Evolution of Panchayati Raj System in India

A strong, vibrant local government is a means of political decentralization. There are several advantages of the Decentralization. Decision-making being closer to the people, decentralization ensures decision-makers more effective accountability to the governed. This also ensures more realistic programming, for local problems are apt to receive urgent attention. Local vigilance also increases; thereby reducing the room for corruption. This certainly goes a long way towards maximising returns on every rupee spent on development. These are some of the tangible advantages of decentralization.

The Community Development Programme

On 15 August 1947, India got an opportunity of redeeming the pledges made to the people during the long-drawn freedom movement. Among the first tasks that India had to assume was the formulation and execution of the first five year plan in the fifties.

Post Independence, the first major development programme launched in India was Community Development Programme in 1952. Core philosophy was overall development of rural areas and people’s participation.

This programme was formulated to provide an administrative framework through which the government might reach to the district, tehsil / taluka and village level.

All the districts of the country were divided into “Development Blocks” and a “Block Development Officer (BDO)” was made in charge of each block.

Below the BDO were appointed the workers called Village Level Workers (VLW) who were responsible to keep in touch with 10-12 villages. So, a nationwide structure was started to be created.

Thousands of BDOs and VLW’s were trained for the job of carrying out array of government programmes and make it possible to reach the government to villages. Top authority was “Community Development Organization” and a Community Development Research Center was created with best academic brains of the country at that time.

This programme was not successful. It’s failure was directly attributed to inadequacy of avenues of popular participation in local level programmes of rural development. This was the finding of the team for the study of community projects and national extension service under the chairmanship of Balwant Rai Mehta, reporting in 1959.

Balwant Rai Mehta Committee Report

As we read above, the Community Development Programme was formulated to provide an administrative framework through which the government might reach to the district, tehsil / taluka and village level. All the districts of the country were divided into “Development Blocks” and a “Block Development Officer (BDO)” was made in charge of each block. Below the BDO were appointed the workers called Village Level Workers (VLW) who were responsible to keep in touch with 10-12 villages. So, a nationwide structure was started to be created. Thousands of BDOs and VLW’s were trained for the job of carrying out array of government programmes and make it possible to reach the government to villages. Top authority was “Community Development Organization” and a Community Development Research Center was created with best academic brains of the country at that time.

But this programme could not deliver the results. The programme became an overburden on the Government.

Further, in 1953, the National Extension Services were started under which the entire country was divided into Blocks. These Blocks were envisaged as smallest division for development work.

In 1957, the Balvant Rai Mehta Committee was appointed to study the Community Development Programmes and National Extension Services Programme especially from the point of view of assessing the extent of people’s participation and to recommend the creation of the institutions through which such participation can be achieved.

Balwant Rai Mehta

Balwant Rai Mehta was one of the legendry freedom fighters of the country who participated in the Bardoli Satyagraha. He is best known as second Chief Minister of Gujarat. Balwant Rai Mehta was a parliamentarian when the committee was established. He is credited for pioneering the concept the Panchayati Raj in India and also known as Father of Panchayati Raj in India.

Following were the landmark recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee:

Panchayati Raj Institutions should be composed of elected representatives and should enjoy enough autonomy and freedom.

The Balwant Rai Mehta committee recommended a 3-tier Panchayati Raj System which includes

  • Zila Parishad at the District Level
  • Panchayat Samiti at the Block/ Tehsil/ Taluka Level
  • Gram Panchayat at the Village Level

But the committee did not insisted on a rigid pattern. It recommended that the states should be given freedom to choose and develop their own patterns as per the local conditions. The committee recommended that the above 3 tiers should be organically linked together through an instrument of indirect election.

The committee recommended that the Gram Panchayats should be constituted with directly elected representatives, whereas the Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad should be the constituted with indirectly elected members.

  • The status of the Panchayat samiti should be of that of an executive body, while the status of the Zila Parishad should be that of an advisory body.
  • The Zila Parishad should be chaired by the District Collector.
  • These democratic bodies must be given genuine powers.
  • These bodies should be given adequate resources to carry out the functions and fulfill the responsibilities.

Thus we see, that most of the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta committee reflect in the Panchayati Raj institutions, as we see them today.

Launching of Panchayati Raj in India

The Balwant Rai Mehta report was greeted very warmly, and Panchayati raj was introduced with great fanfare all over the country. The committee recommended a three-tier system of rural local government, which is called panchayat raj. The principal thrust of the Mehta report was on the decentralization of democratic institutions  in an effort  to shirt decision  centres closer to the people  to ensure their  participation, and to put the bureaucracy  under local popular  control.

The recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta committee were accepted by the National Development Council in 1958 and subsequently Rajasthan in 1959 became the first state in India to launch the Panchayati Raj.

