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Evolution of Local Self-government in India

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.[1] 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.

During 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

British Period
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.

With the 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 centres.

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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 representatives.[10]

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 institutions.

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.[11] 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 panchayats.

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'.[12] 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 rural development.

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.
  1. The committee laid down five fundamental principles:
  2. There should be three tier structures of local self-government bodies from village to the district level and these bodies should be linked together.
  3. There should be genuine transfer of power and responsibility to these bodies to enable them to discharge their responsibility
  4. Adequate resources should be transferred to these bodies to enable them to discharge their responsibilities.
  5. All welfare and developmental schemes and programmes at all three levels should be channeled through these bodies, and
  6. 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.[13]

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 were:
  1. Political and bureaucratic resistance at the state level to sharing of power and resources with the local level institutions,
  2. the takeover of these institutions by the rural elite who cornered a major share of the benefits of the various welfare schemes,
  3. 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 PRI finances.
Its recommendations have influenced the thinking and the debate to date on this issue:
  1. The Panchayats should have special powers to levy special tax on land revenues, home tax, etc;
  2. all grants and subventions at the state level should be consolidated and untied; and
  3. 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.

The 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:
  1. Reservation of seats for the weaker sections
  2. Two seats for women
  3. Adequate financial resources for the panchayats
  4. Requirement of Constitutional sanctions
  5. To extend people's participation in developmental activities.[14]

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.

L.M.Singhvi Committee

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.

Sarkaria Commission

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 women.

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.[15]

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.

  • Singh, Mahendra Pal, (2013) V.N. Shukla's Constitution of India, (Eastern Book Company
  • Ghosh Buddhadeb, Mohanty Bidyut, (2011)Local Governance Search for New Path, Concept Publishing Company Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi
  • Basu, Durga Das, (2011) Constitutional Law of India, LwxisNexis Butterworths wawdhwa Nagpur.
  • Bakshi, P.M, (2015) The Constitution of India, Universal Law Publishing.
  1. Singh Raj, Panchayat Raj Manual : A Socio-Historical Cum Legal Perspective, Anmol Publications, New Delhi, 1996.
  2. Ghosh Rathna, Pramanik Alok Kumar, Panchayat System in India. Historical, Constitutional and Financial Analysis, Kanishka Publication, New Delhi, 1999.
  3. Singh Raj, 1996.
  4. Mathew George, Panchayati Raj in India, an Overview. Status of Panchayati Raj in India, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 2000.
  5. Altekar A.S., State and Government in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasi Das Publications, New Delhi, 1997.
  6. Ghosh Rathna, Pramanik Alok Kumar, 1999.
  7. George Mathew, 2000.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Stephen F., Rajasekaran, An Empirical Study of Women in Local Self Governance in Karnataka, Search publications, Bangalore, 2001.
  12. Bharatada Samvidhana, English -Kannada version of Constitution of India, Published on behalf of the Government of India by the Director, Department of Printing, Stationary and Publication, Government of Karnataka, Bangalore, 2001, pp.19.
  13. Mishra Sweta, "Women and the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act, A Critical Appraisal" , in Raj Sabstin, Edward Mathias (eds), People's Power and Panchaya ti Raj: Theory and Practice, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, 1998, pp.98.
  14. Singh Samsher Malik, The New Panchayati Raj, Rural Trafo rmation in the State of Haryana, Aalekh Publication, Jaipur, 2002.
  15. The Constitution (Seventy -Third Amendment) Act, 19 92, Government of India.

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