Chapter II. Historical Perspective of Panchayati Raj in India
The Panchayati Raj in India has a stretched history that is dated back to more than 5000 years. The Panchayati Raj Institutions have survived through changing times and different policies of the rulers and the ruling governments since time immemorial. In order to better understand the present Panchayati Raj administration, one must venture into the historical background to analyse the different styles and ways that were adopted in the village administration by the administrators of those times. The shortcomings of the different phases in the village administration enable us to build better local governance in the modern political sphere. This chapter has discussed the evolution of Panchayati Raj in four phases. The first phase has dealt with Ancient India wherein the village autonomy prevailed throughout the period and the traces of it were also found in the literature and texts of the Ancient India. The second phase has discussed the impact of invasion of Mughals on village administration in India. The third phase has examined the Panchayati Raj during the British regime and the fourth phase has reviewed the reports of several committees that were constituted by the Independent Indian government to study and improve the working of Panchayati Raj Institutions in India.
Panchayati Raj in Ancient India
Ancient India has witnessed the Panchayati Raj Institutions in its one of the best forms of operation. Villages were considered as the basic units of administration in Ancient India. Villages were self-content and self-reliant. These institutions of local government were not the creation of any central or state government but had an independent origin of its own. These local units of self-administration were responsible for the betterment, development and progress of the individuals since olden times. In this first phase, the village administration is examined through the vedic times and the different dynasties that ruled in the ancient period in India.
2.2.1 Vedic Period
Ancient India was divided into two forms of self-governing village communities, the one was the Territorial Community of the village and the other was the Functional and Occupational communities. The Functional and Occupational Communities were the administrative units and were responsible for taking decisions for whole territorial Community of the village. The Rig Veda, one of the ancient sources mentions about the existence of village communities. This is inscribed in the following, the poet in his praise and prayer to Rudra – the God of Destruction hopes that “all bipeds and quadrupeds may face well and all things in this village may be free from disease and may enjoy prosperity”. Rig Veda highlights that the villages in India were divided into small traditional guilds that were commercial in its operation and controlled by popular institutions. Rig Veda refers to popular assemblies by different names such as ‘Sabhas’, ‘Samitis’, or ‘Vidatha’ as units of local governance. ‘Samiti’ was entrusted with the right of electing a king while ‘Sabhas’ were given the power of social and political decision making. Both these institutions of popular assemblies enjoyed the right to debate and acted as approving bodies for the decisions taken by the rulers. These popular assemblies were considered as supreme authorities and were highly developed institutions. Manusmriti, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and the literature of Buddhism and Jainism also made a reference to village administration.
Manusmriti distinguished between three kinds of settlement, the village known as ‘Gram’, the town mentioned as ‘Pura’ and the city referred as ‘Nagara’ but Manu strongly advocated for Gram-the village as the fundamental unit of local administration. Manusmriti pointed out that the administration of justice in villages was done by the assembly of the village known as ‘Sabha’or ‘Samiti’ or ‘Gana’. The assembly of villagers chose village elders who were referred to as ‘Gram Vridhas’. These village elders were consulted by the village official. Manusmriti described village officials by the name of ‘Gramik’ who were appointed by the King. The head appointed by the King for ten villages was called as ‘Dashi’, for twenty villages as ‘Vishanti’, for hundred villages as ‘Shati’ and for thousand villages as ‘Sahstra- Gramadhipati’.
Kautilya’s ArthashastraKautilya in his Arthashastra gave a comprehensive description of the system of village administration. According to him, the village administration was carried under the supervision and control of ‘Adyaksha’ who was the village headman. There were other officials such as ‘Samkhyaka’ whose duty was to maintain accounts, ‘Anikitsaka’ who performed the job of a veterinary doctor, ‘Jamgh karmika’ who handled the village couriers and ‘Chikitsaka’ who was otherwise referred as physician. The village headman was accountable for collection of state dues and controlling the activities of the offenders.
The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata
The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata explicitly mentioned about the village administration. The Ramayana mentions of two types of villages in Ancient India – the Ghosh and the Gram. The village official of Ghosh was called as Ghosh Mahatter and that of Gram was refereed as Gram Mahatter. Ghosh was bigger than the Gram. The Ghosh and the Gram were administered by village official, Gramini with the help of Ghosh Mahattas and Gram Mahatter respectively. The king was linked to village administration through Gramini. Therefore, the position of Gramini was of high status and credibility in public life and in the king’s court. So much so, when Ram killed Ravana, the happy gods, in singing praises to him, compared him to a General and a Gramani. The Ramayana indicated that the subjects of administration were divided into two sections, ‘Pur’ and ‘Janpad’ and the village people were known as Janpad. The Mahabharata also refers to the existence of Ghosh, Gram and Gramini. The Gramini was assigned the function of protecting the village and its inhabitants and the land. He was also in-charge of defense and collected revenue for the kings. There is no certainty as to the status of the office of Gramini as to whether he was elective or appointed but the post Mahabharata period suggested that he was nominated by the Kings and had to report to him. Due to the position of Gramini, the king’s involvement in the village administration was reduced to minimum in the Ramayana and Mahabharata period.