The institution of Panchayati Raj was inaugurated by Jawahar lal Nehru on October 2, 1959 in Nagaur District of Rajasthan. Nine days later, Andhra Pradesh became the second state to launch Panchayati Raj at Shadnagar near Hyderabad

The launch of the Panchayati Raj institutions was a thumping success and soon the states started adopting the institutions. This continued for 5-6 years and after that the institutions started crippling due to lack of resources, political will, and bureaucratic apathy and change the government priorities. The rural elites dominated the system and the benefit of the development schemes was not able to reach to the last corner of the country.   The legitimacy of the Panchayati Raj institutions came under questions. There was not much development in this site until the Congress was thrown out of center and Janta Government came in 1977. However, before that there are some efforts in the form of committees were done to make the system more efficient.

Santhanam Committee: 1963

The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee was followed by the Santhanam Committee. This committee was formed by the Government of India to solve the following important practical questions.

  • How and in what ratio, the revenues should be handed over to PRIs?
  • What should be the  criteria of sanction of grants to them by State Government
  • What should be the status of the Financial Relations between the different levels of PRIs?

So, in a nutshell, the Santhanam Committee’s scope of study was the financial matters of the PRIs. The important recommendations this committee made are as follows:

  • The Panchayati Raj Finance Corporations should be established.
  • All the grants at the state level should be sent in a consolidated form to various PRIs
  • Panchayats should have power to levy special tax which should be based upon the land revenue and house tax etc.

We see that Santhanam Committee gave some practical recommendations to matters of financial relevance. There was one more major issue of implementation of PRIs. This was – what should be the point of decentralization? Should it be a Tehsil / Taluka/ block or a District? If it is a district, then what would be the relevancy of the middle tier of Panchayat Samitees? If it is to be a tehsil / Taluka/ block, then how the effective decentralization can take place looking at vastness of the country?

Two more committees viz. the Ashok Mehta committee on Panchayati Raj institutions and the G.V.K. Rao committee on administrative arrangements for rural development and poverty alleviation programmes supported that “district” is the most appropriate point for effective point of decentralization.

Ashok Mehta Committee: 1977

One of the major issues in context with the PRIs was that it got dominated by the privileged section of the village society. In December 1977, the Janta Government appointed a 13 member committee which was headed by Mr. Ashok Mehta. The committee was appointed for following:

  • What are the causes responsible for poor performance of the PRIs?
  • What measures should be taken to improve performance of the PRIs?

The Ashok Mehta committee submitted its report in 1978 and made more than 130 recommendations. The essence of Ashok Mehta Committee recommendations is as follows:

3-tier should be replaced by the 2-tier system. The upper tier would be the Zila Parishad at the district level and lower tier should be the Mandal Panchayat, which should be a Panchayat of group of villages covering a population of 15000 to 20000.

The committee recommended that the base of the Panchayati Raj system should be a Mandal Panchayats. Each Mandal panchayat should contain 15 members directly elected by the people. The head of the Mandal Panchayat should be elected among the members themselves.

Zila Parishad should be the executive body and made responsible for planning at the district level. The Zila Parishad members should be elected as well as nominated.  The MLA and MPs of the area should have the status of Ex-officio chairmen of the Zila Parishads. Development functions should be transferred to the Zila Parishad and all development staff should work under its control and supervision.

Thus, we see that the Ashok Mehta Committee recommended abolishing the middle trier i.e. Blocks as unit of administration. It recommended that the district should be the first point for decentralization under popular supervision below the state level.

In the matters of Finance, the committee said that compulsory items of taxation should be put under the jurisdictions of the Zila Parishads so that they are able to mobilize their own financial resources.

The committee recommended that there should be regular audit at the district level and a committee of legislatures should check whether the funds allotted for the vulnerable social and economic groups are actually spent on them.

One more important recommendation of this committee was that there should be Nyaya Panchayats as separate bodies from that of development Panchayats. The Nyaya Panchayats  should be presided over by a qualified judge.

It was the Ashok Mehta Committee that recommended that there should be a minister for Panchayati Raj in the state council of ministers to look after the affairs of the Panchayati Raj institutions.

In summary, the democratic decentralization initiated by the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee were taken forward by the Ashok Mehta Committee. But before any action could be taken on the recommendations of this committee, the Janta Government collapsed. So, the zeal to implement the recommendations got wiped out. However, West Bengal and Karnataka were two states that took initiatives on the basis of recommendations of the Ashok Mehta Committee.

As per the recommendations the Karnataka Government passed the Karnataka Zilla Parishads, Taluk Panchayat Samitis, Mandal Panchayats and Nyaya Panchayats Act, 1983 (Karnataka Act 20 of 1985)

The Ashok Mehta committee noted that except the states of Maharastra and Gujarat, the PRIs were not given an opportunity to take up implementation at a satisfactory level. The Zila Parishads were not relevant in the implantation of several Government programmes which ought to implement at the grass root level. Committee noted that the bureaucracy was also responsible for the decline for particularly two reasons:

  • The officers felt that they are primarily accountable to the State Governments.
  • They were not able to adjust to the working under the supervision of the elected representatives.

