By: Seram Neken
India is known to be the largest democracy in the globe with a large rural population spread across different states. The legislators and executives at the level of union and federal governments hardly get to know the real problems, troubles and issues faced by people at the grassroot level in rural areas. Hence, the importance of empowering the local bodies to develop policies, rules and regulations to decentralize power came up, so that reach and access of administration can be widened at the grassroots level.
The concept of village panchayat has practically restored the system of Direct Democracy through institutions like the Gram Sabha, where the local people directly participate in formulation of policy and programmes. In order to regulate the Panchayati Raj system, the Panchayati Raj Act (73rd Amendment) was passed in 1992, and the Act was enforced on 24 April in 1993. A 3-tier system with Gram Panchayat functioning at the village level, Panchayat Samiti functioning at Block Level, and Zilla Parishad functioning at District Level was developed accordingly, although only a two-tier arrangement is functioning in thinlypopulated villages of Manipur. Manipur Panchayati Raj Act 1994 is now prevalent in the state.
National Panchayati Raj Day is celebrated every year on 24 April to commemorate the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India which brought a major change in the Panchayati Raj system. The celebration started in 2010 across the country. The day recognizes the decentralization and devolution of power into the hands of the common men by the State legislatures in order to ensure that people at the grassroot level hold the democratic power to rule themselves.
Manipur state has 161 Gram Panchayats at village level and 6 Zilla Parishads at the district level with 60 elected zilla parishad members. A large chunk of voters is represented by the Panchayati Raj Institutions, which are literally functioning at the mercy of the state government. Frequent delay in release of funds, comparatively meagre size of honorarium for the elected representatives, inordinate exclusion of rural local representatives in important government missions and programmes, inability to conduct timely elections etc. have plagued the Manipur Panchayats since the enforcement of the Panchayati Raj Act 1994.
Fund release to the PRIs has never been smooth in spite of the political rhetoric regarding importance of rural local bodies. There have been hue and cry from the MGNREGS workers and local representatives due to long pending release of funds. PRI representatives have not been assigned valued roles in implementing important missions and programmes of the government. During Covid-associated-lockdown days, as everyone witnessed, the local representatives took a great role in helping the affected populace at their own expense and risk. This writer, being an elected Zilla Parishad member, helped the villagers by distributing edible items to hundreds of families who had been locked in their homes for days without a single penny from the dispensation. Moreover, the cooked food in packages was served to the families of Covid patients and the Covid care centres during the whole treatment period. In spite of the valuable selfless contribution from the local representatives, they were not
formally recognised as Covid Warriors, as they were not given responsibilities in committees and sub committees formed during the two-year war against Covid 19. Everything was to be routed through local MLAs. This is the plight of rural local bodies in Manipur.
The Zilla Parishad members, Pradhans and Ward Members are entitled with an amount of Rs. 9000/-, Rs. 8000/- and Rs. 3000/- per month respectively, which are quite meagre considering the prevailing market prices, and their responsibilities in dealing with public grievances during normal as well as calamity times. Moreover, such a meagre amount has not been regularly paid.
Even though the tenure of PRI representatives elected in 5th General Panchayat elections already expired in October last year, the election is yet to be conducted now. Meanwhile, in January 2023, the state cabinet decided to set up Administrative Committees for Gram Panchayats and to appoint Deputy Commissioners as Administrators for Zilla Parishads till the elections are held. An order of Manipur High Court has recently nullified the formation of Administrative Committees and appointment of Administrators for Gram Panchayats and Zilla Parishads respectively. Now, as the court ordered, the elected members will continue to be in their respective posts till the election is held. As per provisions of Manipur Panchayati Raj Act, election to the PRIs is to be held within six months of expiry of the tenure. Counting from October last year, the given period of six months is expiring soon. Without assigning any valid reasons, the election to PRIs has been delayed for long thereby violating the constitutional provisions.
The lackadaisical attitude of the Government has not only amounted to weaken the Panchayati Raj system, but also jeopardised the spirit and objectives of the Constitution of India. In such a situation, what is the significance of celebrating National Panchayati Raj Day in Manipur ? Development of the country or state will be possible only when the villagers are empowered.
(The writer is senior columnist & elected representative of Imphal East Zilla Parishad)
National Panchayati Raj Day; Only Panchayati Raj Institutions Can Save Democracy
By: Seram Neken