Since ancient times, Panchayats have been the symbols of local self-governance and centers of village democracy – true grass-root democracy. Elders of the village traditionally formed the governing body of the village Panchayat, to manage all local issues of the people. Mahatma Gandhi wanted each village to be a self-sufficient Republic with a Panchayat that reflects villagers’ voice. Introduction of the 3 tier Panchayat system fulfilled his dream. If implemented earnestly, India’s electoral democracy would be firmly grounded in the people’s voices. However, members of parliament and state assembly don’t seem to understand the democratic importance of village panchayats or gram sabhas.
The idea of decentralized polity is deeply rooted in the ancient Indian culture and ethos. As people’s life, both personal and social, was largely governed by socio-religious institutions, the State played only a minimal role in the entire scheme of things. The power of the ruling king was limited to providing protection and delivering justice and he was bound by the tenets of Raj Dharma – moral principles guiding a monarch.
Kautilya’s classic work Arthashastra clearly explains the position of a king as the “servant of the State.” He emphasized that the king must rise above personal likes and follow will of the people. The Arthashastra also mentions that in that period, village was the basic administrative unit. Moreover, the decision making process at various institutional levels including the village was democratic and the bulk of power governing people’s life remained in the hands of various levels of people’s councils.
In the Vedic period Grama (village) was the basic political unit. Above the Grama, the higher political units were Vish and Jana. The king carried out the administration with the consent people’s representatives. More importantly, the system was not decentralization imposed from the top. It was a real and organically evolved bottom up approach.
But then as the prosperity of India invited foreign invaders and as they became rulers, their alien thinking slowly began to erode the self-governing traditions of ancient India. Mohammadan invaders, in their effort to impose Islam through violence and destruction of Hindu Religious and education centers, weakened the very foundation of the indigenous socio-cultural thinking that sustained the system. As a result, the tradition of democratic self-governance began to weaken. Further damage happened under the British rule, as bureaucracy took control of the local affairs and subordinated Indian rural economy to suit Britain’s colonial interests. However, they knew the democratic potency of village self-governance system of India.
In 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the acting Governor General of India wrote: India’s village communities are little Republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relation. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution, but the village community remains the same. This union of village communities, each one forming a separate little State in itself, has contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India.
The decay of the village system under foreign rule virtually destroyed the democratic spirit behind popular sovereignty prevailing in the rural India since time immemorial.
The Gandhian Concept of Gram Swaraj
Gram Swaraj, or village self-rule, is a pivotal concept in Gandhian philosophy.
In Gandhian thought the village occupies central position. The fundamental concept of gram swaraj is that every village should be seen as a self sufficient republic, depending on the neighbors only if necessary. For Gandhi, true independence for India meant a comprehensive transformation of Indian society and polity on the line of gram swaraj. It was a true bottom up approach. He wanted all focus of political, social and industrial life on the villages, organized as countless ever expanding circles as in the ocean water; not as a pyramid with the millions of villagers at the bottom supporting the elite ruler at the apex.
In other words, the innumerable tiny villages will be ever widening (but never ascending) circles; the system would never be pyramidal where the villages at the bottom sustain the apex. Thus, in his vision, whole nation becomes one life composed of individual units behaving like the majestic oceanic circles.
While Gandhi’s colleagues liked his concept but failed to give it serious thought. For Gandhi’s closest colleague, Nehru, independence meant no more than the political freedom from Britain. He was more comfortable with Western socialistic idea of a centralized authority, planning and executing large industrial projects to make India a modern industrial state. He had no thought of devolving significant governmental powers to individual villages or clusters of villages. He agreed with Gandhi’s wider ideas of social justice but Gram swaraj hardly fit in his development agenda. Thus, free India evolved as a ‘top down’ socialistic state where people at the bottom remained politically insignificant and folks particularly in the countryside became totally invisible, contrary to Gandhi’s wishes.
It is real pity that independent India failed to grasp the revolutionary nature of his thought and discarded them in the very initial years of freedom.
In 1946, Gandhi had aptly suggested that the Indian independence must begin at the bottom and every village must be allowed to act as a Republic governed by an elected Panchayat with full self-governing powers. However, only in the 1990s attempt was made to realize dream with the introduction of the three-tier Panchayati Raj system to ensure people’s participation at the grass root level.
The Panchayati Raj Act, 1992
The passage of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 (or simply the Panchayati Raj Act) marks a new era in the federal democratic set up of the country. It provided the much needed constitutional sanction to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) for functioning as an organic and integral part of the nation’s democratic process. It came into force with effect from April 24, 1993 and did not apply to the Schedule V areas of the nine states, Schedule VI Areas of the North-East and the District of Darjeeling in West Bengal as well as J&K.
The Panchayati Raj Act was needed in order to streamline the functioning of the PRIs, which were marked by long delays in holding of Panchayat elections, frequent suspension / super session / dissolution of the Panchayat bodies, lack of functional and financial autonomy, inadequate representation of marginalized and weaker sections and meager, occasional and tied Government grants. This crippled the functioning of Panchayats and did not allow them to function as institutions of local Self-Government as had been envisaged in the Constitution.
