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Democracy at the Grass Root Level

Updated: May 2

Marella Satyavathi Rao


Taking democracy at the grass root level is the real Rama Rajya, the dream of the father of the nation, which the founding fathers proposed while making the constitution in establishing Panchayat raj system. The concept of Panchayati Raj is based on ancient Indian belief that God lives in Panch Parameswar who protects and preserves the village from all evils.

Being an agro economic nation, villages are the back bone of our heritage and the lowest unit of administration. As we adopted democratic form of government, it is important to involve people participation in the administration of their village. Participation does not mean only to give their vote but also active involvement in the development of village infrastructure.

The present system of local government originated during the British rule, which worked under the direction of British rulers; it is based on centralisation of authority. They were local governments but not self-governments. The local governments in India were introduced by Lord Rippon. However, the concept of local governments is not new in the history of India. The epic stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata also mention about independent villages. Officials participated as observers only under the kings. Cholas in the history of south India were known for the establishment of local self-governments at the village level. During that period each village had its own administration with remarkable autonomy, however, the villages in those days worked on the direction of the king. Each town and village had its own assembly with limited franchise.

During the British rule villages originated as local self-governments as a response to local autonomy. The powers were distributed to the villages as the lowest unit of administration with centralised administrative system. Government of India Act, 1935, passed by the British parliament gave provinces the power to pass legislations on local governments. Despite all these provisions the framers of Indian constitution were dissatisfied. Hence, they incorporated Article 40 as one of the directive principles of state policy to enhance the powers of state governments to create self-governing bodies in the form of village panchayats.

Article 40 is well explained in the words of a social scientist “It is rather an embodiment of the most cherished dream of the constitutional makers and an objectification of the most widely held consensus so long as the constitutional traditions remains alive in the minds of the citizens and is respected by their leaders. This would continue to guide the course of the panchayat raj in this country and endow every step at the progressive realisation of the idea with the necessary sanctity and sanction.”

It was implemented in India within four years but different practices were followed by different states. However, in all the states village panchayats are to be elected by popular vote with wide structural variations, another variation was related to Nyaya panchayats.

To avoid the disparities of standards and ambiguities caused due to diversities of pattern, Congress village panchayat committee laid down guidelines. According to its recommendations:

1.     Panchayats should be kept out of politics; unanimity of election should be encouraged.

2.     The size of the panchayat should be between1500 and 2000.

3.     Adult franchise should be the base.

4.     They must be vested with social and economic factors along with civil and judicial activities.

5.     Judicial panchayats should be separated.

 

In the initial stage, panchayats were associated with rural community development projects which were launched in 1952 for rural development. It aimed to build rural infrastructure, agriculture, to improve health, education and to create employment opportunities. However, these projects were initiated by central government and implemented by local administration. It worked for four years in most parts of India. Despite all these efforts the rural bodies were hardly on sound democratic footing. Hence, in 1957 National Development Council set up Balwanthrai Mehta committee to enquire into the question of economy, efficiency and suggest measures for the reorganisation of community development projects and national extensive services. The committee recommended three tier system of panchayat raj and paved the way for democratic decentralisation of power and authority.

Mehta committee recommended the following suggestions accepting village as the basic unit of administration:

1.     To constitute panchayat samithi for the development work in a local area and entrusted

this to a statutory body ‘The Samithi’.

2.     The Samithi consists of the presidents of all the villages along with co-opted members

from Schedule caste, Women, the local MLAs, and MPs as associate members. The

chairman of the Samithi would be elected among them, BDO would be the official

advisor to the Samithi.

3.     Zilla parishad was to be composed of all the Samithi chairmen within the district and

MLAs, MPs within the district along with co-opted members. They elect their chairman

and, district collector is the ex- officio member to advise the parishad.

4.     The budgets of panchayats were to be scrutinised by Samithis and Samithis by the

Parishad.

5.     The state government was empowered to exercise control over these bodies, with the

power to suspend them as well.

The recommendations were implemented in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan on

2nd October

1959, followed by all other states in India. This implementation helped on realising

Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of panchayat raj which envisaged a revolutionary experiment

in democratic decentralisation. It is a testament of faith in democracy and a grass root

level approach to local administration.

The survey of the working of the system reveals that it has a strong rural administration

rather than effective democratic rural government. Even though it worked for many years

it had glaring short comings:

 

1.     Lack of clear and scientific distribution of functions at various levels.

2.     Domination of high structure over subordinate structures.

3.     Undue interference of state governments and curtailment of autonomy to these

institutions.

4.     Lack of adequate finances.

5.     Scant attention to the views and aspirations of the people.

6.     Too much politicalisation of the institutions and indirect elections to Samithi and

Parishad.

 

Therefore, to investigate these short comings in 1977 a committee under the chairmanship of Ashok Mehta was appointed. It submitted the report on August 1978, it recommended:

 

1.     Functional necessity for decentralisation of administration under democratic supervision.

2.    Two tier system for revenue district, assuring the technical expertise for high order

required for rural development and the Mandal Panchayats to be constituted by

grouping several villages.

3.     Panchayat Raj have power of taxation and mobilize their own resources.

4.     Open participation of political parties.

5.     Creation of certain monitoring forums to safeguard and promote the interest of the social

and economic groups in the village.

6.     Regular social audit by district level agencies.

7.     State legislature to have a committee on panchayat raj for adequate representation of

SC, ST, and Women to mitigate their grievances.

8.     Efforts for the provision of civic amenities.

 

These recommendations were laudable. But they made panchayat raj institutions mere administrative units. It did not give importance to electoral participation and no inherent power of taxation; nor did it recommend a constitutional base. However, the fall of Janata government in 1979, resulted in non-implementation of these recommendations.

In 1992 Narasimha Rao government introduced a bill to provide constitutional status to Panchayat Raj system. It was passed in December 1992 and received the ascent of the President in April 1993. Thus, 73rd amendment act provided a constitutional status to this system. Accordingly, all states amended their Panchayat Raj act in accordance with the new constitutional provisions

According to 73rd Amendment Act the establishment of Panchayat at village, intermediate, and district level was proposed. They are to function as institutions of self-governing bodies; regular, direct elections for every five years by State Election Commission are to be held. The chairman of the Panchayat is to be elected directly, and for Samithi and Parishad they are to be elected indirectly. Reservations are to be provided to SC, ST, OBC and Women. It also recommended the same at intermediate, Samithi and district level. Thus, a three-tier system is created constitutionally.

However, this act did not specify about the relation between the elected representatives and bureaucracy. As a result, lack of coordination between the two is a setback to self-governing democratic institutions.

A firm and sincere commitment is needed to conceive its (Panchayati Raj) political value as grass root democracy, the very foundation of the widest democracy of the world, and a strong will to make it function smoothly to fulfil the cherished dream of the father of the nation along with his disciple Pt. Nehru. Decentralisation and devolution of powers to the local level, enables the lowest among us to have a feel of democracy and a change from slavery to freedom; feudal system to democracy.

Hence, the changes in the system of Panchayati Raj are moving towards rural development and social justice but still we must go miles together to establish a viable and vibrant grass root democracy.

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