Decentralization of Power to Panchayats in India: Challenges and Impact

The 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts, which were passed in the early 1990s, aimed to give constitutional status to local governments in India. These acts aimed to empower locally elected officials, such as sarpanchs, by decentralizing power and authority to them. However, more than three decades later, the powers of local elected officials remain seriously circumscribed by state governments and local bureaucrats, diluting the spirit of the constitutional amendments. This article analyses the extent of decentralization of powers to panchayats in India and the challenges faced by sarpanchs in accessing and utilizing funds for local development.

Financial Dependence on State and Centre

  • The issue of funding gram panchayats remains a major concern in India. Panchayats are heavily dependent on grants from the state and central governments for everyday activities. These grants include both discretionary and non-discretionary funds, and constitute a significant portion of panchayat funds. In Telangana, for instance, less than a quarter of a panchayat’s revenue comes from its own sources of revenue.
  • Access to discretionary grants is also contingent on political and bureaucratic connections, further exacerbating the issue of financial dependence. Inordinate delays in transferring approved funds to panchayat accounts also stall local development, forcing sarpanchs to use private funds for panchayat activities to fulfil mandated targets and avoid public pressure. This has led to several sarpanchs in Telangana to resign from office and even resorting to suicide due to indebtedness.

Constraints on Spending Panchayat Funds

  • State governments often impose spending limits on various expenditures through panchayat funds. This includes quotidian activities such as purchasing posters of national icons, refreshments for visiting dignitaries, or distributing sweets in a local school at national festivals.
  • Moreover, in almost all states, there is a system of double authorisation for spending panchayat funds. Apart from sarpanchs, disbursal of payments requires bureaucratic concurrence, making the process of seeking approvals a tedious and time-consuming task.

The Role of Local Bureaucracy

  • State governments also bind local governments through the local bureaucracy. Approval for public works projects often requires technical approval (from the engineering department) and administrative approval from local officials of the rural development department. This process requires paying multiple bribes to local officials, further adding to the financial burden on sarpanchs.

Synopsis

The constitutional amendments passed in the early 1990s aimed to empower locally elected officials by decentralizing power and authority to them. However, more than three decades later, the powers of local elected officials remain seriously circumscribed by state governments and local bureaucrats. The issue of funding gram panchayats and constraints on spending panchayat funds continue to be major challenges faced by sarpanchs. The role of the local bureaucracy in stalling local development and the need for administrative and financial autonomy for meaningful decentralization also needs to be addressed.

Written by IAS POINT

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