The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The panchayat polls in West Bengal in May this year will once again set to work direct democracy at the grassroots level. Power will go to where it should actually belong — hands of rural men and women, enabling them to determine for themselves what is best for them. But power corrupts and there are numerous instances where panchayats have handed out gruesome judgments whenever an individual’s behaviour has deviated from the set medieval conventions which guide the local body. And women have often found themselves at the receiving end.

Panchayat members in Bengal may not be barbarous misogynists, but it is also not a very good idea to give absolute power to men who use it to enforce their arrogant and intolerant attitude. The gram panchayat in West Bengal is the chosen political and legal instrument for the implementation of state policy. The government of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) favoured the arrangement as it gave the left control over distribution of surplus land, rights of sharecroppers, distribution of state subsidies and so on.

Rule by proxy

In the Seventies, the CPI(M) was locked in a battle on two fronts in the countryside. On the one hand, it felt that it would not be able to stem the dominance of the jotedar nor implement its agrarian programme without the countervailing institutional power of the state. On the other hand, experiences of the Naxalite movement signalled that an encouragement of the militant peasant-struggle might lead to violence that would damage the electoral prospects of the party and possibly invite Central intervention. The establishment of a three-tier panchayat system was then considered the best way to promote the political goals of the party.

The Left Front could now successfully persuade jotedars to believe that their best chance of achieving moderate affluence and security lay in conceding legitimacy to panchayats as intermediaries between them and the agricultural workers. Once this effective linkage between the rural society and the state was established, the mediation by the local government became an instrument of “parliamentary communism”. Thus began the party’s association with the middle peasant.

Fix the roof first

Over the years, the party has developed an effective policy with respect to the panchayat’s functioning. Directives in the form of a newsletter are sent by the state committee to the panchayat through district committees for ideological and political coordination. The party believes that to transform panchayats into “weapons of struggle”, strong party control over them is essential. As noted, the concept of panchayats being institutions of self- governance is either missing or dimly perceived.

The panchayats are granted around Rs 500 crore a year by the Centre and the state government for various rural development programmes. Many panchayats do not furnish audited reports for the money received. To further its interests, the CPI(M) banks heavily on its trusted, loyal, middle-aged cadre, holding key positions in the panchayat hierarchy.

So does power to panchayats thus spell disaster for the common man' Instances abound where personal sentiments or party interests have intruded into the panchayat’s functioning. This, however, does not mean that panchayats need to be abolished. An attempt can be made to rid democracy at the grassroots levels of political interference. For this, a consensus among all parties at the state or local level is crucial. But the role of the civil society, including non-partisan NGOs also assumes significance here.

The panchayats can be given power in phases — not absolute power without any accountability. Let them decide if sewers need repair, when to fix the roof of the school, the location of the community well, or the constitution of a committee to promote primary education. Only if they pass this initial test satisfactorily should they be given greater responsibilities.

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