Buddhism and Jainism
During the times of Buddhism and Jainism, villages were divided as per the mode of habitation and the area of a village. The village was headed by ‘Bhojak’. He was selected by the villagers as per the local customs and practices. His function was collection of revenue and organizing developmental and constructive programmes for the villagers. Various occupational panchayats existed during this period. The land in the village was owned by all but the agricultural land belonged to those who cultivated it. The villagers were given the decision making power, however, there was a mandatory requirement of consultation with the Bhojak. The religious order of Buddhism and Jainism led to highly democratic decision making process by villagers.
In the later Vedic period, the ‘Samiti’ lost its importance as a popular assembly. The ‘Sabhas’ were more restricted to Kings and their officials. The failure of the two important bodies, the Samitis and Sabhas led to the transformation of the two fold polity into a more differentiated, institutionalized and centralized polity. This was the result of varying policies of governance of different monarchial empires. The territorial expansion of these monarchial empires made it difficult for the Sabhas and Samitis to operate in the large populated empires. The study of the later vedic period through the different great empires of the ancient period displays the varying pattern of local administration in different parts of India.
2.2.2 Mauryan Period
Under the Mauryan rule, the entire territory was divided into provinces, further into divisions, further into districts and lastly the villages. There was grouping of villages. The district with 800 villages was called as the ‘Sthaniya’, with 400 villages as ‘Dronamukhas’, with 200 villages as ‘Kharvatika’ and with 10 villages as the ‘Sangrahanas’. The distribution of villages suggested that there was decentralisation.
The villages were further classified as per the population. The number of families in a village ranged from 100 to 150. The village administrative officials constituting Village Councils managed the administration of villages. The Village Council included ‘Adhyaksha’ (Headman), ‘Samkhayaka’ (Accountant), ‘Sthanikas’ (Village Officials of different grades), ‘Jamgha Karika’ (Village Courtiers), ‘Anikastha’ (Veterinary Doctor) and ‘Chikitsaka’ (Village Medical Officer). Though the village assembly vanished, the assembly of village elders called Gram Vridhas continued. These village elders were not elected but selected based on their age, character, and confidence of the people in them. Their role was to assist the Village Council in administration of civil and trivial criminal matters. The village council carried out the various functions of collection of revenue, settling of land disputes, organizing works of public utility and recreation.
Especially during Chandragupta Maurya’s period, there was decentralization of powers at the different administrative levels. The Villages were sovereign bodies exercising absolute freedom in all matters relating to its administration. Sabhas in villages were attended by the village elders, experienced people and also the representatives from all families in the village..
The prominent figure in the village was the village official known as ‘Gramik’. Though he was an employee of the King, his appointment was based upon the choice of the villagers. He was entrusted with wide power and functions. Villagers organised works of public utility and recreation, settled disputes and acted as the custodian of the property of minors. But, there was no development of regular councils. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador, who visited India during the regime of Chandragupta Maurya wrote on the village life and administration of city of pataliputra. In his work, he described the village communities as little independent republic completely self-contained and self-governed. He said that those who have charge of the provinces were divided into six committees of five members each. The First committee was to take care of all the matters relating to industry and industrial arts. The Second committee looked into the need of the foreigners their entry, accommodation, comfort and departure from the territory. The duty of registration of births and deaths the take place in the territory was managed by the Third committee. Trade and commerce including the weights and measures by traders were supervised and regulated by the Fourth committee. The fifth committee focused on quality and quantity control of the manufacture and sale of commodities. The Sixth committee dealt with collection of taxes on the goods sold within the territory. This detailed account by the Greek ambassador is the proof of efficient village administration during the Chandragupta Maurya period.
2.2.3 Pratihar – Chalukya- Chola Period
During the post Mauryan period referred to as ‘dask period’, the village continued to be the main unit of local administration. Under the Pratihar regime, the village headman known as the ‘Grampati’ administered the village. He was assisted by the village council composed of village elders. There were different committees constituted to look after other village functions such as Public Works, excavation of tanks and wells, construction of roads, etc. Even during the Chalukyas, the village was the basic and lowest unit of administration. The Gram Sabha or the Village Panchayat was supreme bodies in respect to local administration. The evolution of Village Council was seen during the Chola period. The elected members forming the Village Council carried out village administration. The village assembly of village adults was divided into ‘Sabha’ and ‘Ur’. The ‘Sabha’ that prevailed in the Agraharas had more complex machinery and functioned effectively through its committees. Sabha appointed members of the committees and assigned them functions. Whereas the ‘Ur’existed in non brahmdeya villages. It had an executive body called as ‘Alunganam’. Thus the local administration in the Pratihar – Chalukya- Chola Period continued through either Sabhas or village councils.