Features of the Panchayati Raj Act
The Act has five main features: (a) a 3-tier system of Panchayati Raj for all States having population of over 20 lakh; (b) Panchayat elections regularly every 5 years; (c) reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women (not less than one-third of seats); (d) appointment of State Finance Commission to make recommendations as regards the financial powers of the Panchayats, and (e) constitution of District Planning Committees to prepare development plans for the district as a whole.
Thus, the Panchayats have been endowed with such powers and authority as may be necessary to function as institutions of self-government and social justice. Providing real functional autonomy at the village level is at the core of the amendment Act.
Achievements of the Panchayati Raj System
As a result of the enactment of the Act, 2,32,278 Panchayats at village level; 6,022 Panchayats at intermediate level and 535 Panchayats at district level have been constituted in the country. These Panchayats are being manned by about 29.2 lakh elected representatives of Panchayats at all levels. This is the broadest representative base that exists in any country of the world – developed or under-developed.
Issues in Implementation of the Panchayati Raj Act
Despite the positives like enactment of State Panchayati Raj Acts, Setting up of State Election Commission and State Finance Commissions, and holding of regular Panchayat elections providing reservation for SCs/STs/Women in Panchayats, the results of implementation of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 at the ground level have fallen far short of expectations. Stating specifically,
- Although the political decentralization can be clearly seen in the regular Panchayat elections with good participation of people, the administrative and fiscal decentralization have remained rather limited. The State Governments have failed to give up their control on matters of local administration and finance.
- Panchayats have not been granted enough powers for revenue generation. As a result, they only have limited functional autonomy.
- Recommendations of State Finance Commissions (SFCs) are generally not taken seriously.
- Powers given to the State Election Commissions also vary from State to State. They should have been given powers to deal with all matter relating to Panchayat elections namely, delimitation of constituencies, rotation of reserved seats in Panchayats, finalization of electoral rolls, etc.
- Gram Sabhas have not been empowered and strengthened to ensure greater people’s participation and transparency in functioning of Panchayats as envisaged in the Panchayat Act.
Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (or PESA Act, 1996)
The PESA Act, 1996 is regarded as a corrective legal measure to the 73rd amendment (Panchayati Raj Act) in order to extend the provisions of the Panchayat Raj to the Scheduled and Tribal areas falling under the Schedule Five areas of the nine States, namely Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan. The PESA Act, 1996 which came into force on 24th December, 1996. It gave radical governance powers to the tribal community and recognizes its traditional community rights over local natural resources.
It not only accepts the validity of “customary law, social and religious practices, and traditional management practices of community resources”, but also directs the state governments not to make any law which is inconsistent with these. Accepting a clear‐cut role of the community, it gives wide‐ranging powers to Gram Sabhas, which had hitherto been denied to them by the lawmakers of the country. The State Governments were required to enact their legislation in accordance with the Provisions of Act before the expiry of one year i.e. 23rd December, 1997.
Poor Implementation of the PESA Act, 1996
It also needs to be pointed out that tribal areas represent the last sumps of natural resources on this planet, simply because tribal lifestyle and culture have inherent respect for the forests and natural resources and tribal religions and outlook ensures survival of all living beings, through holistic and ecologically sound belief system. PESA offers a wonderful way to strengthen their hands in the larger interest of social justice as well as deepen grass-root democracy. Implementing the following suggestions will achieve both the goals.
- Even after a decade and a half after the PESA Act, there is very little awareness about the Gram Sabha being designated as a self‐governing body or having legal jurisdiction over the natural resources and forests. Neither is there any support mechanism for the Gram Sabhas to play any significant role.
- It is a clear indication that sincere implementation of PESA has not been seriously attempted by the state governments. They still want to govern the PESA areas through the centralized administration and laws that actually weaken what PESA provisions offer the tribal community. There is hardly any willingness on the part of the officials of various departments to relinquish control on resources and functions that are given to the Gram Sabhas by PESA. Nor do they have any respect for tribal lifestyle and culture. What is needed is the empowerment and capacity building of the tribal community through a sustained awareness campaign so they can take charge of their lives as envisioned in the PESA provisions.
- There is an urgent need to amend the Indian Forest Act, Land Acquisition Act, and other related Acts so that the ownership on minor forest produce, water bodies and land resources are explicitly handed over to the Gram Sabhas of the PESA areas.
- No State Government officer should have the power to over-rule any recommendation of a Gram Sabha. This legacy of British Raj is anti-democratic and must be abolished immediately.
- The current system of governance is still largely colonial in nature and the bureaucracy conditioned on centralized authority has been unable to accept the radical change envisioned in the PESA Act. Therefore, in order to sensitize them an immediate extensive training-cum-awareness campaign for all relevant officials of various ministries should be initiated.
- There is a need that Gram Sabha institutions should be developed as institutions of self-governance and not treated merely as institutions of local governance. The required administrative structure and machinery should be provided for making the Gram Sabha an effective body of district administration. It is also imperative that the Gram Sabhas have direct access to funds so that they can exercise their power rather independently.
- Physical infrastructure in interior areas should be strengthened in order to protect the life and property of tribals. Special attention should be paid to the construction of culverts, bridges, check dams, compound walls for schools, etc.
- The concept of community ownership of resources in PESA areas should be integrated into the provisions of the Centrally Sponsored Schemes. All community resource based schemes should involve Gram Sabhas in planning and implementation.
You may also like to know how the tribal areas of the Sixth Schedule Areas are being governed: