The term Panchayat literally means an assembly of five elders elected by
villagers. Panchayati Raj is a system and process of governance. The term was
coined by Jawaharlal Nehru. It is distinct from Panchayat, which connotes
government of a local body limited to a geographical area.
Jawaharlal Nehru did
not like the phrase democratic decentralisation for, according to him:
Democracy means power springing from the people. By Panchayati Raj what was
being envisaged was not a territorial government or administration; but rather
an approach to administration guided by and vested in the people themselves".
There is still truth in the saying that India lives in her villages. Therefore,
in the Indian context true democracy that can sustain itself and function
effectively, is democracy at the village level itself. This is because village
communities have been the basic units wherein individual's happiness, fieedom
and independence were realised since ancient times. In the words of S. K .Dey, "If we
were to rebuild India work must start from the villages.
Villages have always
been the basic units of administration in India since ancient times. Their
importance was naturally very great when communications were slow. The question
now rises, what will be the form of that society in which it will be possible
for the people to run their affairs directly and develop all those values of
life that characterise a socialist society, co-operation, self-discipline, sense
of responsibility? The answer will be the 'Panchayats'.
Panchayati Raj Institutions in Ancient India
The word panchayat is derived from the word pancha panchasvanusthitah, has
references in to the existence of Grama Sanghas or rural communities. The
institution of Panchayati Raj is as old as Indian civilization itself. It was in
existence since ancient periods, having an effective control over civil and
judicial matters in the village community. The Rigveda, Manusamhita,
Dharmashastras, Upanishads, Jatakas and others, refer extensively to local
administration, i.e. the panchayat system of administration. In the Manusmriti
and Shantiparva of Mahabharata, there are many references to the existence of
Grama Sanghas or village councils.
The earliest reference to panchayat is derived from the word Pancha, that refers
to an institution of the five (pancha panchasvanusthitah) is found in the
Shanti-Parva of Mahabaratha, pancha and panchavanustitah are semantically close
to panchayat. A description of these village councils are also found in
Arthashastra of Kautilya who lived in 400 B.C. Arthashstra gives a comprehensive
account of the system of village administration prevailing in his time.
this period, the village administration was carried under the supervision and
control of Adyaksha or headman. There were other officials such as Samkhyaka [accountant],
Anikitsaka (veterinary doctor), Jamgh karmika (village couriers), Chikitsaka [physitian].
The village headman was responsible for ensuring the collection of state dues
and controlling the activities of the offenders. In Ramayana of Valmiki, there
are references to the Ganapada (village federation) which was perhaps a kind of
federation of village republics.
Self-governing village communities characterized by agrarian economies existed
in India from the earliest times. It is mentioned in Rigveda that dates from
approximately 200 B.C. The village was the basic unit of administration in the
Vedic period. The most remarkable feature of the early Vedic polity consisted in
the institution of popular assemblies of which two namely 'Sabha', and the
'Samiti' deserve special mention.
A Samiti was the Vedic Folk Assembly that in
some cases enjoyed the right of electing a king while the Sabha exercised some
judicial functions. Both the Samiti and Sabha enjoyed the rights to debate, a
privilege unknown to the popular assemblies of other ancient people. The office
of the village head man (Gramani) indicates the emergence of the village as a
unit of administration. In the later Vedic period, the Samiti disappeared as a
popular assembly while the Sabha sank into a narrow body corresponding to the
kings Privy Council.
In the course of time, village bodies took the form of panchayats that looked
into the affairs of the village. They had the powers to enforce law and order.
Customs and religion elevated them to the sacred position of authority.
Besides this there was also the existence of caste panchayats. This was the
pattern in Indo Gangetic plains. In the south, the village panchayats generally
had a village assembly whose executive body consisted of representatives of
various groups and castes. These village bodies, both in the north and south
India, had been the pivot of administration, the centre of social life and above
all a focus of social solidarity.
In the Mouryan period, the village was the basic unit of administration.
Villagers used to organize works of public utility and recreation, settle
disputes, and act as trustees for the property of minors. But, they had not yet
evolved regular councils. The village council appeared to have evolved into
regular bodies in the Gupta period. They were known as Panchamandalas in central
India and Gramajanapadas in Bihar.
