Local Governance system in rural India (Panchayati Raj) and the 73rd amendment of the Constitution
Institutions of local governance in the rural areas of India are referred to as Panchayats.
The history of legalized or institutionalized Panchayats (initiated by the British in different parts of India in the later part of the 19th century) is not very old. However, the spirit, in which this is viewed in independent India, is believed to be ancient. In the early ages, when the emperors’ rule hardly reached remote corners of the kingdom, villages were generally isolated and communication systems primitive, village residents gathered under the leadership of village elders or religious leaders to discuss and sort out their problems. This practice of finding solutions to local problems collectively, has found mention in ancient texts like Kautilya’s “Arthshastra” and in subsequent years, in Abul Fazal’s “Ain-E-Akbari and are still prevalent in different forms all over the country.
Rural local governments during the British rule were not given enough functions, authority, or resources. Those were not truly representative and often dominated by government functionaries.
Mention of local governments in the Indian Constitution, as it was adopted in 1950, can be found in the chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy, which stated that the states should enact appropriate laws for constituting Panchayats enabling them to function as local governments. In 1957 a committee headed by Balawant Rai Mehta was set up to assess the success of the Community Development Programmes and National Extension Services launched in 1951 and 1952 (as well as other programmes) during the first five year plan. One of the most significant recommendations of the Committee was the observation that in order to make various development initiatives meaningful by ensuring that the benefits reach the targeted beneficiaries, revival of Panchayats were necessary. The Committee felt that it was possible only for the Panchayats to involve the primary stakeholders, the people, with developmental activities.
In the wake of this recommendation many states enacted new Panchayat Acts thereby substituting the old ones inherited from the British. It is in such a manner that the first generation of Panchayats came into being in the country, with two tiers in some states, three tiers in many and even four tiers in a few. First generation Panchayats, which were apolitical, were not very successful for a variety of reasons. Most important of them were: ambiguous laws about exact roles, functions and authority, insufficient manpower and a general lack of resources.
However, on the recommendation of the Ashok Mehta Committee (1977), most of the states provided for political participation in Panchayat elections. This, coupled with decisions of several states’ to involve Panchayats in the developmental initiatives and delivery of various services to the rural people, made the Panchayats somewhat active and vibrant. Examples of West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka can be referred to in this respect.
Admittedly, even after this Panchayats did not evolve as people’s institutions and largely failed to deliver what were expected of them. L.M. Singhvi Committee in 1985 opined that in order to make the Panchayats effective, such institutions should be declared as units of local governments and there should be Constitutional mandate on state governments to ensure that the Panchayats function as such.
The 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, 1992
1992 was the most significant year in the history of Panchayats in India as the 73rd amendment of the Constitution (amendment of Article 243) was passed by the Indian Parliament that declared Panchayats as institutions of self government. (The 74th amendment done at the same time relate to urban local bodies). These amendments came into force from April 24 1993. The major features of the 73rd amendment can be enumerated as under:
- There should be three tiers of Panchayats (District Panchayats, Block Panchayats i.e. intermediary Panchayats and Village or Gram Panchayats) in states with over 25 lakh of population. States with less than this population will have only two tiers omitting the intermediary tier.
- Panchayats declared as institutions of self governments (signifying that the status of Panchayats is same in their respective areas, as that of the Union Government at the national and State Governments at the state level).
- States were mandated to devolve functions relating to 29 subjects (including agriculture, land reforms, minor irrigation, fisheries, cottage and small scale industries, rural communication, drinking water, poverty alleviation programmes etc.) to the Panchayats. (The local bodies grants are released to Gram Panchayats through their respective State Governments as per the recommendations and allocations made by respective Finance Commissions)
- Panchayats were mandated to prepare plan(s) for economic development and social justice and implement them.
- States were asked to constitute a State Finance Commission every five years to determine the Panchayats’ share of state’s financial resources as a matter of entitlement (just as the Central Finance Commission determines how resources of the Central government should be shared between the union and state governments).(The earmarked basic grants for gram panchayats is envisaged to be distributed, using the formula prescribed by the most recently approved State Finance Commission (SFC) for the distribution of resources. However, in case the SFC formula is not available, then the share of each gram panchayat is envisaged to be distributed across the entities using 2011 population with a weight of 90 per cent and area with a weight of 10 per cent.)
- Panchayat bodies must have proportionate representation of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and women. Such reservation should also apply in the cases of Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of these bodies.
- There shall be State Election Commission in each state which shall conduct elections to the local bodies in every five years.
(Note: This amendment is not applicable in some special areas and in the states like Nagaland, Mizoram, etc. and in areas where regional councils exist).
Amendment of the Constitution necessitated large scale amendments in the Panchayat Acts of individual states, though in states like West Bengal almost all the requirements of the Constitutional amendment were already provided for in the Panchayat Act.
Almost all the states are presently having three tiers of Panchayats. At the lowest level is the Gram Panchayat (GP, headed by Pradhan/Sarpanch/Mukhia). The intermediary level Panchayat is called Block Panchayat/Panchayat Samiti/Taluka Panchayat (PS, headed by President/Sabhapati). At the district level there is the District Panchayat/Zilla Parishad/Zilla Panchayat (ZP headed by Chairman/ Sabhadhipati).
(Comments and assistance received from Shri Amalendu Ghosh IAS(R) in preparing this note is gratefully acknowledged).</p>