1. The panchayati raj institutions acquired constitutional status through the 73rd Amendment, 1993 and the subsequent Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996. In official discourse, the panchayats are celebrated as a model of democratic decentralisation or decentralisation of power. The ‘power’ in the case of panchayats does not however refer to any kind of policy-making or plan-formulating function; it essentially denotes only power to implement schemes and policies that are decided by the central and state governments. Within this limited framework, the panchayats deal with 29 subjects covering a broad spectrum of basic services. Decentralisation of power or democracy should therefore be understood only in the sense of delegation of responsibilities and devolution of funds.

2. The Gram Sabhas under PESA are of course supposed to
enjoy considerably greater power including the right to be consulted in matters of land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement and mandatory power of recommendation before any mining licence is granted within its jurisdiction. But in real life the Gram Sabhas whether under PESA or under PRIs governed by the 73rd Amendment remain the most neglected and violated aspect of the panchayati raj. The ongoing massive mining loot in tribal-inhabited mineral-rich areas and the countrywide corporate land-grab campaign tell the true story of the mockery of the powers of Gram Sabhas and panchayati raj institutions. More powers to panchayats must first of all mean more powers to and respect for Gram Sabhas and the latter must have a direct say in the implementation of every scheme concerning the rural poor.

3. While the claim of panchayats providing a platform of direct or participatory democracy at the grassroots is utterly untrue, there has clearly been a huge expansion in terms of elected representation. With 50% reservation of seats for women, apart from reservation for SC/ST and OBCs, the ambit of representation has also clearly expanded. The panchayats have thus definitely facilitated the entry of large numbers of common people, especially women, in public life and ignited democratic aspirations among the masses.

4. But the mobilisation and assertion of the people within the panchayats cannot happen spontaneously – it has to be organised consciously and herein lies the great role of class struggle and of the Communist Party. The ruling classes on the other hand try to obfuscate and obstruct this process in the name of partyless panchayats and by extending their own class network through a corrupt nexus of officials, panchayat functionaries and middlemen, contractors and dealers. The panchayats have been a key instrument in the hands of the ruling classes in deepening their penetration and strengthening their network. Even Gram Sabhas, idealised by many as village republics, are very much subjected to the forces and processes of caste, class and gender hierarchy and domination. Any non-class or supra-class illusion about panchayats will therefore prove suicidal for the revolutionary movement – the revolutionary class line must be practised in real earnest to turn the panchayats into a platform of counter-mobilisation of the masses to defeat the dominant powers.

5. The rise of panchayats as the centre of rural political life has brought in its wake a whole set of new contradictions and issues. The contradiction between the common people and the nexus that usually controls the panchayat and often misappropriates much of the funds is a most common feature in most panchayats. In many places, the district and block administration tries to bypass or overrule elected panchayat representatives. More often than not women representatives are sought to be used as figureheads or pawns by powerful male family members, while the feudal-kulak lobby seeks to coerce or co-opt representatives from dalits and extremely backward castes by exercising their power and influence. And then every scheme administered through