The forces of liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation have restructured the national economies and polities across the world. In India, the economic and decentralisation reforms through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts have coincided. Decentralisation in general and devolution in particular has attained significance in the post-economic reforms period. The three decades’ experiences of decentralised governance reforms provide an interesting yet challenging insight into the functioning of local governments in India. Against this backdrop, Bala Ramulu Chinnala’s work assumes critical importance in understanding the functioning of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). The main focus of the book titled Marginalized Communities and Decentralized Institutions in India: An Exclusion and Inclusion Perspective is “to analyze the position of marginalized communities at grassroots-level democratic institutions and correlate macro-level concerns with micro-level knowledge with a view to build a dependable knowledge base on the subject” (p 15). It is also claimed that the book is “first of its kind on the performance of political executives of marginalized communities at grassroots-level democratic institutions” (p 15).
Decentralisation through Development Models
The book begins with the introduction of basic concepts of inclusion and exclusion and locates them in various theoretical approaches, namely traditional, classical, neoclassical, Marxian, and social exclusion/inclusion (pp 5–12). These approaches are located in the broader globalisation agenda and assert that “there is hardly any study, especially during the post-globalization period, focusing on the role of the decentralized rural institutions, empowerment of these marginalized communities, and inclusive growth in the country” (p 15). Chapter 2 explores India’s development models and the place of marginalised communities in it by specifically looking at the mixed economy model (1950–90) and the market economy model (from 1991 onwards).
A brief discussion on the evolution of PRIs in the country and its impact on the empowerment of marginalised communities is also narrated. The author finds that (i) the dominance of rural elites, (ii) the prevailing social structure and property relations, (iii) the lack of political will at the state level, and (iv) the feudal–colonial–bureaucratic nexus rendered the PRIs dysfunctional with respect to development and the marginalised sections in the hinterland (pp 29–31) during the mixed economy model period.
In the market economy model of development, Chinnala notes that the credibility of the Indian state has been eroded and has adversely affected the “bargaining power of marginalized communities at all levels of governance, including decentralized institutions” (p 32). About the lack of the state’s political will, it is observed that
the state is assigning many functions to private or parastatal institutions, thereby making the PRIs insignificant bodies in the development process and viewing them merely as “ornamental institutions” or an “empty box” without any powers or “field agencies to the higher-level governments.” (p 41)
The evolution and functioning of PRIs since independence is highly unsatisfactory in terms of empowering the marginalised communities and their participation in governance.
Chapter 3 provides a brief profile of the study area along with the narration of the journey of PRIs in Telangana in three phases, namely the phase of dynamism (1959–69), the phase of stagnation (1970–91), and the phase of decline (1992–2020). In the first phase, the PRIs were allowed to function as independent institutions by the state-level leadership, and hence, the PRIs succeeded in improving the rural economy by creating infrastructure (p 58). One of the plausible reasons for this could be the power consolidation by the upper castes by colluding with the socio-economic structure, institutions, and bureaucracy. This consolidation of power, along with growing socio-economic inequalities and rural unrest, has stalled the progression of decentralisation reforms in Telangana.
Chinnala makes an interesting observation that the period between 1992 and 2020 should be characterised as a phase of decline. This is because the decline has taken place in the post-constitutionalisation phase of the PRIs. The delay in conducting the elections, paucity of funds, withdrawal of line department staff deputed to the PRIs, non-commitment to the state finance commission’s recommendations, and above all, excessive interference of the state in the functioning of the PRIs have really weakened them.
Steps Towards Inclusive Governance
Reservations provided to marginalised communities had raised hopes in favour of inclusive governance during this period. However, the author observes that reservations have provided mere political space to these communities and are only a case of “symbolic inclusion.” The real empowerment of the marginalised communities has been inhibited by various structural and institutional factors, such as lack of autonomy of the PRIs, inadequate devolution of powers, insufficient capacity building of the elected representatives, etc (p 70).
The interplay of exclusion and inclusion have been brought out in Chapter 4, while a thick description of 10 case studies pertaining to the political executive is provided in Chapter 5. One of the important findings of the book is that a variety of civil society organisations have contributed to “inclusiveness in social, cultural, and economic activities” (p 78); however, they have failed to ensure political inclusiveness for marginalised communities in the gram panchayats. Altogether 97 elected representatives belonging to the Scheduled Tribes/Scheduled Castes/Other Backward Classes, and General categories have shared their perceptions about the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion in the activities of gram panchayats. When it comes to electoral politics, the party in power determines the inclusion of marginalised communities and has far-reaching consequences in terms of excluding the poor and the marginalised from substantive participation in governance (p 83). The levels of education, age, gender, livelihood security, caste support, and economic status (p 87) are some of the factors that determine the level of participation of political executives in the governance of gram panchayats.
