Local self-government is nothing new in the Indian history. A “Chaupal” has always been an integral part of village life where people, generally elderly, would sit together and discuss current local affairs. All community matters would get decided in these meetings which in the recent the centuries came to be known as village Panchayats. A “Panch” means a prominent local personality and the “Panchayat” refers to the gathering of “Panchas.”
Ever since the Vedic period, local villagers participated in the collective decision making. Sabhas (gatherings) were the popular platforms through which the common people had a direct say and control over the local affairs. The village was always a more or less self-dependent unit. It generated its own resources, had its own functionaries and its own functional domain. Village and State functions were supplementary and rarely conflicted; the State performed only those functions which the village could not perform itself. This naturally evolved system persisted in the ancient period under the Mauryas, Guptas and Harsavardhan.
However, things began to change in the early medieval period, with the arrival of invaders and their foreign concept of governance. Shershah Suri divided the Revenue Administration and Police Administration between Patwari and Muqaddam. The Mughals introduced middlemen – called Zagirdars – to collect Revenue from the villager for the State. This introduction of Zagirdari system created new power centers at the local level and weakened the self-governing Panchayat system of the village community. This also adversely affected the village economy due to loss of financial autonomy of the Village Panchayats. But despite the weakening influence of the Zagirdari system, village Panchayats continued to play significant role even during the Mughal era.
But the British rule gave a severe blow to the local independence of the village Panchayats. They changed the Revenue system that reduced the self-sufficient villages to the status of dependent units. Their centralized system of governance gave a severe blow to the rather autonomous indigenous socio-economic system of Indian villages. Since their main aim was to exploit the natural resources as well as people of India to strengthen the British Empire, they systematically destroyed all forms of local independence. Thus, they put in place a system of delegation where power flowed from the Central command and reduced the local people to the status of non-entities.
In spite of the systematic damage done to the village governing bodies by the British, Mahatma Gandhi had full faith in the village Panchayat system of ancient India. In his vision of “Gram Swaraj” village assemblies were the basic building blocks for governance of a future democratic India, from where all power will flow to the top. Thus, he strongly advocated strengthening of village Panchayats throughout the country so as to have a vibrant all-inclusive grass-root democracy. But unfortunately after transfer of power from the White to the Brown rulers in 1947, the well-being of the villages where most Indian population lived did not become an important national political issue and the colonial system of governance continued.
Yet, the spirit of local self-governance did not die. The Panchayat system was inducted in the Constitution in the Article 40 by the Special Constituent Assembly. The 64th Amendment Bill and then the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act of Indian Constitution provided the Constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions all over the country except the Tribal dominated Fifth Schedule areas. Therefore, another Act namely the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996 was passed by the Parliament so that even the tribal population gets a chance to govern its own affairs in its own traditional ways through the Gram Sabhas.
Again, sixty five years after the so-called independence, it was Anna Hazare who tried to put the village Panchayats at the center-stage during his fight for a strong Lokpal Bill to curb the widespread corruption in the country. But the fact of the matter is that, the politicians and bureaucracy have gotten so used to enjoying power from the central authority that they can’t allow a situation where the thus far powerless rural masses can take decisions without involving them. Suddenly the thriving power-brokers will go out of job if ordinary stupid villagers begin to decide their own fate. This is the irony no one wants to address.