Significance of Panchayati Raj in India


Dr. Rajkumar Singh

The need of the hour is to make Panchayati Raj Institutions an engine of growth by devolution of power in true sense. It remained vital in past and is essential in present as it provides an ideal forum for decentralised planning and implementation of developmental programmes in accordance with people’s necessities and aspirations. In pre and post independence era, the then Governments of the time, have tried their level best to get it done but failed due to socio-economic and political factors. Earlier and at the start of British rule, the village Panchayat was a unit of local administration but worked under Government. Since 1920s, rural development had received priority and as a follow-up action, several programmes and experiments were made in different parts of the country. Such programmes include Tagore’s ‘Sriniketan Institute of Rural Reconstruction’. Hatch’s Martandam experiment in Kerala, Gandhi’s Wardha and Sabarmati experiments, Bryne’s Gurgaon experiment, Krishnamachari’s Baroda experiment and Firka Development Scheme in then Madras. These experiments proved fore-runners and influenced the form and programme of rural development in independent India.
Panchayati system in Ancient and Medieval India
The concept of village Panchayat to solve the problems of local people is not unknown to Indian history and existed frequently in ancient and medieval periods. Various types of local Government institutions were found under the Chola, Pallva, Pandya and Vijayanagaram Kingdoms and were known from different names and titles.Their reference may easily be made to traditions of Panchayats in ancient Village Republics in rural India. The role of these Panchayats was mainly to settle disputes, where caste Panchayats existed quite visibly. The system of Panchayats in earlier periods not only provided a local forum for redressal of people’s grievances in rural India but became able to develop a feeling of community-life among them. Unlike towns they were closely related in terms of social psychology, social attitudes, and habits. Physical factors such as density of population per acre, organised provision of services and social amenities are important since they have a direct bearing on social psychology and attitudes. All these factors combined build-up a sense of community.
The old system of Panchayats deteriorated further during period of Mughal emperors but was revived under the British rule as a statutory and elected body, responsible for the development of the village in the later part of 19th century. In this period, village Panchayats were upgraded as an institution of local self-government and found the favour of the Famine Commission and Ripon’s Resolution of 1882. More specific on issue was Decentralisation Commission Report which emphasised ‘it is most desirable, alike in the interests of decentralisation and in order to associate the people with local tasks of administration, that an attempt should be made to constitute and develop village Panchayats for the of local village affairs. Initially as held by Lord Ripon, the then Viceroy and father of local self-government in India, ‘the institution of local self-government was not primarily with a view to bring improvement in administration but it was chiefly meant to act as an instrument of political and popular education. However the British administrators, who fostered the growth of local self-governing bodies on a statutory pattern in India, placed a greater premium on the regulatory rather than autonomous aspects of local Government. It was saddled with a complex and comprehensive network of controls, circumscribing the operational autonomy of the local bodies in all vital matters.
Experiences before Independence
The decade 1920s was important for rural development through Panchayati Raj Institutions and otherwise. On the basis of earlier reports regarding decentralisation, the Government of India Act 1919 introduced the system of Dyarchy at Provincial level which provided additional span of powers and functions of the local bodies and as a follow up Bombay Village Panchayat Act of 1920 and Madras Village Panchayat Act of 1920 were passed. The formation of popular Governments under dyarchy virtually represented the last opportunity for strengthening local bodies in the pre-Independence era as next opportunity offered by the Government of India Act 1935 was too short-lived to make a dent on the functioning of village Panchayat.
As the national liberation movement advanced in positive direction, it became clear that the efforts of British Government to develop rural India through Panchayati Raj were a major disappointment. It encouraged several visionaries including Mahatma Gandhi, a political agitator and social reformer to undertake the task of rural development and establish the centres of reconstruction in different parts of India. Though, they all represented different experiences in sphere of rural development, the common among them was the moral and spiritual meaning which, when linked with the cultural traditions of the country, could fire deepest emotions of the citizens. The efforts of early initiators resulted in the emergence of a Rural Construction Department when a Congress Ministry was formed between 1937 and 1939, but the Panchayat system of Gandhi’s dream was actualised in the new Constitution of India which came into existence on 26 January 1950.
Post-Independence experiences
Earlier experiences in this sphere and feeling that programmes of rural development could not be carried out without the active participation of rural people themselves paved the three-tier Panchayati Raj system in 1958. The Community Development Programme was an innovation which laid emphasis on extension rather than on executive methods and Government officers were to act as agents and persuaders for change.
The central idea of the programme was investment in man power, through the means of integrated extension service and scientific knowledge and techniques. With these aims and objectives, the Five Year Plans initiated a process of transformation of the social and economic life of the rural India. The three-tier system of Panchayats in the form of democratic decentralisation was introduced in 1959 as a supplement to CDP. This new system was accepted largely by the states but with variations and different models of the Constitution of Panchayati Raj bodies. These, along with other defects, compelled the structure to fail and in conclusion presented a very gloomy picture of rural development even decades after Independence.
Despite ‘Not so Good’ position of Panchayati Raj institutions and rural development in independent India, several committees asserted the importance of democratic decentralisation. With the passage of Constitutional Amendment 73rd in 1992, and later the 74th, a new spirit has been ushered throughout the length and breadth of the country. Apart from conferring it constitutional recognition the Act has empowered them for their vibrant growth. The most important Article 243G entrusts the Panchayat bodies with powers authority and responsibilities. Now the Panchayats have started transforming the living conditions of rural poor and marginalised groups of Indian society.


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