These bodies negotiated with the
government for concessions and settlement of disputes. The inscription of Chola
dynasty shows the construction and functions of the village assembly and their
executive committees. The village administrations were performed by the elected
representatives forming village council.
During the medieval and Mughal periods, village bodies were the pivot of
administration. In the Mughal period, particularly in the regime of Sher Shah,
the villages were governed by their own panchyats. Each panchayat comprised of
village elders who looked after the interest of the people and administered
justice and imposed punishment on defaulters. The headman of the village, a semi
government official, acted as a coordinator between the village panchayat and
the higher administrative hierarchy.
Akbar accepted this system and made it an
indispensable part of civil administration. In this period, each village had its
own panchayat of elders. It was autonomous in its own sphere and exercised
powers of local taxation, administrative control, justice and punishment.
The Mughals introduced elaborate administrative machinery with a hierarchy of
officials, particularly in the field of revenue. The Mughal local administrative
system lasted over centuries. It was with the collapse of the Mughal strong
hold, the British established their hegemony in India.
The British came to India as traders, and before long established an inroad into
the cultural nexuses of the land. The primary focus of the British Raj was much
to do with trade and little to do with governance and development. The local
governments were hardly their first priority. In fact till the advent of the
British rule in India, the rural republic had flourished and thrived.
emergence of the British Raj in India, panchayats ceased to play a role that it
once played. But, local self-government as a representative institution was the
creation of the British.
In the initial days, the interest of the British was limited to the creation of
local bodies with nominated members. These bodies were built around trading
Thus in the year 1687, a municipal corporation came to be formed in
Madras. Set up on the British model of town council, this body was empowered to
levy taxes for building guild halls and schools. As time passed, similar bodies
were set up in other major towns and this model became prevalent, helping the
British widen their taxation power. This model continued to comprise nominated
members with no elected elements what so ever.
It was Lord Mayo, the then viceroy of India (1869 to 1872), who felt the need
to decentralize powers in order to bring about administrative efficiency and in
the year 1870 introduced the concept of elected representatives in the urban
municipalities. The revolt of 1857 that had put the imperial finances under
considerable strain and it was found necessary to finance local service out of
local taxation. Therefore it was out of fiscal compulsion that Lord Mayo's
resolution on decentralization came to be adopted.
The Bengal Chowkidar Act of 1870
The Bengal Chowkidar Act of 1870 marked the beginning of the revival of the
traditional village panchayati system in Bengal. The Chowkidar Act empowered
district magistrates to set up panchayats of nominated members in the villages
to collect taxes to pay the chowkidars or watchmen engaged by them.
Ripon Resolution (1882)
Lord Ripon made remarkable contribution to the development of Local Government.
In 1882, he abandoned the existing system of local government by the officially
nominated people. According to his local self-government plan, the local boards
were split into smaller units to achieve greater efficiency. In order to ensure
popular participation, he introduced an election system for the local boards.
The government resolution of 18th, May, 1882, stands as a landmark in the
structural evolution of local governments. It provided for local boards
consisting of a large majority of elected non-official members and presided over
by a non-official chairperson. This is considered to be the Magna Carta of local
democracy in India. This resolution proposed the establishment of rural local
boards where 2/3rd of whose membership was composed of elected
He brought in the concept of self-government in urban
municipalities. He is treated as the founding father of urban local government.
Ripon's resolutions followed a series of Committees, Commissions and Acts in
this line. The Royal Commission on Decentralization in 1909 elaborated further
the principles of Ripon resolution. But this remained merely on paper. Ripon's
scheme did not make much progress in the development of local self-government
Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919
In this backdrop, Montagu Chelmsford reforms were passed in the year 1919. This
reform transferred the subject of local government to the domain of provinces.
The reform also recommended that as far as possible there should be a complete
popular control in local bodies and the largest possible independence for them,
of outside control. By 1925, eight provinces had passed village panchayat acts.
However, these panchayats covered only a limited number of villages with limited
functions. But this reform could not get much result as far as
democratization of panchayats was concerned and lead to a lot of organizational
and fiscal constraints.
Government of India Act (1935)
This is considered as another important stage in the evolution of panchayats in
British India. With popularly elected government in the provinces, almost all
provincial administrations felt duty bound to enact legislations for further
democratization of local self-government institutions, including village
Although the popular government in the provinces governed by the
Congress vacated office following the declaration of Second World War in 1939,
the position as regards local government institutions remained unchanged till
August 1947, when the country attained independence.
