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Democracy’s Cradle

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The first phase of polling for the three-tier panchayat elections takes place on Saturday in Uttarakhand. Theoretically, this is the most essential level of Indian democracy, where people are supposed to have almost direct control of the most immediate institutions of governance. It is also the stage at which budding leaders supposedly obtain grassroots experience and learn the nitty- gritty of administration. Unfortunately, despite the declared objectives of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, the panchayats have been rendered ineffective over the years by the powers that be. This obviously has had many repercussions, the most important being a disengagement of large sections of the population and their representatives from taking responsibility for tasks they alone can best perform. The greedy politicians at the higher echelons do not realise that this actually makes their work much more difficult, as people tend to blame their local MLA and MP for problems that should be solved at a more immediate level. Technically, the funds for a number of schemes are sent directly to these bodies, but divested of the necessary decision making and implementing powers, the panchayats become mere vehicles for corruption on a large scale. The recent direct-to- beneficiary payment approach has exposed the large scale frauds that have taken place over decades. All this can be blamed on the unwillingness to empower panchayats and hold them responsible for delivery. It is no wonder then that this nursery of democracy produces representatives who join the game only for the money that can be made. Not aware of the benefits direct governance can provide them, voters are happy to choose leaders based on one or two payments in cash or kind they might get in the five year period. So, while the rest of the time they spend complaining about their miserable lives, they still do not realise how they have been fooled. The powers to be vested in the panchayats envisaged during the passing of the 73rd Amendment still remain in other hands. As a result, while holding the elections every five years costs the state a pretty penny and a lot of administrative bother, the benefits do not accrue. So, it becomes a wasted exercise, doubling the ill effects of the process. There is hope, however, in the growing awareness among the voters. They are better informed because of TV and the internet. At the higher level, people have begun to vote for causes other than just their personal interests. Perhaps, they will choose the right leaders for the panchayats in larger number, motivated by the right expectations. Even a little change would substantially improve the lives of the people at the grassroots.