Panchayati Raj was a pious dream of our great leader Mahatma Gandhi who wanted to strengthen the democracy at the grassroots level by this system.
In our country, 70 per cent of the population is in rural areas and the panchayats have been the backbone of the Indian villages since the beginning of the recorded history. The history of Panchayati Raj goes back since the days of our independence. Efforts were made to strengthen the system of Panchayati Raj in order to give citizens a sense of participation in the nation building programme. It was in pursuance of this objective that community development programme was launched in 1952. It was an effort to provide and encourage development and employment in rural areas, use of scientific methods of agriculture, encourage cotton and small scale industries among other things. To evaluate the effects of community development programme Balwant Rai Mehta Committee was set up in 1953 that suggested setting up of Panchayati Raj Institutions.
The underlying idea was to usher in an era of Democratic Decentralisation. Few other committees that were formed on Panchayati Raj were VT Krishnamachari, 1960; Ashok Mehta Committee, 1977; GVK Rao Committee, 1985; LM Singhvi Committee, 1986. Finally, in 1993 through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, Panchayati Raj Institutions were established. It provides for a three tier structure of Panchayati Raj. The District Panchayat or Zila Parishad, a Block Panchayat at the intermediate level and a Gram Panchayat at the village level. In most of the states, members of Gram Panchayat constitute a body called Gram Sabha and all the voters of this constituency are members of this body. Gram Sabha is not a tier of the system. It doesn’t have any executive function and operates only as a recommending body.
Almost all the states have delegated powers and responsibilities in varying degrees to the panchayats. Article 243G of the Constitution has broadly outlined areas of functions for preparing plans for socio-economic development of their areas. These areas are explicitly highlighted in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution. The functions highlighted are ensuring safe drinking water; maintaining community assets; health and sanitation; rural electrification; physical infrastructure viz. roads, bridges, waterways etc. There are many changes that these institutions have brought about. Under Articles 40 and 246 (3), the Constitution grants powers to the states to make laws to enable the functioning of the self-government units. Haryana and Rajasthan are the states who mandate to fix minimum education qualification for those contesting in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI’s). In August 2015, the Bihar Assembly also passed amendments making it mandatory for candidates contesting Panchayat Polls to have toilets in their homes.
Through Gram Panchayats, activities in MGNREGS are handed out and auditing of work is done. MGNREGS has brought a sigh of relief for rural populace as rural distress was brewing due to unemployment. MGNREGS has become a cog in the wheel of growth and development. Gram Sabha acts as a pivotal body that is involved in building infrastructure and providing employment to people in rural areas.
Panchayati Raj Institutions have broken the caste, age and gender structures of village. No more higher caste people, old members and males are at the helm of decision-making. The provision of 33% reservation for women and provision for reservation for SC/ST in the body has enabled villagers and the government to achieve parity in the village. This has broken the age old structures and has mainstreamed the marginalised. Among the states that already follow 50 % reservation for women in Panchayati Raj are Bihar, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. Similarly, many State and Central Government schemes have been implemented at the grassroots level by these bodies. Schemes of rural housing (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana), rural electrification (Gramin Vidyut Abhiyantas), health and sanitation (ICDS and Swachh Bharat Mission), physical infrastructure (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana) etc have made conspicuous difference in rural areas. These schemes have been implemented with the assistance of the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Similarly, Gram Panchayats have worked as the first response entity during the times of disaster. Mock drills being organised, awareness programme being conducted have enabled these bodies to respond quickly during the needful times.
Similarly, in the field of agriculture, these bodies have contributed enormously. Awareness about organic farming, soil health card scheme has been implemented with the help of Gram Sabha. Similarly, many infrastructure projects, animal husbandry activities, fisheries etc have been carried out by these bodies: Cooperatives like AMUL were conceived at these levels. Therefore, pooling of resources and efforts have been their hallmark. Similarly, concepts of social forestry, agro-forestry have been encouraged by panchayats. The government has planned to set up formal markets which would remove the intermediaries, so that the maximum share of profit lands in the hands of farmers. Panchayats will be an enabling factor in this scheme. Also, panchayats have mandate to make plans and implement them in the areas of small scale industries, food processing industries, khadi and cottage industries. These industries require proper planning and financing. With coordination among Central, State and Panchayat level bodies it will help in realising the full potential.
The reservation of seats for women, Scheduled Castes and Tribes in Panchayats is a welcome step, for it would make the institution of Panchayat more democratic, representative and balanced. The Panchayat elections are conducted and supervised by the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections. All these measures ensure a bright and long lasting future of Panchayat System in India. Panchayati Raj in India has not been an absolute success. Its functioning all these years has demonstrated numerous shortcomings. These include (i) the inadequacy of funds has stood in the way of successful working of the Panchayati Raj Institutions, (ii) the tendency on the part of the higher structure to treat the lower structure as its subordinate is markedly visible, (iii) participation of the people hardly happens in reality since the key administrative and technical positions are manned by the government officials, (iv) the performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been vitiated by political cum caste factionalism, rendering developmental projects into chimeras, these bodies also experience several administrative problems like politicisation of local administration, lack of coordination between the popular and bureaucratic elements etc. These structural and functional issues, which have created impediment in realising the full potential, need to be dealt with strong hand.
Panchayati Raj Institutions have enormous potential to transform the face of the rural India. But, there are some structural and functional issues which have created impediments in realising the full potential. Thus, the Panchayat System in India assumes a very significant role. This system is quite rational, practicable and in perfect harmony with the spirit of democracy and should be further strengthened and encouraged. It should be made economically viable and self-sufficient by providing adequate resources, funds and generous grants.