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Towards people’s raj through five-tiered Federation
By Syed Shahabuddin

Mindful of India’s long history of successive imperial unity disintegrating into principalities which were weak and succumbed easily to foreign invaders, the fathers of the Indian Constitution designed it as a quasi-federation – more correctly as a federal state with unitary features. The federal elements have been eroded, both deliberately by powerful Prime Ministers as well as steadily and automatically by a relatively stronger and economically more resourceful Union Government. What we have today is a Unitary State with federal features. Despite this the tendency of decentralization has been taking root with adult suffrage and the emergence of long-suppressed social groups into the light of history, their demand for recognition of identity and control over State activity at least in their immediate environment and the extension of development to the rural milieu. Slowly but inevitably the two levels of governance, envisaged in the Constitution – the Union and the State – have been supplemented by the structure of Panchayati Raj Institutions at the district, sub-district and village levels but they are yet to acquire power and prestige.

Given its size and population which are of continental dimensions, its ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity, its historic memory of village and caste panchayats, the dynamics of the freedom movement which claimed ‘power to the people’ as its goal, India has, therefore, been moving towards a multi-layered or multi-storied federation. The goal, distant but clearly discernible on the horizon, is the transformation of India as a Union of States, to India as a Union of Autonomous States, which are Unions of Autonomous Zilas, which are Union of Autonomous Prakhands, which are Unions of autonomous Panchayats. The key concepts are Union and Autonomy. Union signifies an organic unity from the village(s) which is (are) governed by Panchayats to the entire national territory which is governed by the Union Government. Autonomy implies a distribution of power, function and authority among the five layers of governance which enables each layer to be strong, viable and efficient in its own domain, with measured independence of action, within a uniform national framework, so that the affairs of the country can move with requisite speed and harmony.

It must be said to the credit of Jawaharlal Nehru and to the leaders of the Socialist movement that they sympathized with the popular urge, trusted the people, encouraged their demands, even when the bureaucracy opposed them on the conventional ground that resources will be squandered and that they would be swallowed by the rural elite. In fact even when the Union Government granted more power for the States, the States became stronger and richer. This benefitted the urban elite and the urban-based bureaucracy. State autonomy meant more cadres controlled by the State Governments, dispersed right down to the ground level. By and large the Panchayats were left to stew in their own joice, even if formally invited for consultations in Gram Sabhas, whose minutes are often prepared in advance and where deliberations were suitably managed.

The transition will take time as many political parties which claim a national or state status and have an eye on the monopoly of power at the central and the state levels will not readily encourage the emergence of power centres at the zila, prakhand or Panchayat levels. There will also be attempts to coopt one emergent level or the other within the national or the state framework through level jumping and direct dealing. But what will finally defeat their monopolistic design is the cumulative urge for decentralization at the grassroot levels and the logic of hierarchical distribution of work. The power of decision-making, not of policy-making, the authority to monitor and execute the development schemes at the Panchayat, Prakhand and Zila levels, will move downwards, powered by the aspirations for an equitable share of national and state resources and control over local resources, such as water, the soil and the sub-soil, the forest and the minerals. The lower echelons demand the power to decide relative development priorities, administrative control over executing development of schemes/projects in the fields of education, health care, surface communications, drinking water supply and agriculture and for managing those completed like schools, dispensaries, roads, water supply systems, which touch the life of the common people.

The key task is to streamline the transfer of administrative power and fiscal responsibility and facilitate people’s control over the three lower levels. Indeed Autonomy should generate sense of responsibility and participation among the people. The same old arguments will be used -- wastage of resources, shoddy execution, poor performance, social injustice. The fact is that all these characterise the present dispensation and the only hope for remedial action lies in ‘power to the people’.

Once the people of a village know what their share in the available development resources is, that they can freely determine their priorities and can themselves execute the projects chosen by themselves, whether it is building a primary school or a rural road or a dispensary, they shall supervise their execution as they supervise the construction of their own houses. But they must exercise administrative control over the technical staff employed on the project and the contractor selected for executing it. Once the primary school or the primary health centre is ready, it is also essential that they function not as extensions of the State Government or even of the district authorities but relate directly to the Panchayat. The functionaries should be paid by the Panchayat out of its budget and if the teacher and the doctor is not upto the mark, the Panchayat should have the authority to remove him or ask for a change.

What is important is an amendment to the Constitution to add the Zila List, Prakhand List and Panchayat List, so that the PRI’s are not stunted into extensions of State Governments but develop their role and authority in every field. There can be a hierarchy. If primary education becomes the responsibility of the Panchayat, the secondary education will be that of the Prakhand Samiti, college and vocational education will be that of the Zila Sarkar, the university or professional education will be that of the State and the Centre shall run only higher institutions of research and specialization whose number in their very nature will be limited. A similar scheme can be worked out in every field of development administration.

This would imply inverting the planning pyramid. Today arbitrary national goals are set; then broken up statewise and the states, then, lay down the zilawise targets. A People’s Plan will begin at the bottom not at the top, at the level of the living peoples to take on their felt needs and aspirations. The Panchayat Plan will be an aggregate of the Village Plans plus Panchayat level projects. The Prakhand Plan will be the aggregate of Prakhand Plans plus Zila level Projects. The State Plan will be the aggregate of Zila Plans plus State level projects and the National Plan will finally be the aggregate of State Plans plus national level projects. The planning structure will be modular and each Panchayat, Prakhand, Zila and State shall constitute a module, big or small.

