Essay on Panchayati Raj: The Soul of Democracy
A democratic polity involves the decentralization of power in a way that the affairs of the local people are managed by means of their positive participation.
It signifies marked devolution of power from the higher to the lower levels in a way that the units of local government exercise their authority with the participation of the people of that area with occasional control and supervision of the provincial and central governments.
Development of Thought:
The institution of Panchayati Raj is the foundation on which lies the edifice of democracy. Indian democracy cannot become strong unless the democracy at the village level is strong.
Mahatma Gandhi therefore was firmly of the view that India’s freedom would not be real until her nearly six lakh villages became economically self-sufficient or autonomous and politically self-governing.
The Balwant Rai Mehta committees, Ashok Mehta Committee, Dr. G.V.K. Rao Committee and or L.M. Singhvi Committee have not done much to restore power to the village.
Barring a few states Panchayati Raj institutions, by and large have not been able to achieve their stipulated objectives Misutilisation of grants, misappropriation of public money, innumerable audit irregularities, corrupt practices in local bureaucracy and among local politicians, instrumental use of linkages with high-ups in administration and politics for serving individual or group/caste-group interests are some of the commonly alleged charges against the working of Panchayati Raj institutions in many states.
The Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992 is a legislation of far reaching impact providing for constitutional status to these institutions.
This legislation is claimed to be historic as it would make major structural changes in order to restore the rightful place of the Panchayati Raj as demonic units in the present system of governance.
There should be growing enlightenment of the people so that they properly understand the meaning of democratic decentralization and are able “to realise that people’s participation in community development is the end; the devolution of power is the means”.
Democracy is never complete unless there is active involvement of the people and participation of the people at all levels is assured The institutions of democracy at the national and state levels have gained considerable strength since independence.
Recognizing the importance of democratic decentralization Article 40 in Part IV Directive Principle of State Policy of the Constitution states: “The State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.”
But the institutions at district, block and village levels have not been able to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people’s bodies.
According to the makers of the Indian Constitution, democracy is never complete without the active involvement and participation of the people at all levels and the institutions of democracy have gained considerable strength since independence at the national and state levels.
Notwithstanding the Directive Principles regarding Panchayati Raj institutions finding a place in the Constitution, the institutions at district, block and village levels have not been able to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people’s bodies.
Panchayati Raj institutions seek to realise the goal of decentralized administration and decision making by people themselves especially at the grassroots level.
The Panchayati Raj system in the country is not uniform and varies from State to State. In many States, the gram sabha, which is a collective body of the people, constitutes the foundation of this structure.
Besides, there is normally either a three-tier Panchayat structure at the village, block and district levels or a two-tier structure; some states have only a single tier Panchayati Raj at the village level.
Presently, 16 States/UTs have the three-tier system while five States. UTs have the two-tier system and eight States/UTs have a single tier system. The North eastern states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland have the traditional council of village elders.
However, many discrepancies have crept into these grass root institution making them mock units. Even where these institutions function.
They came to be dominated by economically and socially privileged sections of the rural society and were utilized to serve the class and sectoral interests of the vested interests various committees had been set up by the Government time and again to suggest a modified scheme of PRIs.
The Balwant Rai Mehta study team was appointed in 1957 to stud the Community Development and National Extension Services Programme dally from the point of view of assessing the extent of popular participation to recommend the creation of institutions through which such participation be achieved.
While recommending the constitution of statutory elective bodies with the necessary resources, power and authority devolved on them and decentralized administrative system working under their control, the study team also recommended that the basic unit of democratic decentralization should be located at the Block Samiti level.
The study team envisaged directly elected and co-opted members and an advisory body called Zila Parishad at the district level constituted indirectly, mainly through ex-officio members from the lower tier and others with the Collector as chairman.
Based on the broad suggestion of the study team, most of the country was covered with Panchayati Raj institutions in the succeeding decade.
As PRls came to be dominated by the privileged section of society, it limited the utility of Panchayati Raj for the average villagers. In view of this, a 13- member committee headed by Mr. Ashok Mehta was set-up in 1977 to suggest measures to strengthen the PRls.
The Committee recommended a two-tier set up i.e., district level and mandal level covering the population of 15,000 to 20,000 and suggested the abolition of blocks as the unit of administration. The committee also suggested holding regular elections, compulsory items of taxation in their jurisdiction and transfer of land revenues collection to them.
It also felt that a constitutional provision was necessary to strengthen PRls. The main recommendations of the committee were considered at the Conference of Chief Ministers in 1979, which favors, the continuance of the existing three-tier system.
They favored a model bill according to which the stales should enact with such modifications as considered to suit the local needs.
Recognizing the fact that an integrated concept for growth and poverty alleviation would continue to be one of the principal areas of emphasis in the Seventh Plan, the Government appointed a 12-member committee under the chairmanship of Dr. G.V.K. Rao in 1985 to review the administrative arrangements for rural development and poverty alleviation programmes.