Even though the British
government did not have interest in the village autonomy, they were forced to do
so, in order to continue their rule in India and moreover to meet financial
necessities. The Indian rural republic had flourished till the advent of
British. It received a set back during the British rule. Self-contained village
communities and their panchayats ceased to get substance. They were replaced by
formally constituted institutions of village administration. In the highly
centralized system of British rule, village autonomy seems to have lost.
Panchayati Raj in Independent India
The task of strengthening panchayati raj system fell on the Indian government
formed after independence. It was clear that India a country of villages had to
strengthen village panchayats to strengthen democracy. Mahatma Gandhi who
strongly believed in Ggrama Swaraj pleaded for the transfer of power to the
rural masses. According to him the villages should govern themselves through
elected panchayats to become self-sufficient.
But surprisingly, the draft
Constitution prepared in 1948 had no place for Panchayati Raj Institutions.
Gandhi severely criticized this and called for immediate attention. It is thus,
that panchayat finds a place in the Directive Principles of the State Policy.
Article 40 of the Directive Principles of the State Policy states that 'the
states shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such
powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them function as units of
self-governments'. The most important aspect to strengthen grass root
democracy was neglected by the Constitution makers as Directive Principle of
State Policy is not legally binding on the governments.
The first organized effort to tackle the problem of rural India was made through
Community Development Programme in 1952 and National Extension Service in 1953.
The programme was based on an integrated approach to the various aspects of
The objectives were to promote self-help and self-reliance
among the rural people, to generate a process of integrated social, economic and
cultural change with the aim of transforming social and political life of the
villagers. Community Development Programme was launched in 55 selected blocks.
The programme was based on an integrated approach to the various aspects of
rural development. The programme made provisions for appointing Block
Development Officers (BDO) and Village Level Workers (V.L.W). This programme was
intended to bring socio economic development of the rural masses on democratic
lines, but failed to take off along the expected lines due to the absence of an
effective instrument for people's participation.
Balwantrai Mehta Commission
The first was the Balwantrai Mehta Commission in 1957. The committee believed
that community development would only be effective when the community was
involved in the planning, decision, and implementation process. The committee
suggested that the basic unit of democratic decentralization was to be at the
block (samiti) level since the area of jurisdiction of the local body should
neither be too large nor too small.
The block was large enough for efficiency
and economy of administration, and small enough for sustaining a sense of
involvement in the citizens. Further, the Zilla Parishad (ZP) should play an
advisory role. The committee focused on the rural sector and recommended that
the functions of PRIs should cover the development of agriculture in all its
aspects, the promotion of local industries and other services such as drinking
water, road building, etc.
- The committee laid down five fundamental principles:
- There should be three tier structures of local self-government bodies
from village to the district level and these bodies should be linked
- There should be genuine transfer of power and responsibility to these
bodies to enable them to discharge their responsibility
- Adequate resources should be transferred to these bodies to enable them
to discharge their responsibilities.
- All welfare and developmental schemes and programmes at all three levels
should be channeled through these bodies, and
- The three tier system should facilitate further devolution and disposal
of power and responsibility in future. The committee envisaged three tire
system of panchayats known as Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samiti and Gram Panchayat and
recommended encouragement of peoples' participation in community work, promotion
of agriculture and animal husbandry, promoting the welfare of the weaker
sections and women through the panchayats.
The PRI structure was introduced in most parts of the country as a result of the
Balwantrai Mehta Report. However, it did not develop the requisite democratic
momentum and failed to cater to the needs of rural development. Reasons for this
- Political and bureaucratic resistance at the state level to sharing of
power and resources with the local level institutions,
- the takeover of these institutions by the rural elite who cornered a
major share of the benefits of the various welfare schemes,
- the lack of capability at the local level, and (iv) the absence of
political will of the grassroots leaders.
K. Santhanam Committee
The K.Santhanam Committee in 1963 was appointed to look solely at the issue of
Its recommendations have influenced the thinking and the debate to
date on this issue:
- The Panchayats should have special powers to levy special tax on land
revenues, home tax, etc;
- all grants and subventions at the state level should be consolidated and
- A Panchayat Raj Finance
Corporation should be set up which would look into the financial resources of
PRIs at all three levels, provide loans and financial assistance to these
grassroots level governments and also provide support for non-financial
requirements of villages.
