facilitated dominant caste entrenchments
D. SHYAM BABU
AS Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald
put it, we need national government for national needs and local government for
local needs, the importance of local government institutions is self-evident.
In fact, the local bodies are more important insofar as people’s day-to-day
lives are concerned than the state or national governments. However, this
comment is a critique of the ‘elected’ village panchayats
The point is not that local government through
elections is inherently good or bad. Context matters. Geography matters. And
the aims and design of these institutions matter. It is also ironic that many
public-policy interventions require certain enabling conditions to succeed,
however, once those enabling conditions are in place, there would not be any
need for those policy interventions. For example, a relatively harmonious
society and a bureaucracy that is accountable and efficient are the two
conditions necessary for successful governance at any level. Most of the OECD
(Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries do possess
these two conditions. For example, Of the 38 member-countries of OECD, which is
a group of the developed nations, 36 countries are homogeneous, and each
country has one language. They are also homogeneous in terms of their ethnicity
and religion. In contrast, in countries such as India where social harmony and
efficient bureaucracy are below par, the second-order solutions like local
self-government will not only be ineffective but a distraction from tackling
the real challenges, viz., promoting social harmony as well as efficiency in
Mahatma Gandhi is the father of local self-government
in India, especially the Gram Panchayats. The village
was central to his approach to not only India’s independence but its social and
economic advancement. He sought to reconstruct the nation by making villages
self-reliant and self-sustaining. He wrote his most definitive statement on the
subject in Harijan in 1942 that ‘My idea of
village swaraj is that it is a complete republic,
independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent
for many others in which dependence is a necessity.’ A
complete republic? One is not sure if Gandhi used the expression for his
emphasis on village autonomy. One
is also not sure if 700,000 village republics (by Gandhi’s reckoning) were to exist, what could have been the role of other tiers of government, and the relations among them.
However, Gandhi had nothing to do with the ‘old’
village. In his village, ‘there will be no castes such as we have today with
their graded untouchability… The government of the
village will be conducted by a Panchayat of five
persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing
minimum prescribed qualifications.’ Therefore, since the Gandhian
conception of village has resemblance to neither the past nor the present, it
may be treated more as a Platonic idea. Gandhi’s total disregard for the
reality of caste is baffling since he himself had faced a social boycott from
his caste in Gujarat, according to Ingole, when he
was to undertake sea voyage (which was thought to have been forbidden for upper
castes) for studies in England.
During the debate in the
Constituent Assembly on the directive principle related to village panchayats (Article 40 in the Constitution), members were
unanimous that they were giving effect to the Gandhian
conception which is an ideal and a utopia. But no one mentioned Mahatma’s
stress on non-violence, fortified by satyagraha
and non-cooperation, being essential for village republics to thrive. One
member (L. Krishnaswami Bharathi)
even cited from the above comment by Gandhi in Harijan.
Gandhi’s whole scheme of making the village a vibrant site of self-rule,
whether it was practicable or not, has other prerequisites like the need for a
voluntary village worker rendering the services of even a Bhangi
(a sanitation worker), unpaid work for common good, etc. But the Gandhian way of managing life in the village has never been
part of our panchayat system. Therefore, the
superficial understanding of a Platonic idea informed the design and
functioning of panchayats, which resulted in two
First, devoid of the Gandhian ideal, the panchayat
system has become an extension of the village’s power dynamics. A recent study
by Anderson, Francois and Kotwal, based on a survey
in 9,132 households in 320 villages in Maharashtra, concludes that ‘beneath the
veneer of representative democracy, minority local elites are somehow able to
capture majoritarian local institutions and run them in their own interests.’
In other words, caste remains the organizing principle of village life and more
so now with quotas having been introduced after the 73rd Amendment came into force.
It would be a moot point to ask whether caste could ever be eradicated or
wished away. But elections for village panchayats, the lowest level wherein caste is more salient,
remains problematic. Writing in 2004, George Mathew, who is an expert on local self-government
institutions, highlighted how the upper castes resort to violence when the
lower castes, especially the Dalits, tried to claim
their rights of representation in panchayats.
Villages in India today may not be what Ambedkar
called them to be – ‘a sink of localism and den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness
and communalism’ – but they are still plagued by illiteracy and caste
Mathew narrates several instances of violence and
murder unleashed on Dalits and tribals
when they get elected to panchayats since 1993 and
writes: ‘Although as a person I’m an optimist, for Dalits
and tribals, I mean the SC/STs, the situation is
extremely grim and gloomy.’ Though he made these remarks two decades ago, we
must keep a couple of points in context. One, scholars tend to ignore the
sporadic nature of violence against the lower castes as these incidents appear
statistically insignificant. Doesn’t one expect these aberrations in a large
and complex country? However, sporadic acts of violence are good enough to
reassert dominance and social conditioning. Two, caste discrimination is not a
matter of one or two acts of violence and impunity. It is a spectrum. The
dominant castes use scores of methods, from imposing social and economic
disadvantages to inflicting violence, to thwart social change. And most forms
of caste oppression wouldn’t get reported.
