indian administration.

However, the hype around national politics often shifts the average citizens’ attention from development in his own village to certain vague political doctrines which hold little relevance in everyday life. The outlook can be mended only if the Central government pays more attention to the devolution of power and maintains better cognisance of the work done at Panchayat levels.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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