Ashok Mehta Committee (1977)
In this backdrop in 1977, the Janata government appointed a Committee with Ashok
Mehta as chairman and was entrusted with the task of enquiring into the causes
responsible for the poor performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions. It was also
asked to suggest measures to strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions.
committee suggested two tire system of Panchayati Raj consisting of Zilla
Parishads at the district level and Mandal Panchayats at the grass root level as
against three tier system suggested by the Balwantrai Mehta Committee. The
committee recommended constitutional protection to the Panchayati Raj
Institutions and further decentralization of power at all levels.
A noteworthy feature of the report is that it recommended regular elections to
these bodies and open participation of political parties.
The Ashok Mehta Committee Suggested:
- Reservation of seats for the weaker sections
- Two seats for women
- Adequate financial resources for the panchayats
- Requirement of Constitutional sanctions
- To extend people's participation in developmental activities.
Due to the fall of the Janata government, the Ashok Mehta Committee
recommendations were not implemented. Few states including Karnataka formulated
new legislation on the basis of the recommendations of this Committee. Both the
Committees overlooked the importance of panchayats as units of self-government.
GVK Rao Committee
The GVK Rao Committee was appointed in 1985 to again revisit the obstacles in
the way of effective PRIs. It recommended that PRIs at the district level and
below be assigned responsibilities for planning, monitoring and implementation
of rural development programs and that the block development office should be
the spinal cord of rural development.
More thinking on PRIs was initiated by the L.M.Singhvi Committee in 1986.
The Gram Sabha (village assembly) was considered the base of decentralized
democracy. The PRIs were to be viewed as institutions of self- government which
would facilitate the participation of the people in the process of planning and
development. It recommended that local self- government should be
constitutionally recognized, protected and preserved by the inclusion of a new
chapter in the Constitution.
It also viewed with dismay the irregularity of
elections and engaged with the issue of the role of political parties in Panchayat elections,
stating that a non- involvement should be consensual rather than through
legislative fiat. The role of political parties in Panchayats has since then
divided the advocates of PRI into two camps.
On the one side are those such as Jayaprakash Narayan, writing within the Gandhian tradition of partyless
democracy, who saw 'selfgovernment through faction-fighting will not be
self-government but self-ruination', and on the other are those such as Asoka
Mehta who support the involvement of political parties since it enables
candidates, from weak economic backgrounds, to effectively compete with the
backing of a strong organization.
Constitutional status for PRIs was opposed by the Sarkaria Commission. But the
idea gained momentum in the late 1980s especially because of the endorsement by
the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who introduced the 64th Constitutional
Amendment Bill in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi's commitment to the PRI route to rural
development seems to have emerged through a series of workshops he had as Prime
Minister with District Collectors, where he got a sense of the insensitivity of
District Administration and of wastage of funds for rural development. The 64th
Amendment Bill caused much anxiety among opposition parties because they
perceived it to support the partisan agenda of Rajiv Gandhi and it was defeated
in the Rajya Sabha.
73rd Amendment Act, 1992
Following these circumstances, Rajiv Gandhi the then Prime Minister of India,
introduced the 64th Amendment bill on local government on the 15th May, 1989 in
the Parliament, but it failed to get the required support. A second attempt was
made in September 1990 to pass the bill in the Parliament. The bill however was
not even taken up for consideration. In September 1991, a fresh bill on
Panchayati Raj was introduced by the Congress government under P. V Narasimha
Rao, the then Prime Minister. It was passed in 1992 as the 73rd Amendment Act
1992 with minor modifications and came into force on 24th April 1993.
The Salient Features of the Act are:
The Act provided for the establishment of grama sabha in each village. It will
be a body comprising of all the adult members registered as voters in the
panchayat area. Three shall be a three-tier system of panchayat at village,
intermediate and district levels. Smaller states with population below 20 Lakes
will have option not to have intermediate level panchayat. Seats in panchayats
at all three level shall be filled by direct election. In addition, the
chairperson of the village panchayat can be made member of the panchayat at the
intermediate level. MP, MLA, MLC, could also be member of panchayat at the
intermediate and the district level.