Therefore, far from the Gandhian
ideal of caste-less villages, the panchayat system,
and the quotas under the 73rd Amendment have become an instrument in the hands
of the dominant castes.
Second, having created an
imperfect system of local (self) government, the nation moved on as if it found
a solution to all governance problems in villages. This distraction explains
the absence of administrative reforms at local level. If the inefficiency or
callousness of officialdom was the raison d’être for the panchayat institutions but they would never function
effectively if local officials were not efficient. As the phenomenon is
indicated in the introduction, efficient bureaucracy is essential for the panchayats to succeed, but the existence of the same
efficient bureaucracy obviates the need for panchayats.
We have ended up both neglecting the need to make local bureaucracy efficient
and accountable and creating a system of local self-government which stands
little chance of success given the impediments like caste divisions and rampant
The two negative outcomes elaborated above may not be
equally applicable to India as a whole, given its extreme diversity. For
example, Bihar and Kerala may stand at two extremes; similarly, there could be
wide divergence in the functioning of panchayats in
coastal districts and Rayala Seema
in Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, we need more studies to understand how far panchayat system is effective where it matters – in the
so-called aspirational districts – not in states that are otherwise relatively
One can draw interesting
parallels between India and the United States on how their respective founding
fathers grappled with critical issues of framing their constitutions. The
majority was unanimous on establishing checks and balances against
authoritarian impulses as well as
the need to create a strong central government. In both countries, there was a significant minority that viewed a strong and distant national government with suspicion and advocated local self-governance.
Though in India these groups were not given any tags,
in the US the majority pro-national government came to be known as the
Federalists, while the minority that sought local rule as the Anti-Federalists.
However, the minority groups did end up accomplishing their core objective. In
India local self-government found its way into the directive principles in 1950
and in 1993 received the constitutional status. In the US initial
constitutional amendments accommodated many demands of the anti-Federalists
and, as a result, now elections are held in more than three thousand counties
which are the lowest level of government, having an average population of a
In the case of India, it would be appropriate to call
anti-federalists those members of the Constituent Assembly who pleaded for not
merely panchayat institutions at local level but
regretted that the draft constitution did not adopt the village as the basic
unit of government. On 22 November 1948, H.V. Kamath
articulated the anti-federalist sentiment thus: ‘I would only express the hope
that where the type of capitalist, parliamentary democracy typified by Europe
and America and the centralised socialism typified by the Soviet Union have
failed to bring peace, happiness and prosperity to mankind, we in India might
be able to set up a new political and economic pattern, and that we would be
able to realise the vision of Mahatma Gandhi’s Panchayat
Raj and, through this system of decentralised socialism, we will lead mankind
and the world to the goal of peace and happiness.’
The Indian anti-federalists had
an additional reason to focus on panchayats as these
are indigenous institutions and hence authentically Indian. In fact, for them, panchayats were the only Indian element in the
Constitution. But some members’ caution that these were caste panchayats did not dampen their enthusiasm. In the end, the
anti-federalists merely paid lip service to Mahatma Gandhi and created a system
which is far from Gandhian but closer to panchayats of yore. Munshi and Rosenzweig found that ‘the presence of a numerically
dominant sub-caste (caste equilibrium) is associated with the selection of
leaders with superior observed characteristics and with greater public good
provision.’ It is a rather direct admission that the panchayat
system succeeds only when it is in sync with the caste system.
While James Madison articulated against the dangers of
‘local prejudices’ (in the Federalist Paper No. 10), Ambedkar
used a colourful expression for the village, ‘a sink of localism and den of
ignorance.’ Bardhan and Mookherjee
came to the same conclusion that ‘the lower the level of government, the
greater is the extent of capture of vested interests.’
