In the heat and noise generated in the Karnataka legislature last week by the controversy over Infosys Honorary Chairman and Chief Mentor Narayana Murthy and the national anthem, another equally significant and damaging event virtually passed unnoticed – the hurried passage of amendments to the Panchayat Raj Act by both houses of the legislature. The amendment gives MLAs powers over grama sabhas and panchayats - the separate tier of local goverment into which citizens directly elect representatives -- that run contrary to the spirit of decentralisation and the Constitution itself. There was pandemonium in both houses when the legislature passed the bill. In the legislative assembly, the opposition staged a walk out. In the legislative council, the vote was evenly split, and was followed by Chairman B K Chandrashekhar exercising his casting vote in favour of the government.

The evolution of a pioneering law

To understand the damage the amendment will cause to local government in Karnataka, we present some background on the Panchayat Raj legislation in the state. Grama sabhas have been given a unique position as institutions of participatory governance under the Constitution. Article 243A defines a grama sabha as being a body of voters relating to a village within a Panchayat. Under the constitutional pattern, grama sabhas provide the foundation for effective Panchayat Raj. The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act 1993 initially had provided for relatively weak grama sabhas. Under Section 3 of the Act, while grama sabhas were to meet at least once in six months, if grama panchayats failed to convene grama sabhas, then the Executive Officer of the Taluk Panchayat concerned could convene them. A grama sabha only had recommendatory powers under the law. The law also provided that in case the grama sabha failed to identify the beneficiaries within a reasonable time, the Executive Officer shall, in consultation with the grama panchayat, identify the beneficiaries. Obviously, there was low confidence about the capacity and interest of grama sabhas and they were routinely ignored by higher levels.

But in 2001, M Y Ghorpade, then Karnataka's Minister of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) in the Congress government, constituted a working group under the Chairpersonship of the Development Commissioner, N Viswanathan to make recommendations on Panchayat Raj reform. In its report submitted in February 2002, the Working Group recommended several measures for strengthening grama sabhas including changes in the law to provide for ward sabhas below grama sabhas at the neighbourhood level and elaborate processes for beneficiary selection by ward and grama sabhas under government programmes. Amendments based on these recommendations were intensely debated both outside and within the legislature. In mid-2003, while presenting the draft amendment bill to the Assembly, Ghorpade himself suggested that they should be examined by a Joint Select Committee. After a detailed examination by the Joint Select Committee, the bill was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature in September 2003.

The amended law was a tribute to the wisdom and statesmanship of Ghorpade. It was uniformly acknowledged as a big step forward, putting Karnataka in the forefront of good Panchayat Raj. The first ward sabha in the State was organised in the constituency of D R Patil, MLA, at Gadag, on Gandhi Jayanthi day, 2003. Apart from establishing a two tier system of ward and grama sabhas for effective and greater people's participation, the landmark amendment also listed as many as 19 functions for them, including approval of annual plans, generating proposals and determining priority of schemes, identifying beneficiaries, water supply and streetlight arrangements and promoting adult education.

In respect of beneficiary selection the new law left no room for doubt. Section 3(3)(b) of the amended law provided that ward sabhas would identify the most eligible persons from its area for beneficiary-oriented schemes on the basis of criteria fixed and prepare lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority and forward it to the grama Panchayat. These lists were then to be placed by the grama panchayat before the grama sabha, which under Section 3A(3)(c) would consider the ward sabha lists and prepare the final lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority. For good measure, the law also provided that once such detailed beneficiary lists were prepared by the grama sabha; they could not be changed by any higher authority.

The undermining, in six years

The amendment itself is very ambiguously worded. Whether 'government' in 'programmes funded by the government' means central or state, or local government, or all of them, has been left to interpretation.

Technically 'government' legally refers to all levels of government from central to local governments. Therefore 'government funded' could refer to state and central government funds and also funds obtained from World Bank or ADB grants or loans or even central government schemes that are disbursed directly to the Panchayats.

Last week's amendment has set the clock back in no uncertain terms. It inserts similarly worded provisos to Section 3(3)(b) and 3A(3)(c), stating that if the grama panchayat fails to discharge its duties in respect of housing schemes or programmes funded by the government, then a committee headed by the member of the legislative assembly of the constituency shall select the beneficiaries from the list prepared by the grama panchayat! In one stroke, the legislator becomes the final arbiter over decisions of the grama sabha! These provisos are dangerously open ended.

Who is to decide that a grama panchayat has failed to discharge its duties? Who will constitute the committee? Why specifically mention housing schemes? On what grounds does the government justify that for all other schemes the grama sabhas have the power, and supposedly the intelligence, to select beneficiaries but when it comes to the selection of people for housing, they are incapable and therefore should not have the right? What is the implication of providing scope for taking away the powers of the grama sabha in respect of all schemes of the government? The crudeness of the amendment and the naked arrogance of legislators supporting it, takes one's breath away.

At first sight, though the unseemly hurry in piloting the amendment is unnerving, this was a long time in coming. Only a year back, the government tried to bring in the same amendments through an ordinance. However, saner counsel prevailed after upright officers in the RDPR department fought tooth and nail against it. The state's Parliamentary Affairs and Legislation secretary G K Bore Gowda* also objected to this provision on the grounds that taking away powers given to panchayats and grama sabhas signified a reversal of Panchayati Raj and therefore required presidential assent. He also voiced the view that taking away powers specifically in respect of housing schemes would contravene Article 14 of the Constitution.

This time around, there were no niceties of consultation. Secretary Bore Gowda has voiced the same objections, but they have been ignored. The upright officers who objected earlier are no longer around – they have been replaced by those more compliant, who have prepared the dubious amendment. Currently, the top bureaucrat at the state's RDPR Department is M R Sreenivasa Murthy. No select committee has been set up to consider the serious implications of such a legislation.

This amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act virtually puts MLAs in the driver's seat in respect of the selection of any beneficiary for any rural development scheme. It is the grama sabhas that are the deciding body in this regard; they are the only platform we currently have that recognises true participation of every citizen to participate in decision making. They are a major step towards realising self governance and this amendment revokes this right. The message is loud and clear - citizens are now being held to ransom by their MLAs, who want to usurp virtually all powers, including those given to constitutionally mandated local bodies. This trend is not confined to panchayats – now MLAs want more powers in urban local bodies and university senates too!

We need to ask our legislators – regardless and fearless of the threat of breaching legislative privilege – is it their business to select beneficiaries for programmes? Are they legislators or chief executives of their constituencies? Is our vote a general power of attorney? Can MLAs take away the powers of others that we have elected to represent us in the panchayats? Can MLAs usurp the rights of the grama sabhas? Do MLAs have knowledge and insights that are superior to the members of a grama sabha regarding the needs and situation of individuals in each grama sabha?

At the two day Sammelan organised by the Institute of Social Sciences in Bangalore a fortnight ago to celebrate twenty years of Panchayati Raj in Karnataka, several MLAs who had risen from the panchayats spoke of their commitment to decentralisation.

 •  Democratising panchayats
 •  Reinventing rural governance-I
 •  Reinventing rural governance-II