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Panchayati Raj System: Prior And After The 73rd Amendment

"If we would see our dream of Panchayat Raj, i.e., true democracy realized, we would regard the humblest and lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land." - - M.K. Gandhi

The Panchayati Raj is a three-tiered Indian administrative organisation for the development of rural areas. It is a system of local self-government in India. This aims to establish local self-government in villages, zones and districts. The Panchayati Raj Institution (hereinafter, PRI) is a structure of local self-government in remote regions in India. The administration of local level matters by such local bodies that have been nominated by the local citizens is known as local self government.

The PRI was established by the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act,1992. First it aims to promote democracy at grassroots level and to oversee the country's regional development. PRI has been in existence for 30 years in its current shape and organisation. However, there is still more work to be done in terms of decentralisation and strengthening democracy at the grassroots level. Every year on April 24, National Panchayati Raj Day is observed.

Development of Panchayati Raj System in India
From an analytical standpoint, the chronology of Panchayati Raj in India can be categorized into different periods as follows :-

Vedic Era
The phrase 'Panchayatan' is recorded in the ancient Sanskrit scriptures, and it refers to a group of five people, one of them is a spiritual person. Gradually, the idea of including a spiritual person in such organisations faded away. Sabha, Samiti, and Vidatha are all mentioned in the Rigveda as local authorities. At the municipal level, they were the democratic organs. These bodies used to give their permission to the king for particular functions and choices.

Epic Era
Epic Era refers to India's two main epic periods, the first one is "the Ramayana" and second is "the Mahabharata". According to the Ramayana, the governance was separated into two sections: Pur (City) and Janpad (village). There used to be a Caste Panchayat throughout the state, and one representative of the emperor's Council of Ministers was nominated by the Caste Panchayat. The Mahabharata's 'Shanti Parva,' the Manu Smriti, and Kautilya's Arthashastra all contain passages about village self-government. According to the Mahabharata, there were divisions of 10, 20, 100, and 1,000"rural groups above and beyond the village. The village's chief officer was 'Gramik,' the chief of ten villages was 'Dashap,' and the chiefs of 20, 100, and 1,000 villages were Vinshya Adhipati, Shat Gram Adhyaksha, and Shat Gram Pati, respectively. They were in charge of collecting local taxes and defending their settlements.

Ancient Period
Village panchayats were mentioned in Kautilya's Arthashastra. The name of the town was Pur and Nagarik was the chief. Local governments were not subject to royal meddling. The headman, aided by a council of elders, played a significant role in rural life during the Mauryan and Post-Mauryan dynasties as well. During the Gupta era, the system was maintained, however the district official was addressed to as the vishya pati as well as the village headman was addressed to as the grampati. As a result, in ancient India, there was a very well-established local governance structure based on a combination of traditions and conventions. It is important to note, however, there was no mention of women leading the panchayat or even serving as a representative of the panchayat.

Medieval Period
The Sultans of Delhi subdivided their empire into Vilayat provinces throughout the Sultanate period. Three main officials were responsible for the government of a village: Mukkaddam for administration, Patwari for tax collection, and Choudhrie for resolving conflicts with the support of the Panch. In terms of self-government in their jurisdiction, the villages enjoyed sufficient power. During Mughal authority in the mediaeval period, caste discrimination and a feudalistic style of governance eventually eroded rural self-government. It's worth noting that women's involvement in local village governance isn't mentioned anywhere in the mediaeval period.

British Period
Village panchayats lost their independence and became weak during the British government. Only in 1870 did India see the emergence of representative local institutions. By increasing local institutions' powers and duties, the renowned Mayo's resolution of 1870 accelerated the growth of local institutions. In urban communities, the idea of elected representatives was adopted in 1870. The uprising of 1857 had placed the colonial finances under a lot of strain, thus it was decided to fund local services through local taxes. As a result, Lord Mayo's resolution on decentralisation was enacted as a result of fiscal necessity.

