Friday, January 08, 2010

'Indian democracy is flawed'


Says Dr. George Mathew, founder-director of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

In December, 1996, Murugesan, a Dalit, contested for the post of president of Melavalavu panchayat, near Madurai, and won. The members of the dominant community, the Kallars, were aghast and angry. “They told Murugesan he would be taught a lesson,” says Dr. George Mathew, the founder-director of the Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences.

On June 30, 1997, Murugesan and a few Dalits were traveling on a bus from Madurai. About 2 kms from Melavalavu, the bus was forcibly stopped. More than 20 people attacked Murugesan and his companions. All were killed instantly.

“In many parts of India, people refuse to accept the empowerment of Dalits, women and marginalised people,” says Mathew. “They say, ‘My father, a high caste, sat on this chair. I will not allow anybody else to sit on it.’

Because of this feudalistic attitude, many suffer from harassment at the grassroots level. Scores of people have also been killed.”

Most state governments also want to kill off the panchayati raj system. According to the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution, 29 subjects like agriculture, irrigation, fishing, housing, roads and water, have to be transferred to the panchayats, but so far only lip service has been done.

“The fault lies with the politicians, the bureaucracy, the upper castes, landlords and middlemen, like contractors,” says Mathew. “How can a few thousand powerful people manage this crowd of 30 lakh elected representatives? They prefer to deal with a single MLA or the bureaucracy. So, they will not allow the panchayats to flourish.”

But Mathew is all praise for Kerala, which has allowed decentralisation to take place. “There is a culture of local government here, thanks to forward-thinking leaders like EMS Namboodiripad, and social reformers like Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru,” he says. “Many government departments have to work through the panchayats.”

Mathew is also happy with the infrastructure. “There are proper buildings and the offices are equipped with computers and all the modern facilities,” he says.

In other states, the panchayat offices are usually located in the homes of landlords. People from lower castes are not allowed to enter. There is no office equipment.

Despite this, Mathew and the institute have been propagating the need to develop local government. “If power is not decentralised, it will lead to alienation,” says Mathew. “When that happens, people will resort to violence.”

Mathew says that this is already happening. More than 200 districts in India are under the control of the Naxalites. “Where are we heading?” he says. “The people in the cities are going one way, while the rest of the country is going somewhere else. We must ensure that the other India also becomes developed.”

Mathew was in Kerala recently to deliver the Dr. N. Parameswaran Nair Memorial Lecture at the Sree Narayana Guru Institute of Science and Technology at North Paravur. He spoke on ‘Power to the people: where are we?’ and sounded pessimistic.

“There are 150 MPs who have criminal antecedents,” he says. “Out of that, more than 100 are crorepatis. Initially, these people did not have a fortune. After two terms as MLA or MP, they become crorepatis. Can we call it a democracy? The world might respect us because of our system, but, fundamentally, our democracy is flawed.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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