From the field, it is observed that caste-based discrimination is showing a declining trend (p 90), yet it is influential in playing a key role in grassroots politics. It was found that the participation of marginalised communities in both reserved and unreserved villages is poor and reservations have not enabled these communities to get more benefits from the gram panchayats (p 91). It was also found that the lack of active citizens’ participation in the gram sabha is due to the disillusionment with the PRIs and their functioning. A significant finding is that in a market model economy, the people are found to give priority to commoditisation rather than democratisation of values for achieving social justice (p 93).
The book also delineates how the intermediary, that is, mandal panchayat has become weak and almost dysfunctional in the entire scheme of the PRIs. The lack of cordial relations between the members of Parliament and the zilla parishad officials and elected representatives further weakens the PRIs at all three tiers. Chinnala opines that as long as structural inequalities persist the exclusion process will not fade away for marginalised communities in the realm of local governance.
The 10 case studies reveal rich insights from the field on the political executives of different social categories. It shows that reservations for marginalised communities have not led to political inclusion in reality, as the cases signify the persistence of caste-based discrimination in the governance of gram panchayats. It also shows how the political executives of marginalised communities can put up a fight against an unequal and discriminatory society in rural settings in tune with party-based politics.
As far as the gram panchayats coming under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act, 1996 are concerned, it is found that the management of natural resources is in the hands of line departments, mainly revenue and forest, rather than being taken care of by the gram panchayats in these scheduled areas. The goals of the e-panchayat are yet to result in substantive change due to the lack of commitment among government authorities (p 109). Proxy leadership in the case of women-elected representatives is alarmingly visible, creating and sustaining double discrimination on the grounds of gender and caste. It is revealed that the “leadership from marginalised communities have the capacity to manage the institutions effectively, provided they are allowed to function independently. But the state government is the real culprit in this regard” (p 126).
Chapter 6 concludes by drawing inferences from both macro and micro trends. On a macro level, the forces of globalisation and the neo-liberal economic model of development have altered the Indian state and the institutions of governance, thereby transferring power to the market and private entities. The PRIs are being progressively transformed into becoming the agents of the government, and reservations to the marginalised communities have only helped in legitimising state power rather than empowering the marginalised communities in the area of governance (pp 132–33). The poor socio-economic and political backgrounds are the micro-level factors that are preventing marginalised communities from active participation in the governance of gram panchayats (p 134).
The decentralisation process has not really enabled marginalised communities to have access to resources and rights to participate equally with the dominant sections, and hence the premise of decentralisation altering the social base and power relations in favour of the poor and marginalised communities appears to be false in developing countries (p 136).
Development or Governance Models?
The book draws its strength from the rich data from the field, and especially the thick description of the case studies on the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. The study has brought out very well the causal factors responsible for exclusionary governance in the PRIs. Most importantly, it delineates the structural, social, economic, cultural, political, and institutional aspects of the exclusion of marginalised communities in decentralised governance. The reluctance of the state government to devolve necessary powers and authorities has made the PRIs ornamental institutions rather than institutions of self-governance.
The author has considerably succeeded in exploring the nuances of the impact of globalisation on the Indian state, with particular reference to the empowerment of marginalised communities. The decentralisation reforms in the post-1992 phase have been accurately contextualised and diagnosed in rural settings. However, the study would have been more meaningful or appropriate had the author paid adequate attention to an analysis of the perspective of higher-level authorities (political and administrative) concerned about the functioning of the leadership in the PRIs.
The book is a welcome addition to the literature on decentralised governance and its implications on social justice. However, the book falls short in not explaining how the socio-economic and political environment in the PRIs are different from the one prevailing in state and national politics. Especially, making cross-cultural and contextualised analyses of the position of marginalised communities in any other South Indian states would have added more analytical rigour to the findings of this book. The two models (mixed and market economy) can be more helpfully characterised as being economic models rather than development models. It is unclear to the reader which theoretical approach has been relied upon by the author after enlisting different approaches to the problem of social inclusion/exclusion. The fiscal position of the PRIs, the nature of the recommendations of the state finance commissions, and the action taken report of the state government on the same could have added more rigour to the background chapters.
Another critical point is that the author’s selection of “development” model/s to assess the participation of marginalised communities in inclusive governance through the PRIs is a mismatch. The PRIs, being rural and semi-urban organisations, need to be contextualised from an institutional perspective for better performance appraisal, with development as an outcome of the process of institutionalisation.
Some of the remarks made in the book, such as on the “politics of accommodation,” distortion of tribal culture during the neo-liberal period, elite capture of political power in rural areas, and weakening of intermediary panchayat needed more substance. A plausible action plan about how to make the state abide by the constitutional amendment acts relating to the PRIs is missing in the book. This is imperative, as it is the state which needs to be pushed further to devolve more power to PRIs.
Apart from these shortcomings, the book serves as a valuable source of rich empirical data for all those who are interested in understanding the dynamics of local governance. It is useful for policymakers, political scientists, public administrators, civil society organisations, and law schools. It would be instructive to recommend this book to all the institutes studying rural development.