However, one can as well cite more studies to
demonstrate how or why elected local bodies do deliver on their promises. Be
that as it may, this comment invokes the broad argument that the local, being
narrow-minded and majoritarian, may go against the interests of minorities and
weaker sections. There are four limits to elected panchayats
in the present narrow context.
are more a part of the problem rather than a solution as they are amenable to
dominant castes’ interests. Hence, their focus is more on managing village
power dynamics, not providing good governance. This factor is contrary to the
ultimate constitutional ideal of rendering caste irrelevant in public life. If
the panchayats’ remit were solely to articulate
village-level demands and hold the officials accountable, India would have
designed a different kind of system. Instead, in the Constituent Assembly, Gram
Swaraj (village self-rule) became the rallying
cry with nobody bothering to unpack what the slogan really meant. In any case,
most public goods that reach villages are a function of governance at the state
and central levels, such as employment guarantee schemes, or the myriad other
the so-called centrally sponsored schemes related to rural hous-ing,
sanitation, drinking water supply and what have you.
Two, since the panchayats are an additional layer (in that they do not
replace even one local government employee), they are expensive. Theoretically,
given the literacy levels in rural areas, every election would bring in new
members whose educational levels are very low and who are inexperienced. One
might argue that even state assemblies and parliament too receive their share
of members who are inadequately educated or experienced. In these cases, the
party system ensures that the legislation and resolutions introduced and passed
are produced by competent people. The members of legislature would merely have
to obey the party whip. The functioning of panchayats
could be expensive in many other ways. For example, a road may be sanctioned by
the state or central government, but the panchayat
could interfere to alter the course of the road to conform to power dynamics of
the village. Therefore, the cost is not merely in terms of expenditure towards
conducting elections and managing the functioning of the panchayat;
the governance outcomes wouldn’t justify the whole exercise.
Three, though caste plays an important role in all
elections, panchayat elections divide the village in
more substantive ways since contestation and polarization could be between
neighbours or between agricultural labourers and their landlord employers.
Moreover, the federalist sentiment against local prejudices, both in India and
the US, is rooted in the logic that a large pool of electors at national and
state levels is more likely to produce competent representatives than at
local/village levels where the size of electors is too small to produce
competent representatives. For India, polarization on caste lines in villages doesn’t
have to be a temporary phenomenon during elections; the fault lines are
permanent. Panchayats add a new dynamism to caste
divisions, rather than being a force for unity and cohesion.
Four, the diffusion of accountability is a general
problem with all elected bodies in the sense that though their decisions may
cause hardship to common people or loss to government finances, fixing
individual responsibility is impossible. For example, many problems related to
encroachment or misuse of public land, faulty construction of infrastructure
etc in urban areas originate in decisions taken in committees of urban bodies.
As mentioned in point two above, a panchayat can take
a unanimous or a majority decision to build a school or a road at such a site
that adversely affects some communities like Dalits,
but it would be impossible to act against that faulty decision. In all
governance systems fixing individual responsibility is the sine qua non
for ensuring bureaucratic efficiency and accountability.
These are the four main limitations to democratic
decentralization at the village.
As stressed earlier, democratic
decentralization may work well in so many contexts. Even in India the dominant
castes in villages are happy with the panchayat
system as they can use it to their advantage. Even Dalits
participate in it as they get to exercise their citizenship in one more way,
though they face a push back.
Dalits and other weaker sections have experienced
substantive economic mobility and the social disruptions that market reforms
brought about have enhanced their bargaining power in the village. Given the
magnitude of the caste problem as well as its intractability over several
centuries, the positive changes in Dalits’ lives over
the past few decades must be termed as radical transformation. But panchayats have had no role in this transformation; in
fact, their very operations force everyone to think only in terms of caste.
The problem with panchayats is not merely that of a binary – upper caste
dominance over the lower castes though it could a primary one
– lower castes too could be nepotistic. A Dalit who became a Sarpanch (panchayat head) through
reservations may be no better.
A system that fossilizes people’s perceptions of
themselves and others, as the panchayat elections
engender, is a clear impediment to material and moral progress of all.
Siwan Anderson, Patrick Francois, and Ashok Kotwal, ‘Clientelism in Indian Villages’, American Economic Review 105(6), June 2015, p. 1781.
Pranab K. Bardhan and Dilip Mookherjee, ‘Capture and Governance at Local and National Levels’, American Economic Review 90(2), May 2000, p. 135.
Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Village Swaraj’, Harijan 9(28), 26 July 1942, p. 238.
Anagha Ingole, Caste Panchayats and Caste Politics in India. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2021, p. 126.
George Mathew, ‘Local Self-Government and Dalits’, in Bibek Debroy and D. Shyam Babu (eds.), The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice. Globus Books, New Delhi, p. 262.
Kaivan Munshi and Mark Rosenzweig, ‘The Efficacy of Parochial Politics: Caste, Commitment, and Competence in Indian Local Governments’. Working Paper No. 14335. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, September 2008.