In all the panchayats, seats should be reserved for SCs and STs in proportion to
their population and 1/3 of the total number of seats will be reserved for
women. Offices of the chairperson of the panchayat at all levels shall be
reserved in favour of SCs and STs in proportion in the state. One-third of the
offices of chairperson of panchayats at all levels shall also be reserved for
Legislature of the state shall be at liberty to provide reservation of seats and
office of chairperson in panchayat in favour of backward class citizens.
Panchayats shall have a uniform five year term and elections to constitute new
bodies shall be completed before the expiry of term. In the event of
dissolution, election will be compulsorily held within six months. The
reconstituted panchayat will serve for remaining period of five year term. It
will not be possible to dissolve the existing panchayats by amendment of any Act
before the expiry of its duration.
A person who is disqualified under any law, election to the legislature of the
state or under any of the state will not be entitled to become a member of a
panchayat. Independent election commission will be established in the state to
superintendence, direction, and control of the electoral process and preparation
of electoral rolls. Specific responsibilities will be entrusted to the
panchayats to prepare plans for economic development and social justice in
respect of matters listed in XI Schedule. For the implementation of development
schemes, main responsibility will be entrusted to the panchayats.
The panchayats will receive adequate funds for carrying out their plans. Grants
from state government will constitute an important source of funding but state
government is also expected to assign the revenue of certain taxes to the
panchayats. In some cases, panchayat will also be permitted to collect and
retain revenue it raises.
In each state, finance commission will be established within one year and after
every five years to determine principles on the basis of which adequate
financial resource would be entrusted for panchayats. Panchayats existing on the
24th April 1993 will be allowed to complete their full term except when they are
dissolved by the house by resolution.
The 73rd Amendment Act is an attempt to restructure the Panchayati Raj to reach
the grassroot level. The bill for the first time gave constitutional status to
Panchayati Raj institutions and it became mandatory on all state governments to
implement it. This Amendment brought about uniformity in structure, composition,
powers and functions of panchayats. It gave impetus to Panchayati Raj to promote
social and economic development and improvement in living condition of rural
India. The main criticism leveled against the Act is that these institutions are
viewed as implementing agencies for developmental activities and that they are
not given the status of decentralized political institutions.
Criticism apart, the Act fulfilled the dream of constitutional status to
Panchayati Raj Institutions and the state governments brought new legislations
to implement it. It has been explained as the beginning of silent revolution.
This Amendment for the first time in the history of Panchayati Raj Institutions
gave opportunities for women in large numbers to enter local administration.
The Panchayati Raj in India is a system established from the time immemorial,
from the above research we see that the traces of the panchayati raj found in
the Ramayan and Mahabarta period. We also see from the Chanakya Arthasastra
which mention about the Local Self-government and its functions. During the
British period the first time the three tire system of panchayati raj
institution was established by the lord Repon's.
During the British period the Panchayati Raj institution was created only to collect the revenue and the power
was actually was not transferred to the institution. After independence the
draft constitution assembly was formed for the preparation of the Constitution
of India but local self-government did not find its place in the Constitution.
This was criticized by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and at last there a provision
was inserted under Article 40 of the constitution.
Thereafter also there was no
heed was paid regarding the local self-government. In the year 1957 Balwantrai
Mehata Committee in its report laid down certain provision regarding the local
self-government. Thereafter on the said recommendation of the Balwantrai Mehata
Committee certain state established the panchayati raj institution in its state
but its only works for few years. In 1977 when janta dal Government comes in
power it also formed a committee and the committee recommended the two tire
system but before it was implemented the janta party government was fall and the
new government comes in power and it never thought to implement this programme.
Then after Rajive Gandhi the then prime minister formed a committee which first
time in its report mention that the local self-government given constitutional
recognition by inserting the separate chapter and the Rajive Gandhi government
introduce constitutional 64th amendment act and it was passed in loksabha but
due to majority in Rajya sabha the bill fails and the local self-government
again not find its place in the constitution.
But in the year 1992 the Bill was
again introduce in Parliament by doing minor amendment and this time bill was
passed and the Panchayati Raj Institution finally find its place in the
Constitution of India.
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