Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Local Self Government in India
Panchayati Raj (Rule of Village Committee) Panchayati Raj
system is a three-tier system in the state with elected bodies at the Village,
Taluk and District levels. It ensures greater participation of people and more
effective implementation of rural development programmes. There will be a Grama
Panchayat for a village or group of villages, a Taluk level and the Zilla
Panchayat at the district level.
India has a chequered history of panchayati raj starting from
a self-sufficient and self-governing village communities that survived the rise
and fall of empires in the past to the modern legalized institutions of
governance at the third tier provided with Constitutional support.
During the time of the Rig-Veda (1700 BC), evidences suggest
that self-governing village bodies called 'sabhas' existed. With the passage of
time, these bodies became panchayats (council of five persons). Panchayats were
functional institutions of grassroots governance in almost every village. The
Village Panchayat or elected council had large powers, both executive and
judicial. Land was distributed by this panchayat which also collected taxes out
of the produce and paid the government's share on behalf of the village. Above a
number of these village councils there was a larger panchayat or council to
supervise and interfere if necessary. Casteism and feudalistic system of
governance under Mughal rule in the medieval period slowly eroded the
self-government in villages. A new class of feudal chiefs and revenue collectors
(zamindars) emerged between the ruler and the people. And, so began the
stagnation and decline of self-government in villages.
During the British rule, the autonomy of panchayats gradually
declined with the establishment of local civil and criminal courts, revenue and
police organisations, the increase in communications, the growth of
individualism and the operation of the individual Ryotwari '(landholder-wise)
system as against the Mahalwari or village tenure system.
During British rule
The panchayat had never been the priority of the British
rulers.The rulers were interested in the creation of 'controlled' local bodies,
which could help them in their trading interests by collecting taxes for them.
When the colonial administration came under severe financial pressure after the
1857 uprising, the remedy sought was decentralisation in terms of transferring
responsibility for road and public works to local bodies. However, the thrust of
this 'compelled' decentralisation was with respect to municipal administration..
"The panchayat was destroyed by the East India Company when
it was granted the office of Diwan in 1765 by the Mughal Emperor as part of
reparation after his defeat at Buxar. As Diwan the Company took two decisions.
The first was that it abolished the village land record office and created a
company official called Patwari. The Patwari became the official record keeper
for a number of villages. The second was the creation of the office of
magistrate and the abolition of village police. The magistrate carried out
policing functions through the Darogha who had always been a state functionary
under the Faujdar. The primary purpose of these measures was the collection of
land revenue by fiat. The depredations of the Patwari and the Darogha are part
of our folklore and it led to the worst famine in Bengal. The effects of the
famine lingered right to the end of the 18th century. These two measures
completely disempowered the village community and destroyed the panchayat. After
1857 the British tried to restore the panchayat by giving it powers to try minor
offences and to resolve village disputes. But these measures never restored the
lost powers of the village community."
From 1870 that Viceroy Lord Mayo's Resolution (for
decentralisation of power to bring about administrative efficiency in meeting
people's demand and to add to the finances of colonial regime) gave the needed
impetus to the development of local institutions. It was a landmark in the
evolution of colonial policy towards local government. The real benchmarking of
the government policy on decentralisation can, however, be attributed to Lord
Ripon who, in his famous resolution on local self-government on May 18, 1882,
recognised the twin considerations of local government: (i) administrative
efficiency and (ii) political education. The Ripon Resolution, which focused on
towns, provided for local bodies consisting of a large majority of elected
non-official members and presided over by a non-official chairperson. This
resolution met with resistance from colonial administrators. The progress of
local self-government was tardy with only half-hearted steps taken in setting up
municipal bodies. Rural decentralisation remained a neglected area of
The Royal Commission on Decentralisation (1907) under the
chairmanship of C.E.H. Hobhouse recognised the importance of panchayats at the
village level. The commission recommended that "it is most desirable, alike in
the interests of decentralisation and in order to associate the people with the
local tasks of administration, that an attempt should be made to constitute and
develop village panchayats for the administration of local village affairs".
But, the Montague-Chemsford reforms (1919) brought local
self-government as a provincial transferred subject, under the domain of Indian
ministers in the provinces. Due to organisational and fiscal constraints, the
reform was unable to make panchayat institutions truly democratic and vibrant.
