Tuesday, October 11, 2011



PRIs or Pariahs

You cannot do away with them as they are an integral part of our democratic setup. Everyone seeks to empower them, as they are the only face of political autonomy in our Islands. But, even after 15 years of 73rd Constitutional Amendment, late Rajiv Gandhi's vision of empowering the villagers of rural India remains a distant dream.

By Zubair Ahmed

You cannot do away with them. They are an integral part of our democracy. Everyone seeks to empower them, as they are the face of political autonomy in our Islands. Even after 15 years of 73rd Constitutional Amendment, late Rajiv Gandhi's dream of empowering the villagers of rural India remains a vain hope. First 10 years, it was purely experimental, where both the administration and the PRIs messed up, at many occasions. When Administration tried to rein them, they were powerful enough to fly two cabinet ministers from Delhi and get their way out from the trap.
The relationship between PRIs and the Administration was not always a courteous one. Two reports on the functioning of the PRIs in the Union Territory - one by Third Finance Commission and the second by NABCONs sponsored by NABARD brings forth two different versions of the last fifteen years of PRI system.
The Administration has woken up from a deep slumber after a long 15-year leash given to the PRIs to function according to their whims and fancies. It realized that all is not well in the system and it requires immediate plugging of the existing loopholes. The Grant-in-Aid Rules are being amended. Many strict and stern actions are recommended as preventive measures to check embezzlement of funds. Regulations too are amended to check favoritism. A cap of 30% for purchases out of GIA -General Fund is also recommended by the Directorate to control unrestrained purchases.
The attitude of the PRIs towards the proposed changes is very cautious one. They are a frightened lot now. Nobody dares to raise their voice for just or unjust causes. They are intimidated by everyone, technically and bureaucratically. The reason is obvious- they have put themselves in such a quandary by their own irresponsible actions. Within a year of assuming charge, a good number out of them have embezzled funds as much as possible. Purchases of streetlights, dustbins and stationery worth lakhs show their insatiable greed. The whole PRI system works in a coterie. From top to bottom, the link is visible with set percentages and cuts nicely engraved in each work order and purchase order.
It's a fact that they have been elected for a term of 5 years by the electorate. And they should be given the freedom to rule the complete term. Proper check and balance mechanism should be at place to keep them under the ambit of rules and regulations. Everyone knows that Gram Sabhas have utterly failed to control corruption. When the GPs submit monthly expenditure report, why can't they be held accountable if excess purchases reflect in the report? A query is sufficient to put a stop to the unbridled greed.
It is a proven fact that the PRIs can be easily tamed. "We are like donkeys. He, who twists our ear, leads us" said a very senior Panchayat Member about the working of the Gram Panchayat; and that about sums up the way the village Panchayats generally work; with slight variations here and there. The level of ignorance, indifference and general apathy among the villagers, the ward members and even some Pradhans of the Panchayats was appalling, to say the least.
The advent of RTI and the large quantity of ammunition from the last fifteen years have empowered them enough to go for Hara-kiri against each other. The court cases, disqualifications and arrests of PRIs including the technical and administrative staff are not because someone wants the system to be clean. It's the by-product of their hara-kiri. If the intentions were right, one would have seen the same persons who filed the RTI application and filed cases against the corrupt PRIs performing honestly. But, the case is different.
Gram Sabhas have also failed to address the problem of corruption in the right sense. The NABARD report suggests that Social Audits of PRIs are mandatory as per the 73rd constitutional Amendment 1993, through which the village communities are empowered to conduct - social audit of all development works in their respective villages and the concerned authorities are duty bound to facilitate them. The social audits are expected to contribute to the process of empowerment of beneficiaries and generate demand for the effective delivery of programmes. The instruction requires that special Gram Sabhas be arranged to conduct social audit in every ward and that Social Audits of all ongoing development works be included as an item of discussion in every Gram Sabha meeting.
Moreover, the PRIs are a confused lot, with many fathers. Sometimes the Deputy Commissioner summons them and hands over a list of things to be done, not even bothered what the Rules and Regulations say. The issue of sanitation, which is never attended by the Gram Panchayat is such a case. The DC, SA told them that Panchayat will collect and segregate the garbage; Samiti will shift it to the dumping ground prepared by the Zilla Parishad. The whole setup failed as there was no coordination between the three tiers. How did DC issue such an order when the Regulation says something else? The Chief Secretary in a meeting said that sanitation is a subject of Gram Panchayat, and most of the GPs are still waiting for an order clarifying it.
PRIs complain that there is acute shortage of staff in each tier. The Third Finance Commission had recommended that Admn to immediately transfer all implementation, regulatory, advisory and other functions to the local bodies as envisaged in the Constitutional provisions for the functions to be devolved to the local bodies. The Admn should also ensure availability of minimum staff strength for which they will either bear the expenditure or transfer adequate funds. Control of staff should have been vested in local bodies. However, it still remains a pipedream.
It can be seen that only some headway has been made in devolution of funds, functions and functionaries to the institutions. The progress is rather slow and often tardy. This process on paper gathered momentum in 2006 when administrative orders were issued to transfer constitutionally mandated twenty nine functions to these institutions. However, even today this administrative fiat has not been translated into action at the ground level in letter and spirit. In many cases the devolved functions are still being done by the administrative departments. The funds for all these functions have not been fully devolved. All officials have also not been sent to the local bodies and those that are transferred, in most cases are controlled by their respective administrative departments.
A case in point is the agriculture department, which has taken a positive step and transferred its functionaries to the PRIs. However, its not clear why the purchase of fertilizer still vests with the department, when the depots come under Gram Panchayat? An official said that fertilizer is a "dirty business" which nobody is interested in. But, a PRI representative told LOA that its one of the lucrative trade and they don't want to lose it.
Another issue is related with  Electricity department, which recently issued notices to around 15 Panchayats for settlement of outstanding dues of power bill for streetlights. Ferrargunj Panchayat had accumulated dues of Rs 42 lakhs. These are issues which are always pushed under carpet when PRIs raise it in meetings.
There is widespread complaint about the release of grant-in-aid. The cost index is outdated and it needs to be updated, said a PRI member. The NABARD report too observed that the grant-in-aid released to the three-tier system was arbitrary without any basis. The report says, "A cursory view of the statements showing total grants released to different Gram Panchayats since the year 2002-03 reveal that the distribution of funds amongst the different Gram Panchayats and Panchayat Samities have never been arrived at on the basis of any of the objective criteria set in the Panchayat Regulations as laid down. It was found that instead the allocations for the general grants-in-aid, roads and water schemes have more or less been equally divided amongst the 67 Gram Panchayats irrespective of the size, population, remoteness etc of the respective Gram Panchayats."
A Neduncheziyan, after taking charge of the department has taken drastic steps to reform the whole system. With the rearrangement of technical staff and freeing the engineering wing from the clutches of Zilla Parishad has to an extent solved the issue of under utilization of funds which were earlier ascribed to the delays in according technical sanction to the individual schemes by the Engineering Staff which were placed at the command of the Zilla Parishad.
However, the technical wing still enjoys same kind of patronage, which the earlier Engineering Wing of Zilla Parishad enjoyed in connivance with the concerned officials. Usage of vehicles by the technical wing has been given a free hand, where the bills are footed from the contingency fund of panchayats and samitis. The renovation of a quarter with funds diverted from Panchayats also happened under the nose of the Directorate.
A Neduncheziyan was optimistic when he told LOA that they are on the right track and the drastic changes will be visible in a couple of years. Someone is in charge now and let's hope that PRIs does not become Pariahs in literal sense and they too take in control the system for the welfare of rural areas.

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