"The decentralisation of power to the Panchayat Raj system has only led to the decentralisation of corruption" – this has become the favourite, smug, and tongue-in-cheek remark of bureaucrats and higher level politicians alike, displaying an unbecoming holier-than-thou attitude on their part. This has been the justification for their jointly attacking the Panchayat Raj system by passing a recent amendment to the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act, 1993, snatching away the powers of grama sabhas and ward sabhas to identify beneficiaries under various welfare schemes of the Government, especially the 'Ashraya' scheme, and vesting them in a committee headed by the respective MLAs.

This act of the state legislature, propelled by the government, has led to an outpouring of wrath, significantly from women panchayat members. Their self-confidence, understanding of the intricacies of governance, ability to negotiate their way through political dialogue, and the articulate way in which they have voiced their demands, have served to espouse their cause much more than their protest itself. It has justified the retention, or rather, the further strengthening of the powers of Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI). The manner of their protest has proven that the Panchayat Raj system has done more than merely 'decentralise corruption'.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

Shilpa, a Horati grama panchayat (GP) member from Kolar district, and Susheela, ex-President of Gonibeedu GP, Mudigere taluk, epitomise this new breed of women. Not for them the mere talk about what they cooked for lunch, what jewellery or sari they bought recently or what latest chicanery their daughter-in-law or mother-in-law is up to. "If the state government is saying that we in the PRIs are not conducting grama sabhas regularly and that's why the grama sabha's powers should be curtailed, on what basis are they saying this?" questions Shilpa, "We have the records and resolutions to show that the grama sabhas are being conducted regularly. If they want, let them ask for these under Right to Information," says the forceful Shilpa . "Grama sabhas do not happen when the 29 officials who are supposed to attend them, do not come, and the villagers say, "Of what use is it to have a meeting when officials are not there," adds Susheela.

"MLAs want this power to give the houses to their party followers. They do not want the genuinely poor to be recognised, which will happen only at a grama sabha," says Shilpa. "Also, it is not the GP members, but the people in the grama sabhas who are deciding the beneficiaries. By opposing this, the MLAs are opposing the people," stresses Shilpa.

An NGO which works in four Karnataka districts says that 94 out of 202 GPs were working satisfactorily, which doesn't seem to be a low figure considering that they are first generation members.

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Varalakshmi, member of Mudinuru GP, Mulbagal taluk, says, "The power to identify Ashraya beneficiaries was with the committees headed by the MLAs before 2005 also. But we, PRI members, were the ones who had to monitor the construction, the billing and payment by the beneficiaries and also help to register the houses. The MLAs never did all this." Ashraya is a state government scheme for allotting free houses to identified BPL families and subsidised houses to some above the poverty line. Quips Shilpa, "The power to take decisions is with the MLAs, but the responsibility and blame, if any, is with us. Why should they have power without responsibility?"

"In fact," continues, Suguna of Halkere GP, Mandya Taluk, "the MLAs of the earlier committee had not given the Rs.20,000 for several free houses. We paid all the pending amounts and bills under Ashraya from our development funds. One poor beneficiary died sorrowing because he had not received the money."

Even regarding education, the MLAs are forming the SDMCs and the money is being sent directly to them. "We, as GP members, have no role in the SDMCs, unless our child is also in that school. But when the SDMC wants land or any other help to improve the school, they come to us," says Susheela.

Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Kodagu, Shimoga, Chickmagalur and Hassan districts have been selected by the Centre under pressure from MLAs, say the women. These districts are receivers of migrants from other districts because there is plenty of work here and the prevailing wages are Rs.100 per day. "Why would anyone report for work at Rs.74 per day under the NREGA in these districts? These districts have been selected to enable MLAs to make money," the intrepid women allege.

Deveeriamma, an illiterate member of Bevinahalli GP, Mandya Taluk, laments the poor resources given to GPs to function effectively. "While the GP is entitled to get Rs.5 lakh from the government, Rs.5 lakh is deducted at source towards the cost of street lighting and pumping of water. Nothing is left for works. Not even 10 per cent of central funds for schemes is given to us," she complains. When questioned whether illiteracy, and consequent ill-functioning of GP members could be a cause for the State reducing their powers, Nagamani, vice-president of Ummadhalli GP, Mandya taluk, questions, "Are there no illiterate MLAs? Aren't they functioning?" "You don't need literacy to be effective, you need humanism," she says.

Protests increasing against government intransigence

As a part of the continued protests, over 1500 Grama Panchayat and Grama Sabha representatives from Dharawad District conducted a dharna at the Mahatma Gandhi Statue in Bangalore on July 30.

The lack of response from the legislature to the demand of the Grama Panchayat Hakkottaya Andolana for the withdrawal of the proposed Panchayat Raj amendment – has prompted the Andolana to decide to intensify its protest until the amendment is withdrawn. This includes:

1. A hunger strike

2. Special grama sabhas to be conducted in every village and a resolution to be passed in each Panchayat condemning the proposed amendment

3. A black flag protest in every grama panchayat

Yamuna, K N of the 'Organisation for Development of People' which works in four Karnataka districts says that 94 out of 202 GPs studied by them were working satisfactorily, especially where there were trained women PRI members, which doesn't seem to be a low figure considering that they are first generation members.

So, if one were to do a cost-benefit analysis of 20 years of PRI, yes, it's true some amount from the Rs 2 to 5 lakhs granted to each GP may have found its way into a parallel, second book of accounts, but don't the same things happen on a larger scale at higher levels? The state government's attempt to slice powers of the GPs seems to be merely a question of the pot calling the kettle black.

But the benefits of the PRI go far beyond any valuation in monetary terms and are hence invaluable. The Panchayat Raj has brought out women like Shilpa and Susheela from the claustrophobic insularity of the home, its inanity and its life-sapping drudgery and given them a new life. It has made thinking individuals out of supine beings going about their lifeless routines. It has given the state and nation a vital and dynamic force that can drive political, social and economic change and usher in a new era. Reversing this positive development now is akin to cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

The Governor of Karnataka has written to the state legislature asking them to reconsider the Amendment Act as he feels that it is against the spirit of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment on decentralised, local self-government in rural areas. The state government has refused to accept this rebuke and is attempting to save its face by stating that the governor merely sent a message and did not physically return the bill, according to press reports. In the wake of this indication that the government has not changed its mind about the bill, GPs have strengthened their protests.