Following the example of Mayo, Lord Rippon supplied these institutions with a much-needed democratic set up in 1882. All existing boards were required to have a ⅔ majority of non-officials nominated, and the president of these entities had to be selected from among the nominated non-officials. In Bharat, this is regarded as the "Magna Carta of local democracy.

The formation of the Royal Commission on Centralisation in 1907, chaired by C.E.H. Hobhouse, provides a boost to local self-government structures. The relevance of panchayats at the local level was recognised by the commission.

The Montagu Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 were enacted against this backdrop, transferring municipal authority to the provinces. The reform also advocated that local bodies have complete authority over their operations and be as independent from external oversight as feasible.

Due to institutional and fiscal restraints, these panchayats only included a tiny number of villages with restricted functions, and they did not develop into democratic and dynamic organizations of local self-government at the grassroots level.

However, eight provincial governments had enacted Panchayat Acts by 1925, and six indigenous states had implemented panchayat laws by 1926. Local governments were given new rights, but their ability to levy taxes was reduced. The standing of local self-government organizations, on the other hand, was untouched.

Post Independence Period
Article 40 of the Indian Constitution mentions panchayats, and Article 246 authorises the state assembly to legislate on any topic relevant to local self-government. But, the decision-makers at the time did not universally agree on the incorporation of panchayats in the Constitution, also with biggest resistance coming from B.R.Ambedkar (Constitution's framer). The rural panchayat was finally given a position in our Constitution by Article 40 of the DPSP, following significant debate between opponents and supporters of the panchayat. 

Because the Directive Principles aren't legally enforceable, there isn't a consistent framework for these groups across the country. Following independence, India launched the Community Development Programmes (hereinafter,CDP) on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, October 2, 1952, as a development project, with the Etawah Project, led by American expert Albert Mayer, as a primary influence.

It covered practically all aspects of rural development that were to be carried out with the support of village panchayats and public participation. As a prelude to CDP, the National Extension Service was established in 1953. However, the initiative had little impact.

The failure of the CDP was due to a number of factors, including the bureaucracy and the excessive politics, a scarcity participation, a lack of well-trained and competent workers, and a lack of enthusiasm among local organisations, particularly village panchayats, in establishing the CDP. The National Development Council established a committee led by Balwant Rai Mehta in 1957 to investigate the operation of the community development initiative.

The lack of engagement in the CDP, according to the team, was the primary cause of its failure. Grama Panchayats (GPs) at the village level, Panchayat Samiti (PSs) at the block level, and Zilla Parishad (ZPs) at the district level, according to the committee.

On 2nd of October 1959, Rajasthan became the first state to implement this democratic decentralisation strategy.

The plan was first implemented in Andhra Pradesh on 1st November 1959. Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Odisha, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra, among others, have passed and implemented the essential legislation.

The establishment of the Ashok Mehta Committee in 1977 resulted in new thinking about the Panchayat Raj's ideals and practices. The committee advocated a two-tier Panchayat Raj institutional framework, with Zilla Parishad and Mandal Panchayat as the two levels. The district was considered as the initial stage of decentralisation below the state level in order to leverage planning knowledge and gain administrative support. Some states, such as Karnataka, have successfully implemented them based on its recommendations. The Government of India created different committees in later years in effort to resurrect and revitalise the panchayats.

The Hanumantha Rao Committee (1983), G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985), L.M. Singhvi Committee (1986), Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations (1988), P.K. Thungan Committee (1989), and Harlal Singh Kharra Committee are the most important among them (1990). The G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985) recommended making the 'district' the basic unit of planning and holding regular elections, while the L.M. Singhvi Committee recommended strengthening panchayats by providing more financial resources and constitutional status.

