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The sarpanch & his cheque book
Has the decentralisation of power resulted in decentralisation of corruption?
Spending seven-digit sums on his election campaign, wielding powers that no other elected representative in India enjoys and hitting the multi-crore mark for corruption, the modern sarpanch has evolved into a creature his makers would find hard to imagine.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's vision of self-governance, the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, passed by Parliament in 1993, laid down the structure for a three-tiered panchayati raj system. The sarpanch is the elected leader of a panchayat composed of a handful of villages. He or she is supported by the gram panchayat comprising seven to ten persons drawn from the panchayat. One-third of all seats are reserved for women (raised to 50 per cent in states like Bihar), in addition to reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Elections are to be held every five years.
Today, of the over 28 lakh elected panchayati raj representatives in India, almost 10 lakh are women, the largest number of elected female representatives in any country. Rajasthan alone has 1. 1 lakh gram panchayat representatives, according to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj's 2006 report. While panchayati raj has undoubtedly led to a greater decentralisation of power and helped empower women and backward castes, poor implementation and corruption are in danger of discrediting this grassroots form of government.
Until the entry of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the sarpanch's chief responsibilities consisted of identifying beneficiaries for schemes like the Indira Awas Yojana and homestead schemes on panchayat lands.
Much of that changed after 2005. Though not all the blame can be laid at MGNREGS's door, the exponential growth in the money flowing into panchayats has undoubtedly been a result of MGNREGS, as also the consolidation of financial powers in the hands of the employment scheme. The sarpanch is today the only elected representative in India with the power to sign cheques. Other elected representatives propose schemes;the sarpanch actually makes the payments for these schemes.
When thousands of fraudulent names began to be discovered on muster rolls across the country, labour payments moved from cash to a bank account-based system in most of the country. Where the sarpanch remains the disburser of funds is for 'materials payments', meaning the purchase of mud or cement or the hiring of equipment.
"Across Rajasthan, we have seen scores of cases of sarpanches making payments to firms in the names of friends and family, " says activist Nikhil Dey of the Rajasthanbased grassroots workers' organisation, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
With growing financial clout has come politicisation. Although elections at the panchayat-level cannot be partisan by law, all the major national parties were openly backing candidates to sarpanch's posts during the elections in Rajasthan this February. This political muscle is being increasingly flexed.
Following reports of rampant corruption by sarpanches, the Rajasthan government last year passed orders taking cheque-signing powers out of the sarpanch's hands and moving them up to the block level, into the hands of bureaucrats whose terms don't end in five years. A section of sarpanches in the state revolted and were led by the opposition BJP to violent protests. In October this year, Rajasthan's Congress government blinked: the cheque-book is back in the sarpanch's hands.
Simultaneously, several sarpanches praised for their honesty by their constituents told TOI-Crest that they were hamstrung by inadequate staff. In Bhilwara district's Rooppura panchayat, dalit sarpanch Suresh Meghwanshi is a busy man, traversing his panchayat on borrowed bikes, since, like all of Rajasthan's panchayats, it is geographically dispersed. He cannot ride a hundred metres on a Sunday morning without being accosted by an elderly woman having trouble reading her Indira Awas documents, or a young man who hasn't yet got his MGNREGS job card. Meghwanshi patiently answers queries and takes notes from the complainants who are, after all, his neighbours. "This is only with MGNREGS. I welcome more responsibility, but how can I handle it all?" he asks.
At present, the panchayat has one government official, a gram sevak, at its disposal. For the MGNREGS, there is a rozgar sahayak drawn from the village and paid an honorarium. The sarpanch is paid Rs 3, 000 per month in Rajasthan and many say that it comes nowhere near making up for the income they forego as a result of panchayat work.
Former panchayati raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyar is emphatic that devolution of powers must go hand in hand with devolution of functionaries. "We need to slowly be moving towards a locally recruited District Panchayat Service, and keep the IAS purely for law and order, " Aiyar told TOI-Crest. "What is happening right now is decentralisation of power, rather than devolution of powers. This is a recipe for decentralisation of corruption. " Aiyar adds. "Empowering the entire village rather than only the sarpanch, combined with removing financial powers from the sarpanch can ensure that devolution is meaningful, " Dey agrees.
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