However, the most significant development of this period was the 'establishment
of village panchayats in a number of provinces, that were no longer mere ad hoc
judicial tribunal, but representative institutions symbolising the corporate
character of the village and having a wide jurisdiction in respect of civic
matters'. l By 1925, eight provinces had passed panchayat acts and by 1926, six
native states had also passed panchayat laws.
The provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act,
1935, marked the evolution of panchayats in India. Popularly elected governments
in provinces enacted legislations to further democratise institutions of local
self-government. But the system of responsible government at the grassroots
level was least responsible. D.P. Mishra, the then minister for local
self-government under the Government of India Act of 1935 in Central Provinces
was of the view that 'the working of our local bodies... in our province and
perhaps in the whole country presents a tragic picture... 'Inefficiency' and
'local body' have become synonymous terms....'.
In spite of various committees such as the Royal Commission
on Decentralization (1907), the report of Montague and Chemsford on
constitutional reform (1919), the Government of India Resolution (1918), etc., a
hierarchical administrative structure based on supervision and control evolved.
The administrator became the focal point of rural governance. The British were
not concerned with decentralised democracy but were aiming for colonial
The Indian National Congress from the 1920s to 1947,
emphasized the issue of all-India Swaraj, and organized movements for
Independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. The task of preparing any
sort of blueprint for the local level was neglected as a result. There was no
consensus among the top leaders regarding the status and role to be assigned to
the institution of rural local self-government; rather there were divergent
views on the subject. On the one end Gandhi favoured Village Swaraj and
strengthening the village panchayat to the fullest extent and on the other end,
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar opposed this idea. He believed that the village represented
regressive India, a source of oppression. The model state hence had to build
safeguards against such social oppression and the only way it could be done was
through the adoption of the parliamentary model of politics During the drafting
of the Constitution of India, Panchayati Raj Institutions were placed in the
non-justiciable part of the Constitution, the Directive Principles of State
Policy, as Article 40. The Article read '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'. However, no
worthwhile legislation was enacted either at the national or state level to
Panchayat raj had to go through various stages. The First
Five Year Plan failed to bring about active participation and involvement of the
people in the Plan processes, which included Plan formulation implementation and
monitoring. The Second Five Year Plan attempted to cover the entire countryside
with National Extensive Service Blocks through the institutions of Block
Development Officers, Assistant Development Officers, Village Level Workers, in
addition to nominated representatives of village panchayats of that area and
some other popular organisations like co-operative societies. But the plan
failed to satisfactorily accomplish decentralisation. Hence, committees were
constituted by various authorities to advise the Centre on different aspects of
The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee (1957)
In 1957, Balwant Rai Mehta Committee studied the Community
Development Projects and the National Extension Service and assessed the extent
to which the movement had succeeded in utilising local initiatives and in
creating institutions to ensure continuity in the process of improving economic
and social conditions in rural areas. The Committee held that community
development would only be deep and enduring when the community was involved in
the planning, decision-making and implementation process.
- an early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of
necessary resources, power and authority,
that the basic unit of democratic decentralisation was 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,
- such body must not be constrained by too much control by the government
or government agencies,
- the body must be constituted for five years by indirect elections from
the village panchayats,
- its functions should cover the development of agriculture in all its
aspects, the promotion of local industries and others
- services such as drinking water, road building, etc., and
- the higher level body, Zilla Parishad, would play an advisory role.
The PRI structure did not develop the requisite democratic
momentum and failed to cater to the needs of rural development. There are
various reasons for such an outcome which include political and bureaucratic
resistance at the state level to share power and resources with local level
institutions, domination of local elites over the major share of the benefits of
welfare schemes, lack of capability at the local level and lack of political
Ashok Mehta Committee (1978)
With the coming of the Janata Party into power at the Centre
in 1977, a serious view was taken of the weaknesses in the functioning of
Panchayati Raj. It was decided to appoint a high-level committee under the
chairmanship of Ashok Mehta to examine and suggest measures to strengthen PRIs.