The Amendment process started with Rajiv Gandhi's introduction of the 64th Amendment Bill (1989), which sought to broaden the PRIs but was not approved by the Upper House i.e. the Rajya Sabha. In 1990, the Constitution (74th Amendment Act) Law (a joint bill for the PRIs and municipalities) was submitted, but it was never debated. In September 1991, while P.V.Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, a comprehensive modification was submitted in the shape of the Constitution 72nd Amendment Bill. Parliament ratified the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in December 1992. Local self-governance was established in rural and urban India as a result of these modifications. The Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act of 1992 and the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act of 1992 went into effect on April 24, 1993 and June 1, 1993, respectively.

Structure of Panchayati Raj
  • Zilla Parishad (District Level)
  • Panchayat Samiti (Block Level)
  • Gram Panchayat (Village Level)

73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992
The Act aspires to create a three-tier Panchayati Raj system that includes:
  1. village-level Panchayats,
  2. block-level Panchayats &
  3. Panchayats at the district level.

Salient features of the amendment are as follows:
  • The 73rd Amendment 1992 added a new Part IX to the constitution titled 'The Panchayats' covering provisions from Article 243 to 243(O); and a new Eleventh Schedule covering 29 subjects within the functions of the Panchayats.
  • The following are exempt from the provisions of part IX: The entire states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram in the state of Manipur Hill areas for which District Councils are responsible.
  • Furthermore, the district-level laws do not apply to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which is located in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal. Arunachal Pradesh is exempt from the reservation provisions.
  • Gram Sabha may have the same authorities and execute the same functions at the village level that the State Legislature may give by law.
  • In every State Panchayats at the village, intermediate, and district levels shall be established in line with the requirements of this Part.
  • Intermediate-level panchayats may not be formed in a state with a population of less than twenty lakhs.
  • Every Panchayat region shall be distributed into territorial constituencies in this way that the ratio between the population of each constituency and the number of seats allotted to it is, as far as practicable, the same across the Panchayat area.
  • The Chairpersons of Panchayats at the village level, intermediate level, or, in the case of a State without Panchayats at the intermediate level, in the Panchayats at the district level may be represented by legislation by the State Legislature.
This amendment incorporates Article 40 of the DPSP, which implies that the 'State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government,' and has upgraded them from a non-justifiable to a justifiable part of the constitution, requiring states to enact Panchayati Raj Acts in accordance with Part IX's provisions. On the other hand, States have been allowed adequate leeway to implement the Panchayati Raj System while taking into account their geographical, politico-administrative, and other circumstances.

Evaluating the Panchayati Raj System at 30 years after 73rd Amendment
PRIs have had a stunning success and a shocking failure throughout the course of their 30-year voyage, depending on the goal line against which they are measured.
While the PRI has achieved in establishing a new layer of administration and political participation at the grass roots, this has not been able to improve governance.
There are around three million voted local government candidates and about 250,000 PRIs and urbanized municipal bodies.

The 73rd and 74th Amendments mandated that women be represented in municipal authorities by at least one-third of the total seats. Bharat has the most women in elected seats, with 1.4 million. SC/ST nominees were also given priority in terms of seats and sarpanch/pradhan leadership roles.

According to PRIs, having women political engagement in local governments increases the likelihood of women coming forward and reporting crimes. Drinking water and public goods are substantially more heavily invested in districts with female sarpanches. Furthermore, several devolution measures have been formally safeguarded by the states, giving local governments significant autonomy.

Successive (central) Finance Commissions have significantly boosted fund allocations for local governments, as well as grant amounts. "The 15th Finance Commission" is also contemplating increasing local government allocations to meet international norms.

