Panchayats continue to face weird problems

The Telegraph reports

Seraikela-Kharsawan district administration old-timers said the Kharsawan panchayat had been an NAC for a quarter of a century even when its population was 12,500, 500 more than the NAC cut-off. But, when during a 2008 survey, it was found that the population of Kharsawan NAC had fallen to 11,000, the state government de-notified it and changed it to a panchayat a year later

However, the panchayat residents continue to pay taxes on par with NACs, or notified area councils. The citizens are therefore boycotting elections.

“None has even filed nominations,” Kharsawan block development officer (BDO) Satyendra Kumar Baraik said…

…Though Kharsawan panchayat voted in rural polls with other panchayats in 2010, the system of billing that existed during the NAC days continued then and even five years later, six years since it officially became a panchayat.

So, residents pay electricity bill and land registration fees, among others according to NAC provisions, which are four times higher than in panchayats

This sounds like a classic example of bureaucratic apathy. ‘Laziness’ would be a kinder description; ‘confusion’ might be the kindest. For citizens in rural areas, their Gram Panchayats provide them their most essential experience of a democracy. Not only do they exercise their franchise, the Gram Panchayats are their first port of call for basic services. The report indicates how citizens of this panchayat are denied their basic entitlements as a result of this bureaucratic blockade.

There are several stories of Panchayats remaining at the mercy of bureaucrats. The babus at the district often think of themselves as easily superior to elected mukhiyas.

As I had written in an older column, the higher levels of bureaucracy need to get their act together and coordinate better, and at the same time, show greater respect for the grassroots democratic process.

One possible way of aligning the work of line departments and service utilities with Gram Panchayats could be to ensure coordination at the top levels of bureaucracy. Such coordination is glaring in its absence, either due to inter-departmental rivalries within the government or just plain neglect.

Many state governments have a department for Panchayati Raj, which is saddled with miniscule funding from a couple of schemes such as the Backward Region Grant Fund or the Finance Commission funds. The Panchayati Raj department’s scope of activities therefore is limited to these schemes in isolation from the other government schemes in operation on the ground. This is fatal given that the success of Gram Panchayats depends on the cooperation and performance of transferred institutions which fall under other government departments.

However, blatant ‘departmentalism’ protects non-cooperative behaviour by low-ranked line department staff who have been redeployed, along with transferred institutions to being under the control of Gram Panchayats. This is visible in the case of government employees such as doctors, teachers, anganwadi workers, etc. While upward accountability within line departments is irreplaceable, enhancing the ability of citizens to hold service providers to account is a critical component of good governance.

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