The village administration during Gupta period remained similar to that of the Mauryan period. The entire Gupta empire was divided into provinces called as ‘Desas’ or ‘Bhuktis’ that were administered by ‘Uparikas’. The ‘Desas’ or ‘Bhuktis’ were further divided into districts called as ‘Vishaya’ and were governmed by royal official known as the ‘Vishayapati’. The functions assigned to Vishapati were maintenance of law and order, foreign affairs and works of public utility and recreation. There were full-fledged Village Councils functioning as regular bodies during the Gupta period. The Village Councils assisted the ‘Vishayapati’. They consisted of members such as Nagara-Sresthi (chief merchant of the town), Sarthavaha (chief Caravan trades), Prathama Kulika (chief artisan) and Prathama-Kayastha (chief scribe). They were called as ‘Panchamandalas’ in Central India and ‘Gramajanapadas’ in Bihar. These bodies negotiated with the government for concessions and settlement of disputes. The villages were headed by Grampati and assisted by the village assemblies. The village assemblies included the entire population of that village. The assembly appointed committees to look after the different aspects of village administration including the acquisition and sale of land, preserving common land and pastures.
Thus, it is observed that the presence of village administration was very much evident from the texts and scriptures of the ancient period. Every village either small or big was component of local administration. The village administration was managed by the village officials with the advice of the village elders. Villagers elected the village officials and thus they were accountable to the villagers. Except for the disintegration of Sabhas and Samitis in the later Vedic period, there was smooth and efficient village administration in the Indian villages throughout the ancient period in some or the other variant form dictated by the ruler of those times.
Panchayati Raj in Medieval India
The medieval period is marked by several foreign invasions. India was under the control of Sultans of Delhi and Mughal emperors during the medieval period. The Sultans of Delhi knew that it is not possible to govern a vast Indian territory from the center directly. Hence, they divided their kingdom into provinces called ‘Vilayat’. The vilayat were headed by ‘Amir’ or ‘Vali’. They were given an ample power and functions like management of finance, collection of taxes and selection of judicial officials. There were three important officials appointed for the governance of the village – Mukkadam for administration, Patwari for collection of revenues and Choudrie for decision on disputes with the help of the Panch. However, the despotic rule of Sultan never made it possible that the villages could enjoy autonomy. The province head, ‘Amir’ or ‘Vali’ was mere agent of the dictator Sultan. The Sultan considered himself, the supreme leader and his will was the law of the land. All powers such as legislative, judicial, executive and administrative were vested in him.
During the Mughal period, there more focus was on accumulation of wealth rather than on political stability. The Mughal emperor wanted to control the provinces through its officials and administrative members. The Mughals laid more emphasis on centralization of power. The Mughal rule was centered around the collection of land revenue, maintenance of law and order and restitution of theft. All the lands under their control were integrated into single central revenue system. The subedars, amaiguzars, muqaddams and patwaris were appointed by rulers to take complete control of provinces, districts and villages. This resulted into the ignorance of Mughals in the villages, village folk and village administration. However, the ignorance by Mughal rulers turned out to be a blessing for villages as the local village administration that prevailed in Ancient India continued in Indian villages without any despotic interference of Mughals.
Though there was no interference by Muslim rulers with the working of local village Institutions, yet due to the strict system of Mughal governance, there were lots of atrocities faced by the cultivators. During the regime of Shah Jahan, in fact, the Provincial Governors harassed the peasants, the nobles became more disheartened, with the passage of time, the condition became worse and the evil of pauperism increased.
The villagers lost all powers and the village assembly had no influence. There was no direct relationship between the villagers and the state. For the development of local institutions, no attention was given. So, they were discouraged by many Muslim rulers. But, Akbar the great, was an exception who re-organised the whole revenue system by establishing direct relation of the state with the cultivators. The village headman who was known as Chaudhari, or Mukhiya or Muqaddam, was treated as village servant and responsible for the public works. This Muqaddam was the main link between the government and the village. The government dealt with the peasants through him. So, the village headman was the most important individual in the general economy of the village.
During the regime of Sher Shah, the villages were governed by their own panchayat. Each panchayat comprised of village elders who looked after the interest of the people, administered justice, and imposed punishment on defaulters. The headman of village, semi government officials, acted as a coordinator between the village panchayat and the higher administrative hierarchy. 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.
Thus it is observed that the Mughal administration in the medieval period was more centric towards the provincial government. There have been no efforts by them to work towards the village administration. This resulted into continuity of village administration but it was no longer an efficient local administration.
Panchayati Raj in British India
The British came to India with intent of trading into the Indian treasure of spices. They were initially not interested to involve themselves into administration of local units in India. But, once they grabbed the opportunity of founding themselves in the Indian soil, they took up the local governance and development in their hands. The importance of village panchayats was reduced during the British regime. This was done as the British wanted to rule out the presence of local body managed by locals as part of local administration in India.
Interestingly, it is observed that though the British rejected the prevailing system of local governance in India, they were responsible for introducing the new representative form of governance at the municipal level. This is evident by the fact that the local civic body or the first municipal corporation was established in Madras, India by King James II through a Royal Charter issued on December 30, 1687. The Municipal Corporation comprised of nominated members instead of the traditional system of elected members. This action was taken upon the advice of Governor of the East India Company to impose taxes for the civic services and also importantly, to limit the extensive powers of the Governor of Madras as he had accumulated lot of wealth by violating the directives of the East India Company. However, the Madras municipal corporation failed to meet the demands of the locals and there were objections raised by villagers to the imposition of taxes. But, the British Government continued with the civic bodies and also set up more and more such local bodies in other major towns in India. In 1726, another Charter was issued to establish municipalities in towns of Calcutta and Bombay and to reconstitute the Madras municipal corporation. These local bodies acted as a source of revenue for the British Government and widened their taxing powers.