  • The absence of sufficient cash is the grey area. To really be able to raise its own revenue, panchayats need to expand their territory.
  • Panchayats' performance was also harmed by the intervention of regional MPs and MLAs in their operations.
  • The 73rd Amendment simply required the establishment of local self-governing bodies, leaving the discretion to delegate powers, responsibilities, and money to state legislatures; this is where PRIs failed.
  • Various government functions, including education, health, sanitation, and water, were not required to be transferred. Instead, the amendment identified the functions that could be devolved and left it up to the state government to decide which functions should be devolved.
  • Throughout the last 30 years, there has been relatively little devolution of authority and services. Because these responsibilities were never transferred, state executive authorities have sprung up to fulfil them. The most typical example is indeed the state water boards, which are notoriously inept.
  • The absence of funds for PRIs is the Amendment's biggest flaw. Local governments can either rely on local taxes or intergovernmental transfers to fund their operations.
  • Also for subjects that are beyond the jurisdiction of PRIs, the state government must expressly authorise the power to tax. The 73rd Amendment made this a decision for state legislatures to make´┐Ża one that most states have not made.
  • Intergovernmental transfers, in which state governments devolve a portion of their earnings to PRIs, are a second source of revenue. State Finance Commissions were constituted as a result of the constitutional change to recommend the revenue split between state and local self governments. These really are, however, only suggestions, and state governments are not obligated by them.
  • Despite the fact that financial commissions at all levels have called for more devolution of finances, governments have taken little action to do so.
  • PRIs are hesitant to take on initiatives that involve significant financial investment, and they are frequently unable to meet even the most fundamental local governance requirements.
  • PRIs also have structural flaws, such as a lack of secretarial support and a lack of technical competence, limiting the collection of bottom-up organizing.
  • There is adhocism, or a lack of clear agenda formulation in gram samiti meetings and gram sabha  as well as a lack of suitable structure.
  • Despite the fact that women and SC/STs have representation in PRIs due to reservation stipulated by the 73rd amendment act, Panch-Pati and vicarious representation are present in the cases of women and SC/STs leaders, respectively.
  • However, after 30 years of the PRI's constitutional framework, accountability procedures are still quite inadequate.
  • The uncertainty in the allocation of functions and funding has allowed states to consolidate power, preventing elective representatives who are much more aware of and emphatic to ground-level issues from taking control.

Way forward and Suggestions:
  • Real fiscal federalism, that is, fiscal autonomy combined with budgetary discipline, can give a long-term answer; otherwise, PRIs will be a costly failure.
  • The 6th report of the 2nd ARC, 'Local Governance- An Inspiring Journey into the Future,' advised that the functions of each tier of government be clearly demarcated.
  • States should implement the notion of 'activity mapping,' in which each state clearly defines the responsibilities and tasks of the various levels of government in relation to the topics specified in Schedule XI.
  • On the grounds of public accountability, the disciplines should be split and assigned to distinct tiers.
  • While certain states, such as Karnataka and Kerala, have undertaken moves in this direction, overall performance has been uneven.
  • Bottom-up planning, particularly at the district level, is required, based on grassroots inputs collected from Gram Sabha.
  • Karnataka has established a separate bureaucratic cadre for gram panchayats in order to avoid the habit of deputing employees who frequently overpower elected authorities. For the actual essence of local self-government to be strengthened, such actions must be duplicated in other states.
  • The central government must also financially reward states to support successful devolution of functions, finances, and officials to the panchayati raj institutions.
  • Local representatives should be given training to help them build knowledge so that they can contribute more to policy and programme design and implementation.
  • In order to tackle the problem of proxy participation, social empowerment must come first.
  • Rajasthan and Haryana, for example, have recently established minimum qualifying norms for Panchayat elections. Such requisite eligibility can aid in the improvement of the governance mechanism's efficacy.
  • These criteria should apply to MLAs and MPs as well, and the government should accelerate efforts toward universal education in this way.
  • There should be clear processes in place to guarantee that states adhere to constitutional rules, particularly when it comes to the appointment and execution of State Finance Commission recommendations (SFCs).
The need of the moment is to make a comprehensive transformation in the lives of villages by improving their socioeconomic and health conditions through effective links with community, governmental, and other developmental institutions. In the interests of democracy, cooperative federalism and social inclusiveness the government should take corrective measures.

People's demands for long-term decentralisation, as well as lobbying, should be centred on a decentralisation agenda. To satisfy the need for decentralisation, the infrastructure must be modified. It is critical to have clarity in the allocation of functions, as well as transparent and independent sources of funding for local governments.

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