G V K Rao Committee: 1985

The Ashok Mehta Committee was followed by GVK Rao Committee in 1985. This committee was appointed prior to the 7th Five Year Plan, to recommend on an integrated concept for growth and poverty alleviation. The committee had the following tasks:

  • Examine the existing administration structure for rural development and detail out the functions and revenue resources of the PRIs
  • Recommend the administrative arrangements for rural development and poverty alleviation programmes.
  • Recommend on revitalizing the PRI.

The essence of the recommendations of the GVK Rao Committee is as follows:

  • The district level Zila Parishad should be the basic unit for policy planning and programme implementation. The Zila Parishad should be the pivotal body for the scheme of the democratic decentralization.
  • The State level planning functions should be transferred to the Zila Parishad for effective decentralized planning.

So, in a nutshell, the GVK Rao committee was of the view of making the district as the pole of democratic centralization. The committee also recommended that a post of District Development Commissioner should be created, who would work as the CEO of the Zila Parishad.

The District Development Commissioner should be the in charge of all the developmental departments at the district level.

This was a big deviation from the previous committees which recommended the lower bodies as bases and assigned the major role to the Panchayats and Mandal Panchayats in the development. Next year, report of one more important committee came out.

L M Singhvi Committee: 1986

A year after the GVK Rao committee, the Government of India set up Dr. L M Singhvi Committee. The prime minister was Rajiv Gandhi. The LM Singhvi Committee was of the view that the Panchayati Raj Institutions declined in the country because of –

  • Absence of a clear concept
  • Absence of political will
  • Lack of Research, evaluation and monitoring.

The committee was in favour of making ways for the PRIs to ensure the availability of the enough financial resources.

The LM Singhvi Committee is best known for recommending the constitutional status for Panchayats.

This was virtually the first committee after decades of India’s experiments with the decentralization which found the “Gram Sabhas” as the “incarnation of the direct democracy”.

Here are the notes from its recommendations:

  • The PRIs should be recognized, protected and preserved constitutionally. A new chapter should be added in the Constitution of India which should enshrine the provisions to ensure free, regular and fair elections in the PRIs.
  • For revenue procedures, the Singhvi Committee was of the view that there should be optional and compulsory levies which should be entrusted to the PRIs. For initial years, the state government may levy on behalf of the PRIs and disburse money to them. This disbursement should be based upon the recommendations of the State Finance Commissions.
  • For Jurisdiction of the PRI’s, Nyaya Panchayats should be established for a cluster of villages.
  • Gram Sabha is the embodiment of the direct democracy and the village Panchayats should be more organized. Gram Sabha should be given importance.
  • The Singhvi Committee also recommended establishment of the Judicial Tribunals in the states which would tackle the controversies regarding the elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions.
Singhvi Committee versus Sarkaria Commission

The above recommendations of the Singhvi Committee, though revolutionary, were opposed by the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations, which submitted its report in 1988. This commission was of the view that enacting any law on the Panchayats is exclusive power vested in the states and rather than adding a new chapter in the Constitution, there should be a uniform law, applicable throughout India. A model bill can be drafted on the basis of consensus among all the state at the level of Interstate Council.

64th Amendment Bill

Despite the contradictory view of the Sarkaria Commission, the government had zeroed in on giving constitutional protection to the PRIs. In this regard, the 64th amendment bill was introduced in the parliament by Rajiv Gandhi Government on 15 May 1989. The bill got lapsed because it could not pass in Rajya Sabha. This was on 15 October 1989. On 27 November 1989, the tenure of the Rajiv Gandhi government ended and elections were held. Rajiv Gandhi lost the elections, and the result was a minority government under V.P. Singh and the National Front. This was the first minority government, since 1947, with the help of the Left Parties and Bharatiya Janta Party, who supported the government from outside.

74th amendment Bill

The VP Singh Government introduced the 74th Constitutional Amendment Bill on September 7, 1990. This bill also got lapsed because the minority Government of VP Singh collapsed leading to dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

72nd Amendment Bill and 73rd Amendment Act

The 72nd amendment Bill was enshrining a comprehensive amendment of the Constitution and was introduced on 10th September, 1991 by G. Venkat Swamy. The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 1992 and the Rajya Sabha on December 23, 1992. After having been ratified by 17 state assemblies this bill came into effect as Constitution 73rd Amendment Act 1993 w.e.f April 24, 1993.

Thus, April 24, 1993 became the landmark day in the history of Panchayati Raj in India.  By this amendment act, a new Part IX was inserted in the Constitution of India enshrining the provisions for the Panchayats. Here please note that Original part IX was repealed by one the amendments of the constitution. Constitution (Seventy Forth Amendment) Act, 1992 has introduced a new part Part IXA in the Constitution, which deals with Municipalities.

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