In the year 1764, Shah Alam gave the British grant of Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This was the opportunity for British to extend their administration in other parts of India. During the end of 18th century, there was a complete transition from the trader’s role to the Administrator’s role. There were local agencies appointed to assist the District Magistrate in the local administration including the revenue collection. Each district was sub-divided into smaller areas called Talukas or Tahsils headed by local officer. The British system headed by District Magistrate for local administration was way different from the traditional panchayat administration.
However, the British rulers were very much impressed by the Panchayat administration in India which is evident by the words of Sir Charles Metcalfe and Sir George Birdwood. Sir Charles Metcalfe who was the provisional Governor General of India in 1830s commented that the village communities were little republics that lasted forever despite the fall of dynasties after dynasties and revolutions after revolutions and had primarily contributed to preservation of people of India through its system of freedom of expression and independence of thought. Sir George Birdwood also noted that the inspite of India being the country that faced maximum of religious and political revolutions from over the than any other country in the world, the village communities remained in full municipal vigor all over the peninsula. Though the invasions might have been down from the mountains or out of the seas, the villages stood intact as a rock which is undisturbed by the rise and fall of the tide. Later, the revolt of 1857 led to financial instability for British Government in India and the Lord Mayo’s fiscal decentralisation was the suggested solution to tackle the financial stress. This led to the revival of Panchayats that would perform the government functions without taking any financial aid from it.
Lord Mayo Resolution (1870)
The Lord Mayo resolution is said to be the first conscious step by the British Government towards the local administration in rural areas. The operation of Lord Mayo Resolution of 14th December 1870 in its full sense was meant to give opportunity for the development of local self-government in India. The administration of police, jails, medical services, registration, education, roads and building were shifted in the hands of local bodies. However, the real reason for Mayo resolution was to give relief to British finances. It was stated in the resolution that the local bodies were to raise their own funds for the development of the public. The Lord Mayo Resolution paved way for legislations on local self-government in rural villages of provinces of Madras, Bengal, Punjab and North-West province (Uttar Pradesh) whereas in the province of Bombay, legislation on the similar lines was already in force. The characteristic features of these legislations were legalization and increase in existing cesses, formation of Committees for each district, membership to committee shall be by process of nomination, self-finance generation by committees. Thus, the Lord Mayo Resolution became the first step of the British Government towards the local self-government in rural villages.
Ripon Resolution (1882)
The next landmark step in the sphere of local administration in British India was the Ripon Resolution of 18th May 1882. It is said to be the Magna Carta of the local democracy in India. It is the most comprehensive resolution that deals with constitution of local administrative bodies, their powers, functions and finances. Lord Ripon through the Resolution on Local Self Government advocated that political education was the core requirements for bringing decentralisation of power. He believed that the local bodies should be allowed to gain practical experience in the local administration for which there must be minimum control by state over them. The distinctive features of the Lord Ripon Resolution on Local Self Government of 1882 were as follows:
Political education was the most essential function of local government over administrative efficiency.
Rural Boards to be established similar to Municipal Boards within a District. There should be smaller unit of administration such as subdivision, tehsil or taluka.
All Rural Boards to contain two thirds of non-official members.
The members should be elected members wherever possible. The election should commence in progressive towns then in smaller towns and later countrywide. System of election to suit the feeling of people.
The chairman to be non-official member wherever possible.
Control should be exercised from without rather than within.
Lord Ripon’s idea was to create a network of villages with two-tier level local administration at district level and sub-division, taluk or tehsil levels. However, the District Magistrate at the district rather than playing mere supervisory role dictated the working of officers at the sub-division, taluk or tehsil levels. They devolved only few administrative functions to officers at the sub-division, taluk or tehsil levels. There were also financial constraints while exercising the powers and functions assigned to sub-divisional authorities. Thus, the Lord Ripon’s resolution did not come into operation in its true sense. It failed as local self-government was imposed from above and not from the village level. Ripon resolution gave rise to series of committees, commissions and acts, which highlighted on the importance of local self – government in rural India. One such major Commission that was constituted by British government in India was the Royal Commission.
Royal Commission (1907-1909)
In 1907, the Royal Commission upon Decentralisation in India popularly known as Hobhouse Commission was set up. The Commission was headed by Sir Henry William Primrose with five other members who were senior ICS officers. But the Chairmanship was soon succeeded by Charles E.H. Hobhouse, Under-Secretary of State for India after Sir Henry resigned. The Royal Commission was entrusted with the task to analyse the financial and administrative relations between the Government of India, provincial governments and subordinate statutory bodies and to enquire whether decentralisation could be a measure to simplify and improve the local administration. The Royal Commission in its report based on several recorded evidences pointed out that reviving the traditional village system was not possible but it recommended that village panchayat must be considered to be the basic unit of local administration. The Commission further added that the village panchayat must have five members headed by Sarpanch who must be the village headmen. The village panchayats to be allotted the jurisdiction to try petty civil and criminal cases and to handle minor works in villages. However, the Royal Commission strongly recommended that the working of the village panchayats should be strictly under the supervision and control of district authorities.Thus the three tier level administration was first suggested by the Royal Commission at the village, sub-division and at district levels. The Royal Commission also tried to improve on the defect of lack of financial resources of Ripon Resolution and suggested that the district boards shall give 50 percent of the revenue to sub-district boards who in turn were to provide financial aid to the village panchayats in carrying out the sanitation works, management of schools in villages, construction of public works projects and so on. In reality, the recommendations of the Royal Commission did not materialized until 1912 when a pilot project on the lines of Royal Commission recommendations was launched in India. The project identified few villages among the provinces and funds were allocated to them to carry out the sanitation work in villages. The attempt failed as the villagers were not happy with the scheme.