The Committee had to evolve an effective decentralised system of development for
PRIs. They made the following recommendations:
- the district is a viable administrative unit for which planning,
co-ordination and resource allocation are feasible and technical expertise
- PRIs as a two-tier system, with Mandal Panchayat at the base and Zilla
Parishad at the top,
- the PRIs are capable of planning for themselves with the resources
available to them,
- district planning should take care of the urban-rural continuum,
- representation of SCs and STs in the election to PRIs on the basis of
- four-year term of PRIs,
- participation of political parties in elections,
- any financial devolution should be committed to accepting that much of
the developmental functions at the district level would be played by the
The states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal
passed new legislation based on this report. However, the flux in politics at
the state level did not allow these institutions to develop their own political
G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985)
The G.V.K. Rao Committee was appointed to once again look at
various aspects of PRIs. The Committee was of the opinion that a total view of
rural development must be taken in which PRIs must play a central role in
handling people's problems. It recommended the following:
- PRIs have to be activated and provided with all the required support to
become effective organisations,
- PRIs at district level and below should be assigned the work of
planning, implementation and monitoring of rural development programmes, and
- the block development office should be the spinal cord of the rural
L.M.Singhvi Committee (1986)
L.M. singhaniaCommittee studied panchayatiraj. The Gram Sabha
was considered as the base of a decentralised democracy, and PRIs viewed as
institutions of self-governance which would actually facilitate the
participation of the people in the process of planning and development. It
- local self-government should be constitutionally recognised, protected
and preserved by the inclusion of new chapter in the Constitution,
- non-involvement of political parties in Panchayat elections.
The suggestion of giving panchayats constitutional status was
opposed by the Sarkaria Commission, but the idea, however, 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. The
64th Amendment Bill was prepared and introduced in the lower house of
Parliament. But it got defeated in the Rajya Sabha as non-convincing. He lost
the general elections too. In 1989, the National Front introduced the 74th
Constitutional Amendment Bill, which could not become an Act because of the
dissolution of the Ninth Lok Sabha. All these various suggestions and
recommendations and means of strengthening PRIs were considered while
formulating the new Constitutional Amendment Act.
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act
The idea that produced the 73rd Amendment was not a response
to pressure from the grassroots, but to an increasing recognition that the
institutional initiatives of the preceding decade had not delivered, that the
extent of rural poverty was still much too large and thus the existing structure
of government needed to be reformed. It is interesting to note that this idea
evolved from the Centre and the state governments. It was a political drive to
see PRIs as a solution to the governmental crises that India was experiencing.
The Constitutional (73rd Amendment) Act, passed in 1992 by the Narasimha Rao
government, came into force on April 24, 1993. It was meant to provide
constitutional sanction to establish "democracy at the grassroots level as it is
at the state level or national level". Its main features are as follows
- The Gram Sabha or village assembly as a deliberative body to
decentralised governance has been envisaged as the foundation of the
Panchayati Raj System.
- A uniform three-tier structure of panchayats at village (Gram Panchayat
— GP), intermediate or block (Panchayat Samiti — PS) and district (Zilla
Parishad — ZP) levels.
- All the seats in a panchayat at every level are to be filled by
elections from respective territorial constituencies.
- Not less than one-third of the total seats for membership as well as
office of chairpersons of each tier have to be reserved for women.
- Reservation for weaker castes and tribes (SCs and STs) have to be
provided at all levels in proportion to their population in the panchayats.
- To supervise, direct and control the regular and smooth elections to
panchayats, a State Election Commission has to be constituted in every State
- The Act has ensured constitution of a State Finance Commission in every
State/UT, for every five years, to suggest measures to strengthen finances
- To promote bottom-up-planning, the District Planning Committee fDPC} in
every district has been accorded constitutional status.
- An indicative list of 29 items has been given in Eleventh Schedule of
the Constitution. Panchayats are expected to play an effective role in
planning and implementation of works related to these 29 items.
At present, there are about 3 million elected representatives
at all levels of the panchayat one-third of which are women. These members
represent more than 2.4 lakh Gram Panchayats, about 6,000 intermediate level
tiers and more than 500 district panchayats . Spread over the length and breadth
of the country, the new panchayats cover about 96 per cent of India's more than
5.8 lakh villages and nearly 99.6 per cent of rural population. This is the
largest experiment in decentralisation of governance in the history of humanity.
The Constitution visualises panchayats as institutions of
self-governance. However, giving due consideration to the federal structure of
our polity, most of the financial powers and authorities to be endowed on
panchayats have been left at the discretion of concerned state legislatures.
Consequently, the powers and functions vested in PRIs vary from state to state.
These provisions combine representative and direct democracy into a synergy and
are expected to result in an extension and deepening of democracy in India.
Hence, panchayats have journeyed from an institution within the culture of India
to attain constitutional status.
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