To begin with, an honest estimate of the net financial resources of the Centre will be necessary. After covering essential functions of the Central Government e.g. national defence, internal security, foreign relations, communication systems etc. and repayment of public debt-internal and external, the balance should be distributed among the States largely on the basis of population. The States should estimate their own resources and the total of resources available including the central allocation, should be distributed among Zilas, after making provision for State level projects. Similarly, the Zila and Prakhand resources should be estimated and the resources available to each Panchayat should be worked out. The Panchayat should add land revenues, income from various Panchayat activities like Cooperative Societies, Crop Banks etc. The planning process should then begin. The Panchayat should consult every village within its jurisdiction to ascertain their felt needs and weave them into a Panchayat Plan which should include projects which are of benefit to more than one village and perhaps the whole of the Panchayat, all within the estimated resources of the Panchayat. Financial devolution and consequent administrative authority are the essential perquisites of Power to the People. If Zilas, Prakhands and Panchayats are denied due authority and equitable share of resources, the distant and insensitive fiat of the Centre and the State would continue to operate against constitutional objectives of decentralisation.

Given the social segmentation, every Panchayat, Prakhand, Zila or State runs the risk of turning into an area of darkness for particular social groups – ethnic, religious, caste, linguistic etc. which may be deprived of their share because they constitute minorities or are socially marginalized. It should be the objective of the Federal state in a plural and segmented society to ensure that a political federation of spatial units is also a socio-economic federation of all social groups inhabiting a given jurisdiction at any level of the multi-storied federation. This can be ensured through laying down constitutional norms, issuing legal directives and passing executive orders which will, together, over a period of time, make every suppressed or discriminated group politically conscious of its rights and courageous enough to assert itself and demand its due share.

Federalisation will also entails a fresh look at the territorial distribution of the national territory. It is axiomatic that the strength of a federation lies in a balance in the area and population of its constituents. Today for historical reasons, the population ratio between the biggest and the smallest state (UP and Sikkim) is of the order of 1:300. Similarly, in area, the State, vary from 342,214 sq. kms. (Rajasthan) to 3,702 sq. kms. (Goa) Over the years since 1950, and the linguistic reorganisation in 1956, adhoc decisions have been taken to cope with political agitations for territorial reorganization and many mini and micro states have come into existence. India cannot be divided by longitude and latitude. Nor can all the States in the country be of the same size in area and population. But they can be of comparable size and at the same time the territorial limits can be defined by the principle of ethnic identity with village as the unit, administrative convenience and economic viability. Minor ethnicities or identities located within a major ethnicity or identity can be guaranteed their legitimate right of full expression and their interest can be protected, within this federal model, through accommodation as autonomous Zilas within the State, instead of creating mini and even macro States, as autonomous Prakhands within Zilas and as autonomous Panchayats within Prakhands and within Panchayats as autonomous Villages.

The ideal model of territorial reorganization, will be to divide our country of over 1000 million people into 60 odd states of 10-20 million, each break up mega States and abolish mini and macro states and Union Territories, divide each State in 10-20 districts of 1-2 million each, divide each district into 10-20 Prakhands of 1–2 lakhs each and each Prakhand into 10-20 Panchayats of 10-20,000 each. Thus both fission and fusion are essential to bring about a setter balance among the federative units as well as to assure dignity and authority to each ethnicity or collectivity.

No division can ever create perfectly homogenous units. Hence after accommodating ethnicity as Zilas within States, as Prakhands within Zilas and as Panchayats within Prakhands, in accordance with their pattern of concentration, the federal model has also to address the problems of the minorities which lie dispersed within an autonomous unit, with no viable concentration. For this, the Union has to formulate a Code of Minority Rights which should be based on legal equality as well as principle of proportion harmonised with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Rights of Minority Groups as well as the UN Covenants. The Code should also provide for fair division of benefits of development and welfare programmes to all social groups, at the functional level. 

The Constitution should lay down that if any constituent unit at any level persistently violate the Code and deprives a group of its due share, it can be taken over by the next higher constituent unit like a Panchayat by a Prakhand or a Zila or a Zila by the State and a State by the Union for a period in order to remedy the situation..

Thus, the creation of the Panch Talla Raj (five-storied or five-tiered or five layered Federation) has constitutional, fiscal, planning, administrative and spatial aspects but the rural objects are to bestow real power to the people and to divide the available resources, without allowing any majoritarian monopolization or minoritarian deprivation, at any level, in a manner so that every citizen equally benefits to the extent possible.

To manage the affairs of a small homogenous state is relatively simple as compared to the affairs of a heterogeneous state of continental dimension. As pointed out the classical remedy of a two-tier foundation is inadequate and, in a country of India’s history and diversity, it needs a new concept, a revolutionary take-off. This will be a complex process. Many objections will be raised about its practicability, it manageability, its consequences and long-term impact. But if the object of the Indian State is Social Justice i.e. equitable distribution of resources, assets and goods and services of the Society to all Social Groups, without fear or favour, without monopolization or deprivation, political, economic and administrative power has to be shared effectively with the people, with all the social groups, big and small, which inhabit this vast land. Such effective sharing is only possible by taking recourse to direct democracy, to Gram Raj, at the village as the basic unit of administration and development. Nearly a century ago Gandhi in his wisdom gave expression to the idea in his book Hind Swaraj but it needs to be rewritten in accordance with the demands of the modern age in which social and economic mobility have been accelerated and professional and occupational changes from generation to generation are the order of the day. And in a real democracy, sons must not follow the vocations of their fathers as their ‘karma’.

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