Government of India Act, 1919
During the early 20th century, the First World War (1914-1918) began. The British wanted the support and cooperation of Indians for the First World War. The Indian Independence struggle was also gaining momentum during this period. Considering the time as golden opportunity, the Indians in turn demanded for more autonomy with the people of India. In 1909, steps were already initiated by the Congress in Lahore by passing a resolution that demanded the British Government to take measures to ensure that all local bodies under rural administration to comprise of elected non-official members including the Chairman. The British Government that had given deaf ears to the demand of the Congress Lahore Resolution of 1909 inorder to reconcile with Indians issued the historic declaration on 20th August 1917. This August Resolution promised to increase the participation of Indians in every branch of administration and gradual development of self-governing local institutions to build up a progressive responsible government in India. Another Government of India Resolution was passed on 14th May 1918 that emphasized on the need for a separate and independent legislation to develop the Gram Panchayats and to accelerate the progress and sense of responsibility among the Indian villagers.
Thereafter in the same year, 1918, the famous Montagu-Chelmsford report was prepared that formed the basis of Government of India Act of 1919. The main recommendation of the Montagu-Chelmsford report was to transfer the control of provincial government into the hands of Indian officials responsible to Indian population. In 1919, the Government of India Act was passed to transfer the subject of local government to the provinces and it was kept under the charge of the Indian popular ministries. This led to the introduction of popular local self-government at the grass root levels in India. the As a result, the practice of deploying the civil servants as chairman of the local bodies such as municipal boards, rural boards came to an end. The system of franchise was encouraged and extended even to rural administration. There was introduction of diarchic form of government through which some developmental functions such as local self-government, Co-operation, agriculture, etc. were transferred to the control of elected ministers who were responsible to the people of India. There were several amending independent legislations passed in different provinces for establishing the local unit of governance, the Gram panchayat. Though the Government of India Act, 1919 was considered as a transformation into the office heading the rural administration, the realty for far different from the recommended change under the Montagu-Chelmsford report. The independent legislations that were passed in different provinces increased the involvement of Indians in the rural administration but gave the decision making power in the hands of the non-officials that were either nominated or appointed. The financial autonomy continued to remain as a constraint in the path of smooth rural administration by popular ministers. The separate legislations were not enacted only in eight provinces. Thus, the democratization of panchayat by the Government of India Act, 1919 did not prove to be successful attempt in rural administration in India.
Government of India Act, 1935
In 1920s, the halfhearted implementation of Government of India Act, 1919 led to decline in the local administration. The local politician involvement was seen in local civil services. Evils such as corruption and nepotism entered into the local system. The agitations by the people forced the British government to set up a Statutory Commission to enquire into the working and the impact of Government of India Act, 1919. In 1927, under the Chairmanship of Sir Simon, a Commission was appointed to make an in-depth study of the issues and problems rooted in the local governance in India. The Commission realized that the greater control exercised by the provincial government was hampering the growth and efficiency of the local bodies. The local bodies did not have sufficient financial resource to carry out the functions assigned to them. The provincial autonomy which was the suggested solution to the prevailing problems of local administration was implemented by the Government of India Act, 1935. The provincial autonomy empowered the provincial governments to compulsorily enact new legislations with respect to local institutions. The new legislations that were enacted in almost every province extended the system of franchise by eliminating the system of nomination and the financial position of local institutions was strengthened. The local officers launched investigation into the local bodies with an objective to make them the most effective unit of local administration. This zeal of the officials under the new legislation was jeopardized by the outbreak of Second World War in 1939. The Second World War increased the differences between the British Government and the Indian National Congress. The local officials were asked to resign from their positions in local bodies as mark of protest against the British government. This led to Governor’s rule in the provinces which was nothing less than one-man rule. The period from 1939 to 1947 is marked as a dark period in the history of the local administration as the villages were ignored the most during this period by the British Government. The nation was focused on attaining independence and to fulfill its dream of establishing the largest democracy in the world.
2.5 Panchayati Raj in Independent India
The Indian soil witnessed the rising sun of independence on 15 August 1947. It was the time to transform the aspirations of people of India into a reality. The need to strengthen the Panchayati Raj Institutions that prevailed in the post Independent India was taken up on the priority basis. During the constituent assembly debates, there were discussions on including the Panchayati Raj Institutions as part of the structure of the government at the local levels. However, the idea of Panchayati Raj Institutions found its place in the non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 40 of the Indian Constitution. The legislative competence to enact laws to establish local bodies was given to States under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. There were various programmes launched and committees constituted in the Independent Indian government to develop Panchayati Raj Institutions.
