The concept of Panchayatii Raj is not new to India. Chola Kings in South India experimented village Panchayati system long long ago. The Panchayati concept lost its utility under the British Raj. Mahatma Gandhi had immense faith in Gram Swaraj and democratic institutions at the village level. He wanted that every village should be self-sufficient as a unit. Producing its own food and clothing.
There shall be at the village level artisans like carpenters, porters, cobblers, blacksmiths etc., to provide the required tools. The village should have an elected Panchayati, which would run a school, a dispensary, and a cultural centre and look after sanitation and drinking water.
A cooperative society looks after the commercial needs of the village. If and when such ‘Grama Swaraj’ takes shape, Gandhiji said, it would be ‘Rama Rajya’ Because of the vast area and size of our country Gandhiji and that a Central Government at Delhi alone would not be in a position to solve the problems of all villages satisfactorily all over the country.
To give shape to the above shape to the above views Article 40 was incorporated in the Constitution. According to this article, each State Government should take steps to organize Village Panchayatis and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to work as units of Local Self-Government.
As a first step in this direction the community development programme was taken up by the Central and State governments. The work started with selected Firkas as centres under Firka Development Officers. The Firka development scheme failed to achieve its purpose, due to lack of local participation. As directions were coming from the top, it did not really result as a locally elected Panchayati Unit.
In 1956 under directions of the National Development Council a committee was constituted under Sri Balwantrai Mehta to look into the problems of Panchayati Raj. Along with many other recommendations, he made a recommendation to have a three tier system of Panchayati Raj. Besides Village Panchayati, there shall be a village Panchayati Samithi and Zilla Parishad.
The committee also recommended adequate powers and resources to be placed at the disposal of these bodies. Rajasthan was the first State to implement the Panchayati Raj system on October 2, 1959 at the village Nagaav. Andhra Pradesh was the next to introduce the Panchayati Raj system and other States followed later.
These new Panchayazt Raj institutions had elected representatives as Presidents or as Chairman at the village and Samithi level and Zilla Parishad level. Adequate administrative machinery and funds were placed at their disposal. The State Governments, of course, had the final authority of supervision over these Panchayati Raj bodies.
Panchayati Samithis were in charge of primary education, health, animal husbandry, agriculture, women welfare, child welfare and social education. The Zilla Parishads, besides supervising Panchayati Samithis, had to look after roads and buildings, protected water supply, small irrigation, social welfare and secondary education. Because of local participation, the new set-up worked well initially. Centralization of power at the State level and local political factors affected its progress. However, the village Panchayatis had very little role to play in this set-up.
The Ashoka Mehta Committee was constituted to look into the flaws in the working of the Panchayati Raj in the year 1977. The committee came to the conclusion that the Panchayati Raj institutions had failed in their purpose and recommended a two tier system like Zilla Parishads and village Panchayatis and also suggested district election to the posts of Presidents and Chairmen of Ziklla Parishads. It also pointed out that many State Governments were not adopting a uniform policy in conducting elections to Panchayati Raj intuitions regularly.
The 72nd amendment to the Constitution was passed on 22nd December, 1992, giving statutory status to Panchayati Raj Institutions. The amendment came into effect from April, 1993. The Act provided certain new advantages. It guarantees elections to Panchayati Raj bodies every five years. It provides reservation of seats to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. It also indicates devolution of administrative powers. The new bill envisages “Grama Shabha” as the basic foundation to all Panchayati Raj Institutions.
This new measure was criticized by some, for the reason that it takes away certain powers of the State Government and hands it over to Panchayati Raj institutions and that, it established a direct link for the Panchayati Raj Institutions with the Central Government, ignoring the State Government. This direct link, they argue, will promote centralization of powers and not decentralization.
One feeling that was voiced by Pundit Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, when the Constitution was drafted, was that the village Panchayatis would be the centres of localism and oppression. Even though a number of reservations have been provided, the voice of Pundit Nehru is found to be true by experience. May did not understand democracy and voting rights in 1947, but today the position has changed. The same may be said about Panchayatii Raj Institutions. With the passage of time they are sure to prove their utility and serve as real bases of democracy in our country.
Synopsis: Panchayat system is best suited to our rural needs and administration. It is a right step towards devaluation and decentralization of power. It deserves all help and encouragement as it is a truly representative and democratic system. As a fit and effective instrument of self-governance, it is matchless. Now, Panchayati Raj institutions are there in almost all the Indian States with three tier arrangement at village, block and district levels. There are nearly 2020 lakh Gram Panchayats, 5.5 thousand Panchayat Samitis and 371 Zila Parishads. They have helped a lot in removing socio-economic disparities, among the rural masses. They have also helped in the empowerment of women, backward, poor and down-trodden classes of the rural society. Still these institutions need many reforms and more empowerment to be really effective. Panchayats assume a very vital role because about 80 percent of Indian population lives in villages.
