The title could be provocative to some. Why do we need to spell out in detail processes that promise to democratise our Panchayats? Are we implying that they are not democratic bodies?

It is important to note that the word 'Panchayat' has two distinct connotations. In the context of our Constitution, PRIs represent local tiers of democratic decentralisation. However historically, the traditional Panchayat at the village level has been a representative body of the economically and socially strong elements of village society, signifying and constituting a final, quasi-judicial authority and certainly cannot be said to have been democratic. Several studies have shown beyond doubt that in unequal societies, local bodies have been easily captured by the elite. In Karnataka too, several independent studies have shown that Panchayat Raj Institutions, especially Grama Panchayats, have not been the agents of change that we fondly hope they have become and the weak still largely do not have a voice in them.

Elite capture becomes more probable if business rules of representative bodies expressly prefer consensus in decision making.
When we now speak of empowering PRIs more, of giving them wider areas of discretion to act, we must recognise the need to critically examine whether they have indeed become fora for democratic expression. If they have not, this is an appropriate time to bring forth the institutional changes that ensure that they reflect the views of the people that they represent.

The dangers of consensus
Our democratic process has placed a large emphasis on consensus decision-making. Several Panchayat Raj Acts across India have expressly provided for the primacy of consensus in decisions of Panchayats. In Karnataka while consensus does not find expression in the Act, this principle is embodied in the Grama Sabha Rules. While true consensus is appreciable, an unnecessary emphasis on consensus could stunt the growth of democracy. Consensus undermines democracy in two ways. First, in a consensus, the strongest voices prevail automatically. Thus it is easier for a situation of elite capture to prevail if business rules of representative bodies expressly prefer consensus in decision making. Reservations in favour of women and the socially disadvantaged do not make much sense in a consensus situation because one can just as easily silence the poor.

The second disadvantage of a consensus situation is that elected representatives can hide behind a consensus decision to avoid responsibility and accountability to their voters. This is to be avoided especially when we are now proposing to build effective mechanisms of downward accountability into the PR Act. We now propose changes in the legislation and rules that open up and democratise the processes of decision making within PRIs. There are five linked aspects of ensuring that PRIs work more democratically and we describe these below.

First, document the procedure meticulously. We propose that a PRI after election could decide in consonance with the Act and Rules what kind of decisions should require prescribed levels of majority, such as a simple or a two thirds majority, or what kinds of decisions require a secret ballot. Making provision for a secret ballot requirement in the rules is necessary, in order to ensure that those who do not feel upto articulating their concerns in an open meeting can still make their presence felt in decision-making.

Second, impose a strict quorum requirement. The law has already provided a quorum of one third of the total number of members for the meeting of a Grama Panchayat. We propose to introduce an additional quorum requirement that one third of the members attending the meeting shall be women.

Third, always record votes. The recording of votes is already provided for in the PRI Act and Rules and this is an important aspect of democratic PRI functioning. If there is a consensus or unanimity, even this should be recorded. While the record of voting by individual members in PRI meetings could become the most important mechanism of opening up the proceedings to the public, there is no express provision in the law for disclosing the voting pattern to the public. We propose to introduce mandatory public display of resolutions of the PRIs along with the record of members voting for or against them. This will enable the public to know what their members are doing for them. They will know how the member has articulated their concerns in meetings. More than anything else, this alone will be an effective mechanism of downward accountability. The recording of votes is particularly important when funds allocation is being done in the annual action plan of the PRI.

Fourth, ensure that the body is collectively responsible for its actions. The requirement of collective responsibility is another method of increasing accountability of the body to the people. Once a member knows that his position is also in jeopardy as he is also vicariously responsible for wrong acts of his colleague-members in the body, there is a greater price to be paid for being a passive spectator to the proceedings. Members will be induced to participate meaningfully and there will be peer pressure on each other not to take wrong decisions.

Fifth, make meetings transparent. The requirement for transparency can be dealt with in several ways. We must have mechanisms where the process of decision-making is opened up and can be observed. The most important is that ordinarily, meetings shall be open to the public and that has already been provided in the Rules. Of course, certain special meetings where personnel matters are discussed or where bids on contracts are being examined or discussed, or where legal advice is being considered, can be held in camera. We have provided an amendment that expressly provides that meetings where financial or planning issues are being discussed shall be open to the public. The next necessary ingredient is that there must be full disclosure of facts in meetings, so that reasoned decisions can be taken. One method of doing this is to ensure a prior circulation of the agenda for a meeting and if necessary, allow one meeting to intervene before a decision is made. Thus a resolution can be introduced in a particular meeting and discussed, but voting could be held in the next meeting of the body.

We have proposed appropriate amendments to the Panchayat Raj Act 1993 and the Karnataka Panchayat Raj (Procedure at the Meetings of the Grama Panchayat) Rules, 1994 so that the principles above are incorporated into the legislation and rules.

Legislation for enhancing Political Accountability
One of the most significant features of the Panchayat Raj system is the opportunity that it opens for widespread participation in grassroot democracy. The total number of elected representatives in PRIs is around 80,000 in Karnataka. Improving their political accountability through appropriate safeguards in the electoral system should be considered an important ingredient of any reforms strategy. We have considered several reform processes that have been introduced in similar legislations in other states and specially studied the recently amended Panchayat Raj Act of Kerala. We make the following suggestions regarding improving the existing systems of political accountability.

  • First, we propose the introduction of clauses mandating candidates for PRI membership at all tiers, to file their election expenses, through amendments to the Panchayat Raj Act.

  • Second, we propose to introduce legislative clauses providing for mandatory vacation of seats in case of proved corruption, misapplication or failure to call for two Vasathi Sabha meetings consecutively (in the case of Grama Panchayat members).

  • Third, we propose to introduce a new clause which plugs a grey area in the law, by expressly providing that Grama Panchayat candidates cannot use symbols of recognized political parties.

  • Fourth, we propose new clauses which mandate elected members of all PRI tiers to declare their assets.

  • Fifth, we have strengthened the position of the State Election Commissioner by giving him the power of disqualification of members of Grama Panchayat, which now vests with Assistant Commissioner under. This is also in consonance with the principle that the executive should not disqualify PRI members.

    For detailed recommendations made by the working group, visit this page.

    Reinventing Rural Governance Series:

    (To be concluded)