Community Development Programme (1952)
The first step towards Panchayati Raj Institutions was the Community Development Programme launched under the First Five Year Plan (1951-56) and formally inaugurated by the President of India on 2nd October 1952. The Programme aimed at securing socio-economic transformation of villages through democratic and cooperative local institutions and the government was entrusted with the duties of providing technical assistance, supply and credit to these local bodies. The Programme was spread over selected 55 Community Development Blocks. The participation of villages in the decision making was the main agenda of this program inorder to strengthen participatory democracy in India. The people were empowered to decide and govern their own fate by formulating policies and schemes for themselves. The idea of participation of people in administration was a fascinating one and attracted the attention of large numbers. Later, it was suggested that the Programme was to cover villages having population of about 66,000. In 1953, through the recommendations of Grow more Food Enquiry Committee headed by V.T.Krishnamachari, the National Extension Service was launched – an amplified version of the Community Development Programme, to include the whole of Indian villages under the Development Programme and it aimed at transferring scientific and technical knowledge to agricultural, animal husbandry and rural craft sectors. However, with the passage of time, the enthusiasm and participation of people was considerably reduced and that led to the failure of the Community Development Programme and National Extension Service. But the efforts of the Indian government towards the Panchayati Raj Institutions continued.
Balwantrai Mehta Committee (1957)
In 1956, the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) recommended that the Village Panchayats should take over the entire general administration of the village excluding certain functions. In accordance with the recommendations, the National Development Council constituted the ‘Team for the study of community projects and National Extension Service’ in January 1957 under the leadership of Shri Balwantrai G. Mehta to study the reasons behind the decline of the people’s participation in the community development Programme. The Balwantrai Mehta Committee extensively worked on various aspects and submitted its historic report on 24th November 1957. The report was submitted in three volumes.
The Balwantrai Mehta Committee noted two major areas of criticism with working of the Community development Projects and National Extension Service. One that the local institutional agencies lacked the rigor to include the affected population in execution of the developmental projects and the second one was that the focus of the local institutional agencies was purely on welfare activities rather than the developmental activities. People were not interested to invest their energy and time such development. The local institutional agencies had become mere agents of the central and state government and were not working as per people’s will of local development. The Mehta Committee after the detailed study of the existing framework concluded that the local institutional agencies were inadequate for the task of community development.
The most striking recommendation of Balwantrai Mehta Committee was to adopt a system of democratic decentralisation in order to overcome the failure of the community development programme. The government should establish a body that shall have jurisdiction to handle all developmental functions within the areas under its control and the role of the government should be only of guiding, supervising and higher planning.
The Committee proposed that the primary local body, village panchayat should be formed by direct election on the basis of adult franchise with the one member each representation from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and also with co-option for women members. The compulsory duties of the village panchayats identified by the committee were to include provisions of water supply, sanitation, lighting, maintenance of roads, land management, collection of land revenue, collection and maintenance of records and statistics and the welfare of backward classes. The source of income for village panchayat was assured through different taxes and fees and grants from the panchayat samiti.
The Committee recommended that the block level local body, panchayat samiti should be constituted from the village panchayats by indirect elections. The functions allotted to these panchayat samities were limited to development of agriculture, improvement of cattle, promotion of local industries, public health and welfare, promotion of education through primary schools, collection and maintenance of statistics and to execute special schemes of development of state government entrusted to it. The Committee proposed that the panchayat samities shall be funded through different sources of income such as revenues, cesses, taxes, surcharges and fees and grants-in-aid given by the state governments.
The Committee suggested that the third district level local body, Zila parishad should be constituted of the presidents of panchayat samitis, Members of legislative assemblies and Members of Parliament representing the area and the district level officers. Zila Parishad was to be headed by the Collector and one of his officers will be acting as secretary. Zila Parishad was to act as coordinator between the Panchayat Samities and to oversee their functioning and approve the budget of Panchayat Samities.
The other recommendations included the method of planning for implementing community development programmes, the coordination between the centre and state and also within state to carry out such programmes, people’s participation in community work, beneficial programmes for women, children and tribals, training he personnels and focusing on the development of major areas such agriculture, rural industries, health, education.
Thus, the Balwantrai Mehta Committee recommended that the three-tier level administration of Village Panchayat, Village Samiti and Zila Parishad be adopted as part of local governance. This system was to ensure the micro level management of the villages with the help of intermediaries at the block and district levels. There was devolution of functions for Village Panchayat, Village Samiti and Zila Parishad as per the area of operation. The financial sources were also identified and assigned for Village Panchayat, Village Samiti and Zila Parishad. The Recommendations of the Balwantrai Mehta Committee were approved by the Indian Government and the different states in India were asked to implement these recommendations. Shri Balwantrai commented after the installation of Panchayati Raj institutions in India in the following words, “The whole conception behind Panchayati Raj has been a realisation that people in the villages should be asked to undertake the responsibility of governing themselves. I wish we can permit the people in the village of this country to feel the glow of swaraj. They must be imbued with a feeling of participation in the great democratic adventure on which the nation has emarked.” Therefore, the Balwantrai Mehta Committee report on democratic decentralisation is said to have laid the foundation for Panchayati Raj in India.
