Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) is a system of rural local self-government in India.
Local Self Government is the management of local affairs by such local bodies who have been elected by the local people.
PRI was constitutionalized through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 to build democracy at the grass roots level and was entrusted with the task of rural development in the country.
In its present form and structure PRI has completed 26 years of existence. However, a lot remains to be done in order to further decentralization and strengthen democracy at the grass root level.
Evolution of Panchayati Raj in India
The history of Panchayat Raj in India can be divided into the following periods from the analytical point of view:
Vedic Era: In the old Sanskrit scriptures, word ‘Panchayatan’ has been mentioned which means a group of five persons, including a spiritual man.
In the Rigveda, there is a mention of Sabha, Samiti and Vidatha as local self-units.
These were the democratic bodies at the local level. The king used to get the approval of these bodies regarding certain functions and decisions.
Epic Era indicates the two great epic periods of India, that is, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The study of Ramayana indicates that the administration was divided into two parts – Pur and Janpad or city and village.
Self-government of a village finds ample expression in the ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Mahabharata.
Ancient Period: There is a mention of village panchayats in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
During the Mauryan and Post-Mauryan periods too, the headman, assisted by a council of elders, continued to play a prominent role in the village life.
The system continued through the Gupta period, though there were certain changes in the nomenclature, as the district official was known as the vishya pati and the village headman was referred to as the grampati.
Thus, in ancient India, there existed a well established system of local government which was run on a set pattern of traditions and customs.
However, it is significant to note that there is no reference of women heading the panchayat or even participating as a member in the panchayat.
Medieval Period: During the Sultanate period, the Sultans of Delhi divided their kingdom into provinces called ‘Vilayat’.
For the governance of a village, there were three important officials – Mukkaddam for administration, Patwari for collection of revenues, and Choudhrie for settling disputes with the help of the Panch.
The villages had sufficient powers as regards self governance in their territory.
Casteism and feudalistic system of governance under the Mughal rule in the medieval period slowly eroded the self-government in villages.
It is again noteworthy to note that even in the medieval period there is no mention of women participation in the local village administration.
British Period: Under the British regime, village panchayats lost their autonomy and became weak.
It is only from the year 1870 that India saw the dawn of representative local institutions.
The famous Mayo’s resolution of 1870 gave impetus to the development of local institutions by enlarging their powers and responsibilities.
The year 1870, introduced the concept of elected representatives, in urban municipalities.
Following the footsteps of Mayo, Lord Rippon in 1882 provided the much needed democratic framework to these institutions.
This is considered to be the Magna Carta of local democracy in India.
Local self-government institutions received a boost with the appointment of the Royal Commission on centralisation in 1907 under the Chairmanship of C.E.H. Hobhouse.
The commission recognized the importance of panchayats at the village level.
Post–Independence Period: After the Constitution came into force, Article 40 made a mention of panchayats and Article 246 empowers the state legislature to legislate with respect to any subject relating to local self-government.
However, this inclusion of panchayats into the Constitution was not unanimously agreed upon by the then decision-makers, with the major opposition having come from the framer of the Constitution himself i.e. B.R.Ambedkar.
After independence, as a development initiative, India had implemented the Community Development Programmes (CDP) on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, the 2nd October, 1952 .
It encompassed almost all activities of rural development which were to be implemented with the help of village panchayats along with the participation of people.
In 1953, the National Extension Service was also introduced .
There were various reasons for the failure of CDP like bureaucracy and excessive politics, lack of people participation, lack of trained and qualified staff, and lack of local bodies interest in implementing the CDP especially the village panchayats.
In 1957, the National Development Council constituted a committee headed by Balwant Rai Mehta to look into the working of community development programme.
The team observed that the major reason for the failure of the CDP was the lack of people’s participation.
The committee suggested a three-tier PRIs, namely, Grama Panchayats (GPs) at the village level, Panchayat Samiti (PSs) at the block level, and Zilla Parishad (ZPs) at the district level.
As a result of this scheme of democratic decentralization was launched in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959.
In Andhra Pradesh, the scheme was introduced on 1st November, 1959.
The necessary legislation had also been passed and implemented in Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Punjab etc.
The appointment of the Ashok Mehta Committee in 1977 did bring new thinking in the concepts and practice of the Panchayat Raj.
The committee recommended a two-tier Panchayat Raj institutional structure consisting of Zilla Parishad and Mandal Panchayat.
In subsequent years in order to revive and give a new lease of life to the panchayats, the Government of India had appointed various committees.
The most important among them are the Hanumantha Rao Committee (1983), G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985), L.M.Singhvi Committee (1986) and the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations (1988), P.K. Thungan Committee (1989) and Harlal Singh Kharra Committee (1990).
The G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985) recommended making the “district” as the basic unit of planning and also holding regular elections while the L.M.Singhvi committee recommended providing more financial resources and constitutional status to the panchayats to strengthen them.
The Amendment phase began with the 64th Amendment Bill (1989) which was introduced by Rajiv Gandhi seeking to strengthen the PRIs but the Bill was not passed in the Rajya Sabha.
