Panchayati Raj - power to the grassroots

*Inputs from the Ministry of Panchayati Raj

Village communities in the Indian sub-continent have been self-governing over the centuries. The earlier councils or assemblies called Sabhas had a position of considerable authority and slowly they assumed the form of the Panchayats. These Panchayats became the pivot of administration and the principal forum for the dispensation of justice and resolution of local disputes. The British Colonial Administration referred to these village communities as “little republics”. The Indian constitution adopted w.e.f. 26th January 1950 included Article 40 that read : “The state shall take steps to organize village Panchayats and endow them with such power and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government”.

In 1957, a historic breakthrough in establishing Panchayati Raj came about through the report of the Team for the Study of Community Development Projects and National Extension Service headed by Shri Balwantrai Mehta which recommended that “public participation in community works should be organized through statutory representative bodies”. The Team was of the view that without an agency at the village level that could represent the entire community, assume responsibility and provide the necessary leadership for implementing development progammes, real progress in rural development could not come about. Further discourse on this matter saw the term “Panchayati Raj” gaining currency as a process of governance organically linking the will of the people from the Gram Sabha to the Lok Sabha. Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated Panchayati Raj in Rajasthan on 2nd October, 1959 at Nagaur.

From 1959 to the eighties, Panchayati Raj made sporadic progress in different parts of the country. While it took root in States such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal, in many States elections to the Panchayats were not held regularly and long periods went by when there was no effective representation of people at the grassroots nor was the participation of representative institutions at the grassroots in development programmes and local governance visible. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was driven by a vision to provide the people with a “representative administration”.

He also observed that there were weaknesses in the structure of Indian democracy since although the superstructure was strong, the foundation was weak. Putting together both Houses of Parliament and the State Legislatures, there were only 5-6 thousand persons representing nearly 80 crore Indians. Panchayati Raj finally got the constitutional mandate through the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Bill, which was passed by both Houses of Parliament in December 1992. The Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 came into force on 24th April, 1993. The 73rd Amendment provides for the constitution of the Panchayats at the village, block and district levels. Elections at five years intervals are also mandated. Reservation of at least one third of seats for women is provided for. Disadvantaged sections of society such as SCs, STs and OBCs (in some states) get representation in proportion of their population.

The establishment of State Election Commissions and State Finance Commissions is mandatory. Provision has also been made through Article 243ZD introduced through the 74th Amendment to the Constitution for constitution of District Planning Committees. The 73rd Amendment is applicable in 24 States and five Union Territories.

Today, when most States and Union Territories have had three rounds of elections, there are more than 28 lakh elected representations at the 3 levels of Panchayats. Of these over 10 lakh are women, 5.2 lakh belong to the Scheduled Castes and 3.3 lakh to the Scheduled Tribes. The last fifteen years have seen a silent revolution in the rural areas as political representation available to women and marginalized groups has empowered them and improved their social and economic situation very significantly.

One of the first actions of the Government, when it took office in May 2004, was to set up a separate Ministry of Panchayati Raj to provide focused and dedicated attention to operationalizing the constitutional mandate on Panchayati Raj. It was decided to evolve a national consensus regarding the roadmap for Panchayati Raj through consultations between the Centre and the States.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj organized Seven Round Tables which the State Ministers of Panchayati Raj joined. Within a period of 150 days, from 23rd July 2004 to 19th December, 2004, 18 dimensions of Panchayati Raj ranging from the effective devolution of the 3Fs – functions, finances and functionaries – to district planning, training, capacity building and IT enabled e-governance were discussed. At the conclusion of all the Round Tables the totality of nearly 150 action points were unanimously adopted by all Panchayati Raj Ministers. The priority areas identified for concerted action were Activity Mapping, Panchayat Sector Windows in State budgets based on the Activity Maps and the assignment of functionaries in conformity with the pattern of devolution of functions and finances

Local self-government is a State subject. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment makes it mandatory for all States to hold regular elections to the three tiers of the Panchayati Raj system. Panchayat Raj has thus brought in a third stratum of government to supplement the Union Government at the Centre and the State Government to reinforce the federal characteristics of our Constitution. At an operational level the largest inflow of resources to State Governments is through Centrally Sponsored Schemes that cover sectors like primary education, public health, drinking water, sanitation, etc. identified in the 11th Schedule for devolution to the Panchayats.