Asoka Mehta Committee (1977)
In line with the recommendations of Balwantrai Mehta Committee, the three tier system of Panchayati Raj had been bloomed in several states all over India. However, after the mid-60s, there was a decline in Panchayati Raj Institutions because of centralized tendencies of functioning all over the country. There was huge gap identified between the functioning and focus of the village panchayats and the implementation of the development programmes. There were variations in the form of democratic decentralisation adopted by each state and these ups and downs in the system called for a revisit to the Panchayati Raj Institutions in India.
With the change of the Janata Dal government at the centre, a fresh attempt was made to revitalize the Panchayati Raj system in the form of Draft Plan (1978-83) on the removal of rural poverty and unemployment within specified period of 10 years. In 1977, Janata Dal Government formed committee under the chairmanship of Shri Asoka Mehta to analyse the reasons for the poor functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions and to suggest measures to strengthen the Panchayati Raj Institutions. It was also asked to suggest measures to strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions.
For the purpose of study, the committee divided the evolution of Panchayati Raj into three phases, the first phase from 1959 to 1964, which it termed as phase of ascend, the second from 1965 to 1969 which was a phase of stagnation and the third from 1979 to 1977 which it described as phase of decline. After reviewing the prevailing circumstances of the Panchayati Raj in India, the Asoka Mehta Committee submitted its report in 1978. Committee in its report pointed out that the inadequate development programmes disassociated with the people’s interest, the inability of the bureaucrats to execute the development through elected bodies, the failure to assign the specific functions and to ensure that they are performed consistently, lack of political will to improve these institutions, the internal deficiencies in the functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions and indifferent approach to understand the concept of democratic decentralisation were some of the reasons for the weakening of the Panchayati Raj Institutions.
Though Asoka Mehta Committee was undoubtedly in favour of continuing and improving the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the two-tire system of Panchayati Raj was fundamental deviation from the Balwantrai Mehta Committee report. The Asoka Mehta Committee recommended for a two-tier system consisting of Zilla Parishads at the district level and Mandal Panchayats at the grass root level. It stated that the technical expertise of high order should be made available to bodies below the state level to assure the consistent survival of rural development. Therefore, it recommended that that district should be the first point of decentralisation below the State level and not the Block. The recommended composition of Zilla Parishad was to consist of elected members from the sub-divisions, Presidents of the Panchayat Samitis, nominees of bigger municipalities and of district level cooperative federation, two women members and two coopted members with special interest in rural development and the other drawn from University/College teachers. The Chairman of Zilla Parishad should be elected from amongst the directly elected members of the Zilla Parishad. The Committee further suggested that the existing Block level Panchayat samities be converted into non-statutory executive committees of Zilla Parishads and these bodies shall be further transformed into the suggested institutional design. The committee stressed that all the developmental functions relating to district be transferred from the State domain to Zilla Parishads. These functions that were to be decentralized were mainly agriculture and allied sectors, health, education, communications, rural industries, marketing, welfare of backward classes, family welfare. The Asoka Mehta Committee recommended that the next level below the district for attaining the balance between the technological requirements and possibilities for meaningful participation by the people in development management should be Mandal Panchayats. Mandal Panchayat was suggested to be group of villages covering population of 15,000 to 20,000. The recommended composition of Mandal Panchayat was to consist of 15 members directly elected on village-cum-population basis, representatives of Farmers’ Service Societies and two women members. The President of Mandal Panchayat should be elected from amongst the directly elected members of the Mandal Panchayat. The Mandal Panchayats were responsible for implementation of the schemes and projects assigned by the Zilla Parishad. These Panchayats were to act as promotional agencies to activate community action, build up organization and project formulation. The Asoka Mehta Committee stressed on the representation of Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes based on their population. The Committee proposed term of 4years for Zilla Parishads and Mandal Panchayats with the suggestion of simultaneous elections to these bodies. The Committee pointed out the potential of Gram Sabhas in achieving participatory democracy and strongly recommended that Gram Sabhas should be encouraged.
However, the far reaching recommendations of the Asoka Mehta Committee were not taken seriously by the Janata Dal Government. There was lot of opposition from the representatives of states to implement recommendations of this Committee. When the recommendations were under debates and deliberations, the Janata party lost the general elections and Congress government came to power in 1980. Unfortunately, the recommendations of Asoka Mehta Committee died its natural death due to this political transition.
G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985)
In 1985, the Seventh Five Year Plan (1985-90) highlighted on the fact that the Panchayati Raj Institutions were reduced to peripheral status and emphasized on the need to radically change the planning for these local institutions. The Planning Commission of India appointed a 12 member committee under the Chairmanship of Dr. G.V.K. Rao for reviewing rural development and poverty alleviation programmes. The Rao Comitteee realised that there was more concentration of power and planning at the Centre and suggested for the bold step of democratic decentralisation which involved setting up of multi-level framework that covers all levels. But the Committee cautioned that decentralisation can be effective only when the planning was allowed at all sub levels and financial and other powers were distributed to each level. The committee suggested certain pre-conditions before taking up such type of decentralisation such as one planning agency at each level, appointment of professional and technical staff at all levels and senior cadre officers to be appointed at district and block levels. According to the Rao Committee, the decentralisation implied proper distribution of government schemes and developmental functions between the Centre, State and other sub-divisions as per the Asoka Mehta Committee report. The Rao Committee also highlighted that the Gram Sabhas should be conducted at all levels and all the viilagers as members must participate in it.
