Ever since India got freedom in 1947, efforts have been made to strengthen the panchayati raj system to create, in the rural people a sense of participation in the nation-building programme.
Article 40 under Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution directs the state “to organise village panchayats as units of self- government”. It was in pursuance of this objective and as a part of the planning process that the Community Development (CD) programme was launched in the country on October 2, 1952.
The aims of the CD programme are to make use of the vast unexploited resources in the countryside, encourage employment and use of scientific methods of agriculture, cottage and small-scale industries, inculcate a spirit of self-help among the rural people through developmental work, provide greater amenities to villagers through voluntary contribution of labour, and bring about social change through cooperation.
Following the acceptance of the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee, set up in 1953, by the National Development Council in 1958, the CD programme was integrally connected to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), setting the stage for launching of panchayati institutions on a nationwide scale.
The Balwant Rai Committee recommended the establishment of Panchayati Raj on the principle of ‘democratic decentralisation’. The scheme envisaged a three- tier system of- local self-government with panchayats at the village level, panchayat samitis at block level and zila parishad at district level.
However, the system did not prove a complete success and various shortcomings were noticed. As a result, the government set up a committee in 1977 under the chairmanship of Ashoka Mehta to review the working of Panchayati Raj. In its report, submitted in 1978, the committee favoured the replacement of the existing three-tier system with mandal panchayats at the base and zila parishads at the top.
The committee favoured reduction of the dependence of PRIs on the state governments and suggested that they raise their own resources, by the grant of compulsory powers of taxation to them through an amendment to the Constitution. It suggested the creation of a monitoring forum to safeguard the interests of vulnerable social and economic sections. But the recommendations of the Ashoka Mehta Committee were not accepted and the PRIs continued to work as before.
Concerned at the fact that the Panchayati Raj system was not being taken very seriously by the states, the government put forward the 72nd Constitutional Amendment Bill in the Parliament in 1992. The amendment inserted Part IX containing Articles 243 to 243-0 in the Constitution.
It got constitutional status as the 73rd Amendment Act in 1993 after ratification by more than half the number of states. Almost all the states have enacted the necessary legislation for setting up of strong, viable and responsible panchayats at different levels in their respective states/Union territories.
Under the 73rd Amendment Act, state legislatures may by law confer on Panchayats the powers and authority necessary for them to function as institutions of self-Government. Their responsibilities could cover preparing plans for economic development and social justice, implementing these plans, and control over certain matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule which contains 29 items, such as land improvement, minor irrigation, animal husbandry, fishery, women and child development, and education. Thus the Eleventh Schedule envisages a distribution of powers between the state legislatures and the Panchayat. The powers of the local bodies are to be delegated by the state legislature.
The state legislatures can authorise Panchayats to levy, collect and appropriate suitable local taxes and also provide for making grants-in- aid to the Panchayats from the Consolidated Fund of the State.
Article 243 I says that within a year from the date of the Constitution’s 73rd Amendment coming into force, i.e., from April 25, 1993, and afterwards every five years, the state government is to appoint a Finance Commission to review the financial position of the Panchayats and to make recommendations on the following matters:
- distribution between the state and the panchayats of the net proceeds of taxes, duties, tolls and fees leviable by the state which may be divided between them and the manner in which the allocation is to be made among the various tiers;
- what taxes, tolls and fees may be assigned to the panchayats; and
- grants-in-aid to panchayats. The Commission’s report with a memorandum of action taken on it is to be laid before the state legislature.
The state governments are required to constitute district planning committees (DPCs), as envisaged under Article 243 (ZD) of the Constitutional 74th Amendment Act (which deals with the urban civic bodies) at the district level to facilitate the process of decentralised planning by consolidating the development plans prepared by the panchayats and municipalities for the district as a whole covering both rural and urban areas. The DPC will submit draft district development plan to the district administration. The committee will have members elected by and from the district level panchayat and municipalities of the district.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments mark a new era in the federal democratic set-up of the country by providing constitutional status to the local self-governing institutions at the rural and urban levels. The two amendments are, indeed, landmarks.
As regards the content, state legislatures have been reluctant to transfer real powers and have retained with them, or with their officials, the powers of supervision, control, suspension, notification of functions, approvals of the schemes and the like. Under the amendments, the state will have to grant these powers to the grassroots institutions.
There is a view that even if the local government institutions are not made truly self-governing, the DPC will be greatly involved in formulating their plans, which is a major improvement over the existing state of affairs.
However, the amendments suffer from some weaknesses. Although provisions have been made with regard to transfer of subjects to be dealt by the PRIs, the Acts are not clear about the transfer of personnel and funds in respect of the subjects transferred to the panchayats.
As self-government units, panchayats must have their own cadres of employees whom they can recruit and have disciplinary control over. The role of the district collector vis-a-vis the elected bodies must also be determined.
The success of the PRIs will depend on the following five things:
- PRIs and state governments must fully want the system, for often they are their own enemies;
- Resistance from the bureaucracy must be countered with suitable personnel policies at the state and lower levels;
- Local leaders must look to the new system as an opportunity for tackling poverty in the community and not only as a good chance for exercise of power and patronage;
- The system of accounting, audit and accountability must be established on a sound basis; and
- Panchayati Raj functionaries, especially those belonging to SC/ST and women categories, and civil servants must be trained or exposed “to knowledge, skills and attitudes for making the system work”.
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