Key Objectives
One of the key objectives of Panchayati Raj is to ensure that the process of planning for development in the country follows a bottom-up approach and commences at the grassroots level. The core approach is that the village Panchayat plans prepared with people’s participation are joined by plans prepared by the Intermediate and District Panchayats and these are then consolidated by the District Planning Committees with the Municipal plans into the draft district development plan.

Till now, 18 States in the country have constituted District Planning Committees while the process is underway in the remaining ones where Part IX of the Constitution is applicable. In order to guide the process of grassroots planning an Expert Group was constituted under the Chairmanship of Shri V. Ramachandran and the recommendations of the Group have been accepted by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and Planning Commission for guiding the process of district planning. Decentralization and planning from the below have also been recognized in the 11th Plan document endorsed by the National Development Council. This document also recognizes the centrality of the role to be played by the Panchayats in the planning and development process.

Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF) Programme
The BRGF is designed to redress regional imbalances in development. The fund provides financial resources in supplementing and converging existing development inflows into the identified 250 districts with a view to bridging critical gaps in local infrastructure and other development requirements that are not being adequately met through existing inflows. It is expected that the fund will help strengthen panchayat and municipal level governance with appropriate capacity building, facilitation of participatory planning, decision making, implementation and monitoring to reflect the local felt needs.

Through the Fund, professional support can be provided to local bodies and it is hoped that this will help improve the performance and delivery of critical functions assigned to Panchayats. The substantially untied grant is distributed among the districts with each district receiving a fixed minimum amount of Rs.10 crore per annum. 250 crore is reserved for capacity building while 50% of the balance under this Scheme is released on the basis of population and 50% on the basis of physical area of the district.

It may be mentioned also that Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojana (RSVY) has been subsumed in the BRGF and balance allocations to districts that have not completed implementation of their plans approved under the RSVY are funded from BRGF. In 2007-08 an amount of Rs.3599 crore was released to the districts under RSVY and BRGF. This year the allocation for the programme is Rs.4670 crore.

Empowerment of Women
Indeed, the proportion of women getting elected tends to be significantly higher than the reserved quota, with women from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes often securing election to a higher proportion of seats and chairpersonships than women from the socially and economically better off classes. The political and social empowerment of women on this scale is without parallel in the world and without precedent in the history. There are more elected women in India than in the rest of the world put together. Combined with the economic empowerment fostered by the enormously successful women’s self-help group movement, what we are witnessing in the Indian countryside is a gender revolution of a magnitude never before seen.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj has launched the Panchayat Mahila Shakti Abhiyan (PMSA) in collaboration with the National Commission for Women’s “Chalo Gaon ki ore Programme” that aims at consolidating the collective strength of elected women representatives. Each time a PMSA is convened, elected women representatives in a State get together in a conference where experiences sharing and discussion of common problems is facilitated.

In November 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj published the first comprehensive baseline report on the state of Panchayat across the rural India. In March 2008, the States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Sikkim, Manipur, Goa and Haryana were awarded in recognition of their efforts in empowering the Panchayats.

Rural Business Hubs
The idea of setting up rural businesses through facilitation by Panchayats originated from the Prime Minister’s address to the Conference of Chief Ministers on 29th June, 2004, where he stressed the importance of decentralized economic development in rural areas. In November 2004, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the Confederation of Indian Industry jointly organized a national presentation on Rural Business Hubs. This was followed up with identification of champion products in block Panchayats, developing linkages with industry and promoting training of artisans and marketing of agri and handicrafts items.

Removing poverty and ensuring that the “Aam Admi” gets the services from the State that he/she is entitled to is the avowed goal of the Government. Satisfactory development of outcomes cannot be ensured without the participation of grassroots institutions of local governance. While much progress has been made over the last 15 years, much more still remains to be done before we can have a true participatory democracy functioning from the grassroots level upwards where every Indian has a voice and every Indian gets his entitlements.

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