The concept of Panchayatii Raj is not new to India. Chola Kings in South India experimented village Panchayati system long long ago. The Panchayati concept lost its utility under the British Raj. Mahatma Gandhi had immense faith in Gram Swaraj and democratic institutions at the village level. He wanted that every village should be self-sufficient as a unit. Producing its own food and clothing.
There shall be at the village level artisans like carpenters, porters, cobblers, blacksmiths etc., to provide the required tools. The village should have an elected Panchayati, which would run a school, a dispensary, and a cultural centre and look after sanitation and drinking water.
A cooperative society looks after the commercial needs of the village. If and when such ‘Grama Swaraj’ takes shape, Gandhiji said, it would be ‘Rama Rajya’ Because of the vast area and size of our country Gandhiji and that a Central Government at Delhi alone would not be in a position to solve the problems of all villages satisfactorily all over the country.
To give shape to the above shape to the above views Article 40 was incorporated in the Constitution. According to this article, each State Government should take steps to organize Village Panchayatis and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to work as units of Local Self-Government.
As a first step in this direction the community development programme was taken up by the Central and State governments. The work started with selected Firkas as centres under Firka Development Officers. The Firka development scheme failed to achieve its purpose, due to lack of local participation. As directions were coming from the top, it did not really result as a locally elected Panchayati Unit.
In 1956 under directions of the National Development Council a committee was constituted under Sri Balwantrai Mehta to look into the problems of Panchayati Raj. Along with many other recommendations, he made a recommendation to have a three tier system of Panchayati Raj. Besides Village Panchayati, there shall be a village Panchayati Samithi and Zilla Parishad.
The committee also recommended adequate powers and resources to be placed at the disposal of these bodies. Rajasthan was the first State to implement the Panchayati Raj system on October 2, 1959 at the village Nagaav. Andhra Pradesh was the next to introduce the Panchayati Raj system and other States followed later.
These new Panchayazt Raj institutions had elected representatives as Presidents or as Chairman at the village and Samithi level and Zilla Parishad level. Adequate administrative machinery and funds were placed at their disposal. The State Governments, of course, had the final authority of supervision over these Panchayati Raj bodies.
Panchayati Samithis were in charge of primary education, health, animal husbandry, agriculture, women welfare, child welfare and social education. The Zilla Parishads, besides supervising Panchayati Samithis, had to look after roads and buildings, protected water supply, small irrigation, social welfare and secondary education. Because of local participation, the new set-up worked well initially. Centralization of power at the State level and local political factors affected its progress. However, the village Panchayatis had very little role to play in this set-up.
The Ashoka Mehta Committee was constituted to look into the flaws in the working of the Panchayati Raj in the year 1977. The committee came to the conclusion that the Panchayati Raj institutions had failed in their purpose and recommended a two tier system like Zilla Parishads and village Panchayatis and also suggested district election to the posts of Presidents and Chairmen of Ziklla Parishads. It also pointed out that many State Governments were not adopting a uniform policy in conducting elections to Panchayati Raj intuitions regularly.
The 72nd amendment to the Constitution was passed on 22nd December, 1992, giving statutory status to Panchayati Raj Institutions. The amendment came into effect from April, 1993. The Act provided certain new advantages. It guarantees elections to Panchayati Raj bodies every five years. It provides reservation of seats to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. It also indicates devolution of administrative powers. The new bill envisages “Grama Shabha” as the basic foundation to all Panchayati Raj Institutions.
This new measure was criticized by some, for the reason that it takes away certain powers of the State Government and hands it over to Panchayati Raj institutions and that, it established a direct link for the Panchayati Raj Institutions with the Central Government, ignoring the State Government. This direct link, they argue, will promote centralization of powers and not decentralization.
One feeling that was voiced by Pundit Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, when the Constitution was drafted, was that the village Panchayatis would be the centres of localism and oppression. Even though a number of reservations have been provided, the voice of Pundit Nehru is found to be true by experience. May did not understand democracy and voting rights in 1947, but today the position has changed. The same may be said about Panchayatii Raj Institutions. With the passage of time they are sure to prove their utility and serve as real bases of democracy in our country.