L.M. Singhvi Committee (1986)
Meanwhile, in June 1986, the Government of India appointed another Committee under the chairmanship of Shri L.M. Singhvi to prepare a concept for discussion at a National Workshop to review the present position, functions and progress of the Panchayati Raj institutions and suggest measures to improve the local institutions to become instrumental in rural development. The Singhvi Committee states that the Village Panchayat and its Gram Sabha was republican base of our democratic nation. For fulfilling its identified goal of rationalisation of territorial limits and demographic size, the Committee recommended that village reorganization should be done on the basis of relevant criteria such as factors of identity, continuity, contiguity, homogeneity, communications and techno-economic, demographic and cultural factors. The Ideal size of the village panchayats suggested by the Committee was population of five thousand or less. The Committee was of the view that the Panchayati Raj institutions should be viewed as institutions of self-government which would facilitate the participation of the people in the process of rural planning and not a mere unit for the implementation of community development and poverty alleviation programmes. For the first time, the constitutional protection was recommended to the Panchayati Raj Institutions by the Singhvi Committee. The Committee strongly proposed that local self-government should be constitutionally recognised, protected and preserved by its inclusion in the Constitution as the third tier of government. The Committee also suggested that the institutions of Nyaya Panchayat be encouraged to handle functions of adjudication, mediation and conciliation. The Singhvi Committee also agreed to Asoka Mehta Committee report for the integrated administrative structures for planning and development.
R.S. Sarkaria Commission Report on Panchayati Raj (1987)
The Sarkaria Commission on Centre – State relations observed that the Panchayati Raj Institutions in India lacked the uniformity of laws with respect to its functioning and holding of elections. However, the Commission did not agree with the recommendation of Singhvi Committee of conferring constitutional status on Panchayats. The Commission opined that the power to make law on Panchayat was vested with State legislature. In order to bring about uniformity with laws of different states on panchayats, there was a either a need of a model bill prepared with consensus by the Inter State Council or a Central law has to be passed under Artcile 252(1) with the consent of all states.
64th Constitutional Amendment Bill, 1989
The recommendations of the Seventh Five Year Plan followed by the various committee reports highlighting on the strengthening of the Panchayati Raj Institutions paved a way for the 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill, 1989 in the Parliament. The credit goes to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who devised concrete proposals to make Panchayati Raj institution really powerful and effective institution in the planning and development process. Three regional conventions of Panchayati Raj leaders were convened before preparing the bill on democratic decentralistaion. On 15th May 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced the Constitution (64th Amendment) Bill, 1989 in the Lok Sabha which proposed constitutionally sanctioned Panchayati Raj in India. He called the bill as historic and revolutionary as it would involve people directly in the functioning of democratic process of the country. The slogan for bill was ‘Power to the people’. The Constitution (64th Amendment) Bill, 1989 was passed in Lok Sabha on 13 October 1989, but it was not approved by a handful of votes in the Rajya Sabha but the idea of conferring constitutional status on Panchayati Raj Institutions survived.
73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992
In September 1991, a fresh bill on Panchayati Raj was introduced by the Congress Government under Shri P. V Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister. The Prime Minister consulted all the political parties in the drafting of the Constitution (72nd Amendment) Bill, 1991. The Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on 16th September 1991 and was referred to Joint Select Committee in December 1991 for detailed review. The committee presented its report to Parliament in July1992. After the debates and discussions, the bill was unanimously passed by Lok Sabha on 22nd December 1992 and then by Raj Sabha on the next day, 23rd December 1992. Bill received ratification by 17 state legislatures and finally was given assent by the President of India on April 20, 1993. It became the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 with minor modifications and came into force on 24th April 1993. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act finally conferred the constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions in India. A new chapter – Parts IX was introduced in the Indian Constitution containing Articles 243 to 243ZG.
In the study of the historical perspective of Panchayati Raj in India, the researcher concludes that the Panchayati Raj did exist in some form or the other during all the times. The ancestral roots of Panchayati Raj Institutions are seen in the ancient vedic times. The documentary evidence of the presence of Panchayati Raj Institutions is found in Manusmriti and Arthashastras. The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and the texts of Buddhism and Jainism echoed to the same assumption of the prevalence of effective village administration in ancient times. Even during the period of Mauryas, Pratiharas, Chalukyas, Cholas and Guptas, the village autonomy was given to villages in India. However, the Mughal emperors of Medieval India gave more focus to provincial government in order to achieve more control in the collection of revenue. Fortunately, the village administration remained untouched but did not continue in effective way in the medieval times. The advent of British led to the transformation of Panchyati Raj Institutions with the western outlook. The representative form of local governance was introduced by the British for their political gains. The freedom struggle revolutionized the model of Panchayati Raj Institutions of the British. The learnings from the failure of the community development programme and the recommendations of Balwantrai Mehta Committee, Asoka Committee, G.V.K. Rao Committee, L.M. Singhvi Committee, R.S. Sarkaria Commission laid a definite path for the foundation of democratic decentralisation in India.