Despite her chequered history with local self-government institutions, India stands out as a pioneer in handing over the stranglehold of democracy to the very common people at grassroots levels.
The concept of direct democracy is rooted in the ancient governmental constructs of federalism and republicanism. As mentioned in the Janapadas and Mahajanapadas, the idea acted as potential seeds of modern-day rural self-government through Panchayati Raj Institutions.
However, with the development of urban areas, the concept of local self-government was expanded to include urban areas, creating a two-dimensional concept of local self-government: rural local self-government and urban local self-government.
Local Self-Government Under British Rule
The Panchayati Raj system of rural local self-government appears to be unique to India due to its ancient origins, the roots of urban local self-government date all the way back to 1687 when Madras established a Municipal Corporation to transfer the financial burden of local administration to the local city council.
Regardless of the origins of urban local self-government under British rule, colonial rulers proved to be the bane of local self-government, particularly the Panchayati Raj, as these institutions fell into disarray in response to the rulers' primary concern at the time, which was to centralise all powers in their hands in order to maximise their exploitative gains in India without hindrance.
Despite the Constituent Assembly members' zeal and fervour for political democratisation, the Congress Constitution Committee initially rejected Gandhi's proposal for a village-based system of political formation.
But Gandhi's insistence on Panchayati Raj found a place in the country's constitutional framework. Local self-governance has been mentioned in part IV of the constitution without any mandatory sanctions for the government to operationalize the Panchayati Raj upon the constitution's inauguration on January 26, 1950.
Ironically, the establishment of the Panchayati Raj in the country did not result from a deliberate decision by the government and Yojana Bhawan policymakers to bring democratic institutions and processes to the grassroots level. Rather, the decision to resurrect the Panchayati Raj was motivated by necessity and second thoughts.
Balwant Rai Mehta Committee
On 16 January 1957, the Government of India established the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee to examine the Community Development Programme (2 October 1952) and the National Extension Service (2 October 1953) to make recommendations for their improvement.
On November 24, 1957, the committee issued a report recommending the establishment of a system of "democratic decentralisation" that became known as Panchayati Raj. The Panchayat raj system's primary objective is to resolve local issues on a local level and to educate citizens about politics.
Following the recommendations by the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee report, the government made a feeble attempt to establish a three-tier Panchayati Raj system across the country, with Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh leading the way. However, because the move was poorly designed and lacked categorical political will, it clashed with the general public's aversion to participating in government programmes and policies.
In 1977, an attempt was made to resurrect these bodies by appointing a committee chaired by Ashok Mehta. Its main purpose was to identify flaws in their operation and suggest remedial measures to resurrect them.
Ashok Mehta Committee
The Ashok Mehta committee's report created more confusion than it clarified about the structure and functioning of the Panchayati Raj by making cosmetic rather than substantive recommendations with far-reaching implications for the efficient functioning of these institutions.
As a result, successive governments continued to abuse one of the country's most revolutionary-democratic institutions until 1993. The political will of the time compelled them to design and enact the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments Acts, which established some of the country's most landmark provisions regarding the structure, powers, and functions of local self-government at both the rural and urban levels, respectively.
73rd & 74th Amendments
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts have acted as a saviour for the country's local self-government in recent years.
While the 73rd Amendment Act establishes the basic framework for Panchayati Raj Institutions' structure and functional dynamics, the 74th Amendment Act defines the broad contours of issues such as their structure, composition, seat reservation, elections, powers and functions, and finances.
The most important contribution of these two pieces of legislation is that they not only gave local self-government institutions the long-awaited constitutional status, but they also identified the critical issues preventing them from surviving, let alone functioning effectively.
The absence of regular elections for these bodies, undefined scope of powers and functions for these bodies at various levels, and a lack of financial resources to carry out their decisions, for example, have all obliterated the structure and functioning of these institutions.
These bills are mentioned in Part IX and Part IX-A of the Indian Constitution and deal with Panchayati Raj and urban local self-government, respectively. Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian constitution also enumerate the functions of rural and urban local bodies, respectively. They prevent state governments from questioning these institutions' functional domain.