The Constitution (74th Amendment) Bill (a combined bill for the PRIs and municipalities) was introduced in 1990, but was never taken up for discussion.
It was during the Prime Ministership of P.V.Narasimha Rao that a comprehensive amendment was introduced in the form of the Constitution 72nd Amendment Bill in September 1991.
73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments were passed by Parliament in December, 1992. Through these amendments local self-governance was introduced in rural and urban India.
The Acts came into force as the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 on April 24, 1993 and the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 on June 1, 1993.
73rd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992
Significance of the Act
The Act added Part IX to the Constitution, “The Panchayats” and also added the Eleventh Schedule which consists of the 29 functional items of the panchayats.
Part IX of the Constitution contains Article 243 to Article 243 O.
The Amendment Act provides shape to Article 40 of the Constitution, (directive principles of state policy), which directs the state to organise the village panchayats and provide them powers and authority so that they can function as self-government.
The Act has two parts: compulsory and voluntary.
Compulsory provisions must be added to state laws, which includes the creation of the new Panchayati Raj systems.
Voluntary provisions, on the other hand, is the discretion of the state government.
Salient Features of the Act
Gram Sabha: Gram Sabha is the primary body of the Panchayati Raj system. It is a village assembly consisting of all the registered voters within the area of the panchayat.
It will exercise powers and perform such functions as determined by the state legislature.
Three-tier system: The Act provides for the establishment of the three-tier system of Panchayati Raj in the states (village, intermediate and district level). States with a population of less than 20 lakhs may not constitute the intermediate level.
Election of members and chairperson: The members to all the levels of the Panchayati Raj are elected directly and the chairpersons to the intermediate and the district level are elected indirectly from the elected members and at the village level the Chairperson is elected as determined by the state government.
Reservation of seats:
For SC and ST: Reservation to be provided at all the three tiers in accordance with their population percentage.
For women: Not less than one-third of the total number of seats to be reserved for women, further not less than one-third of the total number of offices for chairperson at all levels of the panchayat to be reserved for women.
The state legislatures are also given the provision to decide on the reservation of seats in any level of panchayat or office of chairperson in favour of backward classes.
Duration of Panchayat: The Act provides for a five-year term of office to all the levels of the panchayat. However, the panchayat can be dissolved before the completion of its term. But fresh elections to constitute the new panchayat shall be completed –
before the expiry of its five-year duration.
in case of dissolution, before the expiry of a period of six months from the date of its dissolution.
Disqualification: A person shall be disqualified for being chosen as or for being a member of panchayat if he is so disqualified –
Under any law for the time being in force for the purpose of elections to the legislature of the state concerned.
Under any law made by the state legislature. However, no person shall be disqualified on the ground that he is less than 25 years of age if he has attained the age of 21 years.
Further, all questions relating to disqualification shall be referred to an authority determined by the state legislatures.
State election commission:
The commission is responsible for superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls and conducting elections for the panchayat.
The state legislature may make provisions with respect to all matters relating to elections to the panchayats.
Powers and Functions: The state legislature may endow the Panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government. Such a scheme may contain provisions related to Gram Panchayat work with respect to:
- the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice.
- the implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice as may be entrusted to them, including those in relation to the 29 matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule.
Finances: The state legislature may –
Authorize a panchayat to levy, collect and appropriate taxes, duties, tolls and fees.
Assign to a panchayat taxes, duties, tolls and fees levied and collected by the state government.
Provide for making grants-in-aid to the panchayats from the consolidated fund of the state.
Provide for the constitution of funds for crediting all money of the panchayats.
Finance Commission: The state finance commission reviews the financial position of the panchayats and provides recommendations for the necessary steps to be taken to supplement resources to the panchayat.
Audit of Accounts: State legislature may make provisions for the maintenance and audit of panchayat accounts.
Application to Union Territories: The President may direct the provisions of the Act to be applied on any union territory subject to exceptions and modifications he specifies.
Exempted states and areas: The Act does not apply to the states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram and certain other areas. These areas include,
The scheduled areas and the tribal areas in the states
The hill area of Manipur for which a district council exists and
Darjeeling district of West Bengal for which Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council exists.
However, Parliament can extend this part to these areas subject to the exception and modification it specifies. Thus the PESA Act was enacted.
Continuance of existing law: All the state laws relating to panchayats shall continue to be in force until the expiry of one year from the commencement of this Act.
In other words, the states have to adopt the new Panchayati raj system based on this Act within the maximum period of one year from 24 April 1993, which was the date of the commencement of this Act. However, all the Panchayats existing immediately before the commencement of the Act shall continue till the expiry of their term, unless dissolved by the state legislature sooner.
Bar to interference by courts: The Act bars the courts from interfering in the electoral matters of panchayats. It declares that the validity of any law relating to the delimitation of constituencies or the allotment of seats to such constituencies cannot be questioned in any court. It further lays down that no election to any panchayat is to be questioned except by an election petition presented to such authority and in such manner as provided by the state legislature.