The committee recommended that the district should be the basic unit for policy planning and Programme implementation. The committee also called for regular elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions.
The Seventh Five-Year Plan document while admitting the extremely peripheral status to which Panchayati Raj institutions had been reduced emphasized the need for radically changing the conventional methodology of planning for village and block level activities and for providing substantial funds and autonomy to Panchayati Raj bodies.
It also called upon States to activate Panchayati Raj institutions particularly at block and village levels with a view to ensuring their active involvement in the planning and the implementation of the special Programmers of rural development, particularly those concerned with poverty alleviation and provision of minimum needs.
To review the functioning of Panchayati Raj institutions and to suggest measures for their revitalization, a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. L.M. Singhvi was formed in 1987. It recommended reorganization of village to make village panchayats more viable and suggested more financial resources for these institutions.
The Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations also noted that many of the local self-governing bodies were not effectively functioning mainly because the elections to these bodies were not held regularly and that super sessions of these bodies were taking place on flimsy grounds.
The commission felt that there was need for uniformity of law in states regarding holding of periodical elections avoiding super session, etc.
A sub-committee of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions was set up under the chairmanship of Mr P.K. Thungon to consider the type of political and administrative structure needed in the district for district planning.
This committee felt that the Panchayati Raj bodies should be constitutionally recognized and recommended that a constitutional provision should be made to ensure timely and regular elections to these bodies with their terms lasting for five years.
The Zila Parishad should be only a planning and development agency in the district according to the opinion of this sub-committee.
The Constitution (Sixty fourth) Amendment Bill, 1989, which, though was passed by the Lok Sabba, could not be enacted as it was not passed by the Rajya Sabha.
This Bill provided for constitution of Panchayats in every state at the village, intermediate and district levels with the exception of states which have a population not exceeding 20 lakh, where states may not constitute the intermediate level.
In 1993, the Constitution (Seventy fourth) Amendment Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabba but could not be taken up for consideration and in the meantime since the Lok Sabha was dissolved, the Bill also lapsed.
This Bill provided for Gram Sabba in each village and it was also proposed that panchayats should be constituted at the village and other levels. Direct elections were suggested to all seats in the Panchayat at the village level und not less than 50 per cent of seats in panchayats at other levels.
The Constitution (Seventy second) Amendment Bill was passed with near unanimity by the Lok Sabha on December 22, 1992 and by the Rajya Sabha on December 23, 1992. After having been ratified by 17 State Assemblies, this has emerged as the Constitution (Seventy third) Amendment Act, 1993, and came into force from April 24, 1993.
The salient features of the Act are as follows:
There shall be a gram Sabha in each village exercising such powers and performing such functions at the village level as the legislature of a State may provide by law.
Panchayats shall be constituted in ever State at the village, intermediate and district levels, thus bringing about uniformity in the Panchayati Raj structure. However, the states having a population not exceeding 20 lakh have been given the option of not having any Panchayat at the intermediate level.
While the elections in respect of all the members to panchayats at all levels will be direct, the elections in respect of the post of chairman at the intermediate level and district level will be indirect. The mode of election of chairman to the village level has been left to the state governments to decide.
Reservations of seats for SCs/STs have been provided for in proportion to their population at each level. Not less than one-third of the total membership has been reserved for women and these seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a Panchayat. Similar reservations have been made in respect of the office of the chairmen also.
A uniform term of five years has been provided for the Panchayati Raj institutions and in the event of super session, elections to constitute the body should be completed before the expiry of six months from the date of dissolution.
The state legislatures have been given the power to authorize the panchayats to levy, collect and appropriate suitable local taxes and also provide for making grants-in-aid to the panchayats from the Consolidated Fund of the concerned state.
A Finance Commission has to be constituted once in every five years to review the financial position of the panchayats and to make suitable recommendations to the states on the distribution of funds between the state and the local bodies.
With a view to ensuring continuity it has been provided in the Act that all the panchayats existing immediately before the commencement of this Amendment Act will continue till the expiry of the duration unless dissolved by a resolution to that effect passed by the state legislature concerned.
The state legislatures should bring in necessary amendments to their Panchayat Acts within a maximum period of one year from the commencement of this Amendment Act so as to conform to the provision contained in the Constitution.
With the passing of this Amendment Act, it is expected that inter alia the programmes relating to rural development in general and the Jawahar Rozgar Yojna in particular would get a boost. The basic principle of IRY is that the gram panchayats with assured allotment of funds under the programme will be at liberty to decide about the schemes to be taken up in their villages The will of the people is expected to be reflected in the implementation of the IRY programme as an elected body at the Panchayat level will be responsible to the electorate
The enhancement of the outlay for rural development of Rs 30.000 crore in the Eighth Plan assumes greater significance in the context of this Act.
The panchayats are assured of a regular existence like any other democratic institutions enshrined in the Constitution and they will also have adequate powers both administrative and financial for implementing the economic development programmes meant for the people living in rural India.
It is erroneously believed in this country that by simply enacting a legislation on any aspect all the related problems could be solved. In practice, we see it is not the case. Child marriages take place in spite of Sharda Act.
Exploitation of women and prostitution have not stopped in spite of the existence of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act. Giving and accepting dowry has not stopped although there is an anti-dowry law. If the number of cases where young brides are tortured or even murdered as reported in the newspapers is any indication this law exists only on paper.
Although bigamy and polygamy are prohibited under law even people in the limelight like film stars marry more than one wife openly and the law keeps its eyes shut. Though offering and accepting of illegal gratification is an offence we see corruption rampant in all walks of life all over the country.
Thus there are so many laws on various aspects of the social life of our people in existence but most of them are followed only in breach and the law enforcement agencies remain mute witnesses.
The main claim with the passing of the Amendment Act relating to the strengthening of Panchayati Raj institutions is that ‘the participation of poorest of the poor in the process of development is ensured. It is doubtful whether the poorer sections could find their way to enter the Panchayati Raj institutions through elections.
Though the elections are supposed to be conducted on non-party basis, the party system would creep into these elections. We find the political parties playing a vital role even in the college elections!
Further, even a highly capable intellectual cannot aspire to enter a state legislature or Parliament unless he is backed by a powerful political party and he is able to contribute sizable amounts to the party funds and also he is in a position to defray his election expenses which run into lakhs and crores now.
It is doubtful whether the poorer sections could make it to parichayat bodies if political parties and money-bags play a decisive though indirect role in the elections to these bodies.
The Thakurs, Jats and Brabmins only would dominate these bodies and only those women and members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes who would toe their line would be allowed to contest and win elections to the Panchayat bodies.
Allowing the members of Parliament or the state legislature to contest elections to the Panchayat bodies is not at all a healthy step in as much as these personalities are likely to vitiate the atmosphere in the Panchayat areas also if their behaviour inside the state legislatures and Parliament is any indication.
Though the election of the chairperson of the Panchayat at village level will be direct, the elections to the posts of chairpersons at the intermediate and district level will be indirect.
Constitution of the separate Finance Commission and Election Commission in each state is bound to increase the administrative expenditure of the various states.
The duties expected to be performed by the Panchayat bodies are so vast that they may require secretariat assistance for carrying out their activities which may result in appointment of officers and staff at various levels increasing the financial liabilities of both the Centre and the states.
The possibility of the members of the Panchayat bodies splitting into a number of groups and the group enjoying the majority support taking advantage of the increased flow of money in the pipeline cannot be ruled out which may create an imbalance amongst the people residing in the Panchayat area.
The elected panchayats should not assume powers that are not actually vested in them and act as the ‘nyay’ panchayats which are functioning as dispensers of justice.
It may be recalled on March 27. 1991, an impromptu Panchayat was summoned in Mehrana village in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh for trying two boys and a girl involved in an elopement. The parents of the girl and the boys were ordered to hang their children to death!
The Panchayati Raj institutions are going to be vested with a lot of power and money in the coming years thanks to the Amendment Act. The activities and the functioning of these bodies will have to be closely watched and monitored so that they do not overstep their limits and cause irreparable damage to those living in their jurisdiction.
In the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-2007), it has been thought necessary to make development a people’s movement; initiative and participation must become the key element in the whole process of development.
A lot in the area of education, health, family planning, land improvement, efficient land use, minor irrigation, recovery of wasteland, Afforestation, animal husbandry, fisheries and sericulture, etc. can be achieved by creating, people’s institutions accountable to the community.
Therefore, the focus of attention will be on developing multiple institutional options for improving the delivery systems by using the vast potential of the voluntary sector.
The plan also aims to-(1) give functional responsibility for provision of local public goods to local authorities (2) Devolve funds and functionaries (posts) to these institutions, (3) Give them the right to levy local taxes within some specified bounds (Minimum and maximum rates).
A new direction is being given to achieve these objectives. So far, the approach to people’s participation consisted in programme-based strategies.
In addition to such programmes, the Planning Commission has now worked out institutional strategies which will mean creating or strengthening various people’s institutions at the district, block and village levels so that they synthesize the purpose of investment envisaged in the plan with optimization of benefits at the grass-roots level by relating these programmes to the needs of people.
This can only be achieved through the collective wisdom of the community combined with the latest know-how available.
Some objectives are to be undertaken through NGOs with the Government. The role of the Government should be to facilitate the people’s involvement in development activities by creating the right type institutional infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.
These institutions are very weak, particularly in those states where they are needed the most for bringing about an improvement in the socio-demographic indicators.
Encouraging and strengthening of the Panchayati Raj institutions, reorientation and integration of all the village-level programmes under the charge of the Panchayati Raj institution, and support of local economic activities are some of the steps which the government must earnestly initiate.
A genuine push towards decentralization and people’s participation has become necessary for the success of Panchayati Raj.