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“When the panchayati raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do" - Mahatma Gandhi

Key Takeaways

  • The Panchayati Raj form of government is mentioned in Article 40 under the Directive Principles of State Policy of our Constitution.
  • Lord Ripon is known as the father of urban local governance.
  • Three-tier structures of local self-government bodies were recommended for the first time by Balwant Rai Mehta Committee.
  • 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts gave constitutional status to local self-government bodies in India.

Introduction

The Panchayati Raj or village panchayat was a Gandhian principle enshrined in Article 40 under the Directive Principles of State Policy of our Constitution. It aimed at the grassroots development of the nation, which began from the villages. Article 43 was aimed at the promotion of cottage industries at the village level, and of cooperative societies.

Local governments differ in structure and functioning according to legislations brought about in each State. However, primarily they are of two types according to the 73rd and 74th Amendments. The village panchayats and the Nagar Palikas.

To understand the evolution of these local self-governments in India, one should go back as far as pre-independent India and the constitutional developments which gave it the form and structure as we see it today.

Local Self-Governance during British Rule

The concept of local self-governance was not new to India. Evidence for the functioning of local bodies at village levels has been found in various ancient texts and scriptures. Financial transactions and local disputes were administered and settled by such bodies. During the Mughal period too there is evidence of such local governments carrying out justice and administering revenue collection at the rural levels.

With the entry of the British into the administrative system of India, they converted these informal structures into representative institutions, and they were generally set up in or around trading centres, catering to their interests. Thus, in 1687, a corporation consisting of Indians and British was constituted in Madras, however, it did not last. In the year 1870, under Lord Mayo, the system of electing people’s representatives to urban municipalities was brought about. Collection of taxes from people was carried out through Chowkidars, who were recognised through the Bengal Chowkidar Act, of 1870.

It was Lord Ripon in 1882, who further decentralised this system and increased people’s participation in elections to all local bodies. The government resolution passed on 18th May 1882 is known to be the ‘MagnaCarta of local self-governance in India. By this, 2/3rd of members were to be elected to rural local boards. Lord Ripon is known as the father of urban local governance, because he envisaged such a system for the first time, though it did not get implemented wholly.By the Montague Chelmsford Reforms passed in 1919, local self-government became a topic under the provinces. This gave more autonomy to the ruling power rather than the villages to govern themselves.

Local Self- governance in Independent India

Post-independent India faced a lot of challenges. Our Constitution makers tried to tackle them one by one. The self-reliance that villages ought to achieve was also one of these. This was why local self-government was included as an important directive in the Directive Principles, under Article 40.

Important efforts taken towards this were the Community Development Programme in 1952 and the National Extension Service in 1953. Several committees were formed to study problems to be solved during the process of establishing local self-governing institutions at all levels.

Balwant Rai Mehta Committee (1957)

The Committee was constituted to study the effectiveness of the Community Development Programme and the National Extension Service. The report submitted by the committee held up the importance of the involvement of the people in various aspects of such governance. It suggested the basic unit of decentralisation of power to be the block or Samiti. The Commission made suggestions focusing on the importance to aim for the development of rural areas by promoting local industries, providing better amenities such as roads, drinking water, etc, and the development of agriculture. The main recommendations of the Commission were:

  1. Three-tier structures of local self-government bodies that are linked to one another at all levels. These were, the Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samiti and Gram Panchayat.
  2. They were to be constituted for five years by means of indirect elections.
  3. Transfer of power and responsibility to these bodies to enable them to discharge their responsibilities. Limit governmental control over them.
  4. Avail these bodies with adequate resources.
  5. All welfare and developmental schemes and programmes of the State to be channelled through these bodies.
  6. Encouragement of local industries and people’s participation at the community level. In this way women and other backward sections of the society were to be brought to the forefront.

Ashok Mehta Committee (1977)

This Committee was constituted during the Janata Government in order to strengthen the democratic functioning of Panchayati Raj institutions. Unlike the Balwant Rai Committee report, this committee suggested a two-tier system of Zilla Parishad and Mandal Panchayats.It also suggested that local self-governance be constitutionalised and participation of political parties be encouraged. The committee suggested more representation of the SC/ST community and women, and regular elections to these local bodies. The state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and West Bengal passed legislation based on the recommendations of this report.

G.V.K Rao Committee (1985)

This committee was set up by the Planning Commission. It recommended the post of a District Development Commissioner. It said that all necessary resources be provided for these bodies in order to carry out their functions. The committee once again emphasised the importance of block-level governance.

L. M. Singhvi Committee (1986)

A committee led by Laxmi Mall Singhvi was constituted in the 1980s to recommend ways to revitalize local self-governance. According to this report, the Gram Sabha was considered the basic unit of governance. It recommended the constitutional recognition of local governments and political parties need not be involved in elections to Panchayats.

73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts (1992)

Due to the ineffectiveness of various commissions set up in the past decades, it was decided that local self-governance can be vitalised only by giving it constitutional status. Though Rajiv Gandhi had introduced the 64th Amendment Bill on local self-governments, while he was Prime Minister, it did not get passed. After another failed attempt to pass such a Bill in 1990, it was through the 73rd Amendment Act that the structure of local self-government in India came to existence as we see it today. This was passed during the term of the Narasimha Rao government. It came into force on April 24, 1993. The main features of the Act were:

  1. The establishment of Gram Sabha in each village was to be the foundation of the Panchayati Raj System.
  2. Three-tier structure of panchayats that are, Gram Panchayat, Block Panchayat and Zilla Panchayat.
  3. Elections to be conducted to all seats of the panchayat at all levels. Of these, not less than 1/3rd to be reserved for women, and reservation for SC/ST members to be decided according to population.
  4. A State Finance Commission is to be established in each State, and every five years it determines the allotment of adequate financial resources for panchayats.
  5. To promote bottom-up-planning, the District Planning Committee (DPC) in every district has been accorded constitutional status.

The 74th Amendment Act set out the guidelines for the establishment of urban self-government in towns and cities.It established Municipal Corporations, Councils and Nagar Panchayats, which would have representatives that are elected regularly and have a decisive role in planning and efficient implementation of services in these bodies. The institutional changes prescribed by this Act include the setting up of Ward Committees, District Planning Committees and Metropolitan Planning Committees to coordinate planning across jurisdictions, as well as the setting up of State Election Commissions and State Financial Commissions.

Thus, it was through these Amendments that local self-governance in India achieved a definite structure which was uniform in nature and had efficient mechanisms to implement developmental projects at all levels. It gave impetus to local bodies to promote social and economic development and improvement in the living conditions of people all over India.

Conclusion

In such a diverse country like India, it is important that government schemes aimed at the development of people reach all levels. This is what makes local self-governing institutions an essential part of our administration. It is also the grassroots point of Indian democracy, by which people decide who their representatives ought to be at all levels.


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