In a nutshell, the two statutes defined the functional space of local self-government institutions in black and white, paving the way for them to grow into viable government units throughout the country.
Panchayati Raj Institutions
The constitutional reference boosted the operationalization of the Panchayati Raj Institutions after Independence. Despite various misconceptions about the Panchayati Raj and on the functional autonomy and effectiveness of the MPs and MLAs, implementation of the Panchayati Raj was still the priority.
Both the Balwant Rai Mehta committee and the Ashok Mehta committee failed to yield significant results. The 73rd constitutional amendment act in 1993 backed these institutions, also defined their operational space and associated powers and resources, transforming them into true institutions of statewide governance.
Despite nearly four decades of neglect, the Panchayati Raj has made significant progress. The 73rd constitutional amendment appears to have removed the majority of the primary hindrances to the proper and effective functioning of Panchayati Raj institutions.
There is 33% reservation for Women and adequate reservations for other marginalised sections of the society.
The Panchayati Raj Institutions established themselves as the most formidable instruments for educating the masses of people about the village, block, and district governance.
Structure Of Panchyati Raj Institutions
The structure of Panchayati Raj Institutions has long been a source of contention, among policymakers at the national level and the practitioners of local self-government at the state level, owing to a lack of clarity and politicisation of the entire concept of Panchayati Raj.
The difference in the structural pattern of the Panchayati Raj institutions was presumably due to policy makers' perceptions that efforts to operationalize these bodies effectively are failing due to structural flaws when the reality appeared to be state governments' unwillingness to devolve substantive functions and commensurate administrative and financial powers to these bodies.
What are the recommendations of the Balwantrai Mehta Committee?
The Committee recommended a three-tier Panchayati Raj system, with Panchayats at the village, block, and district levels.
While village Panchayats were to serve as the system's substructure, block and district Panchayats were to serve as the organically connected bodies that ensured the Panchayati Raj's overall functional viability.
Fundamental flaw: The Panchayati Raj structure suggested that the Balvantrai Mehta committee was responsible for the incompatibility between the Panchayati Raj structure and the normal administrative structure prevalent at the sub-district level in the majority of these states.
In other words, while the Mehta committee assumed the village level to be the fundamental unit of local self-government, the governmental administrative structure could not reconcile the idea of bringing administration to that level in order to assist village panchayats in developing and implementing policies and programmes affecting their daily lives and contributing to the development of their areas.
As a result, when Panchayati Raj failed to deliver on the hopes and aspirations of both ordinary people and government policymakers, the reasons for this failure were attributed to the structure of Panchayati Raj rather than governmental inertia and unhelpful attitude.
What are the recommendations of the Ashok Mehta Committee?
The committee's main recommendations were that the three-tier Panchayati Raj system to be replaced with a two-tier system: a district-level Zilla Parishad and a Mandal Panchayat consisting of a group of villages with a population of 15000 to 20000 people.
The Committee suggested:
Reservations for weaker sections
Two seats reserved for women
adequate financial resources for the panchayats
These recommendations were not implemented due to the fall of Janata party's government.
The 73rd Amendment Act's provided a uniform three-tier structure of Panchayati Raj bodies consisting of village, block, and district levels, in contrast to previous seemingly thoughtless restructuring exercises of Panchayati Raj bodies.
Rather than incorporating MPs and MLAs into Panchayati Raj bodies at various levels, the act established rules for a Gram Sabha in each village with such powers and functions as the state legislature may provide by law.
All members of Panchayats at all levels would be elected directly, with the exception of the block and district chairman, who would be elected indirectly. This act was uniformly applicable in all the states having a population of more than 20 lakh.
The act removed the State Governments' discretion to hold Panchayat elections whenever they felt relieved to do so, the most visible result being the abolition of the Panchayati Raj system in a number of states, including Bihar, where elections for these bodies could not be held for more than 20 years.
The 73rd Amendment Act was viewed as the polar opposite of the rural local self-government concept.