Panchayats Raj institutions are democratic and so best suited to rural population in Indian to take care of their local problems. It is a system of local self-government run by a council or Panchayat elected democratically by the local people. It provides the necessary administrative apparatus for the planning and execution of rural development schemes. It is very inexpensive system to identify and solve local problems of the rural population. It provides a platform where people can assemble, identify problems and aims at decentralization of power. Decentralization and devolution of powers is at the root of Panchayati raj.
Panchayati Raj is nothing new to India and its history dates back to hoary past. It was a integral part of self-contained and self-sufficient rural planning, execution and administration. A Panchayat consisted of 5 or more public representative selected or elected by the people. A panch or members of the council could be removed if people wanted it. The Panchayat worked under a Sarpancha who presided over its meetings and deliberations. They were fully responsible for the administration and development of a village or a group of villages. The Panchayat administered justice, punished the offenders and decided the disputes and looked after the welfare of the people. The Panchayat also looked after the rest-houses, temples wells, ponds, irrigation system and schools.
The re-introduction of Panchayat system is in perfect harmony with our spirit of democracy and the aspirations of the rural public. In order to strengthen democracy, it is imperative that Panchayat system in the country is given all possible help and encouragement. It effectively participation, decentralization, transparency, accountability and fairness in the affairs of the villages. The 64th Constitution Amendment Bill of May 15, 1989 gave a new lease of life to Panchayati Raj as a truly representative system in India. During the debate on the subject then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told the Lok Sabha, “Too often in past Panchayati Raj has had functions without finances, responsibilities without authority, duties without the means for carrying them to make these rural legislatures or councils a fit and effective instrument of self-government”. The Bill also made it obligatory that elections be held regularly every five year, but the various states have failed to fulfil this obligation and so the Centre had to intervene.
Now, Panchayati Raj institutions are there in almost all states and union territories though with variations in structural pattern. It involves a three-tier arrangement—village level, block level and district level. Panchayat Samiti and the third tier as Zila Parishad. The tenure of Panchayati Raj institutions ranges from 3 to 5 years. These institutions are generally responsible for promotion of agriculture, rural industries, maintaining common grazing grounds, village roads, tanks, wells, sanitation and execution of the other socio-economic programmes. In some places, they also provide for IRDD (Integrated Rural Development Programme) and execution of other rural programmes like JRY (Jawahar Rojgar Yogana). There are about 2020 lakh Gram Panchayats, 5.5 thousand Panchayat Samitis and 371 Zila Parishads.
The 73rd Constitution Act, 1992 has further strengthened these institutions of democracy at village levels. Because of these institutions awareness about their rights and privileges among the poor, the scheduled castes and tribes has been building up and they are coming forward to challenge and remove existing socio-economic disparities and injustices. Many of the gram Panchayats have their Pradhans from scheduled castes, tribes and women-folk. These institutions have generated a fruitful interaction and cooperation between the people of the upper castes and the people of the backward and lower castes. Panchayati Raj institutions have definitely helped in the empowerment of women, the weak, the poor and the downtrodden to some extent. And in many cases the poor and socially weak candidates have successfully won against their rich, resourceful and influential candidates because of their integrity, character, dedication to service and commitment to genuine social and economic change. But it never means that Panchayats are today totally free from the dominance of beginning, an emergence of new awareness and leadership. However, the resistance to these changes is evident in the elections not being held in stipulated time in many states.
Panchayats must ensure transparency, fairness and accountability. They should aim at quick resolution of disputes and fair distribution of surplus land among the landless villagers. More and more persons like women, schedule tribes and castes, marginal farmers and landless labourers should be involved in the process. The Panchayats should be properly empowered to raise their funds to meet their development expenses. The 10th Finance Commission has separately earmarked over Rs.4,000 crores for development programme through the panchayats. The panchas and sar-panchas should be trained and their access to information be improved so that they can take firm, quick and right decisions as to what was good for their villages. In order to reduce central control further, more emphasis should be laid on grassroot initiatives. Both the centre and the State should ensure flow of proper funds to these institutions for their effective working and success. These institutions of democracy at grassroot levels cannot be economical, viable and self-sufficient unless adequate resources are at their disposal, and generous grants-in-aid are given.
The reservation of seats, for women, scheduled castes and tribes in Panchayats is a welcome step for it will make them really democratic, representative and balanced. The Panchayati Raj institutions assume a very vital role because 80 percent of the country’s population lives in villages spread over about 95 percent of its geographical area. It is cynical to think that panchayats cannot govern and administer. They should be given more powers and resources so that they can function more effectively. The panchayats alone can introduce democracy at grassroot levels in an appreciable and effective way. There is no other alternative. Only panchayats can fruitfully tackle the specific problems of the area but for this they need functional autonomy in the true sense of the term. It is wrong to think that Panchayat institutions posed a threat to the power structure in this states. They would rather strengthen the state-structure and so there should be more and genuine devolvement and decentralization of powers and sources.