The Importance of Panchayati Raj Institutions in India
#1
Note: This post was originally posted on facebook. The comment was made in a hurry, and it isn't polished enough. However, due to time limitations, I am posting it as is right now. I'll make it more complete and meaningful later.
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A question was asked by a fellow skeptic if there is a need of Panchayati Raj institutions in India given that we often hear about cases where Panchayats order outrageous punishments on individuals and sometimes groups. This was my response:

I disagree that panchayats should be banned. In fact, they should be fostered for they are a very good way to bring change at the grass roots. Here are my reasons for the same:

‎1. Every village has a dominant caste/group which holds the socio political power in the village. The Panchayat forms a counter balance of power to this dominant caste. The dominant group is the problem: they are the ones that usually want a status quo of regressive practices. They are the ones which form the "Khap Panchayats", order honour killings, burn Dalits etc.

We see cases of brutality by the Panchayats when the dominant caste comes to power in the Panchayats. Such practices by the Panchayat happen when two centres of power get merged into one. In other words, when such a dominant group/caste contests the elections and wins. However, in most cases, this doesn't happen. In most of the cases, the panchayat is separate from the dominant group.

Now the thing is the the Panchayat, which is one centre of power, can be regulated by the government. And that is the good thing. It can be used to counter the other centre of power is in regressive. Let me give you an example.

Many states (such as Bihar) have reservations for women (as high as 50%) at the Panchayat level. Now many people are against resevations for different reasons. We all know the usual arguments, so I won't repeat them. But in spite of all that, several socio-economic studies have shown that reservations do work at the Panchayat levels (note: I'll add citations later when I have time).

This is true even when the Sarpanch is the wife and proxy of a man! Studies show that even when the women elected are wives or daughters of political men, the perceptions of women improve in the society. Economic power is in fact transferred (at the margins), and women are freer to move out of their homes without permission of their husbands. In other words, social and economic powers of those sections being reserved do improve. The dominant group (in this case, men) is countered by government mandated reservations via the Panchayats.

This trend has been noticed even when the reservations have been based on caste. So the Panchayats are a good tool to have social change. If we do not have Panchayats, then only the dominant castes and groups will consolidate power and effectively govern. Then regressive practices such as the above will increase manifold.

2. Administratively, it is best if local communities decide what is best for them (in terms of spending on infrastructure etc). Bureaucrats living in the state capitals won't have a clue how to pass an order as to where to build a road in a village, and which locality needs better drainage. This has to be decided by elected officials who are at present in the villages it self - ie. the Panchayat.

Panchayats are actually accountable to the people and are the most hotly contested elections (yes, more than MP and MLA elections). Very few people know this: today, a Panchayat has more spending power than even MPs and MLAs! Sarpanchs happen to know every voter by his/her name and the voters have direct access to the Panchayat. They can come after a hard day's work and tell the sarpanch first hand what their problem is. Can a villager afford to go to the town and will he get the permission to visit his MLA or MP or some bureaucrat? They won't even let them step into their offices.

The concept of local rule is known as Federalism. India is a federal country (as opposed to having a central leadership). The Panchayat's have a great role to play in our future. We need to strengthen it.

One more point: since we are atheists, it should be known that the dominant caste/groups tend to be very religious and parochial. So Panchayats are good "secular" counters to this power group.
("secular" at least in theory, if not entirely in practice).
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#2
Excellent points. I saw a youtube video of JP Narayan talking about good governance and brought forward the same points. Making decision-making authority as local as possible sounds prudent, and to a large extent just common sense.
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#3
Panchayats comprising of elders of the village were feudal patriarchal structures that existed in South Asia including what is now Pakistan.

I had been skeptical of the efficacy of the Panchayati Raj with elections and reservations because the women are proxies for male family members and there is so much reporting about atrocities and injustices still being committed on class and caste basis. It is good to know that there is socio-economic progress expanding due to broadening of empowerment. While these panchayats may be effective at local administration, I'm still not sure that reforms in unjust medieval social practices in rural India are keeping pace with the centralised laws of the nation.

Thanks Siddharth.
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