The Panchayati Raj System, in India, has existed from ancient times. From the time of the Rig Veda, evidences show the existence of self-governing bodies in the villages. With the passage of time, these bodies became panchayats (council of usually five persons). Panchayats constitute functional institutions of grassroots governance in village : Panchayats used to distribute land among the farmers and they used to collect revenue (in kind earlier and in cash later, especially during the times of the British rule). “Thus, with the passage of time and particularly during the British colonial rule, the village’s self sufficiency gave way to feudalism and zamindari system leading to exploitation of the farmers, village poverty, unemployment, and backwardness.
The British commercialized agriculture and destroyed all that was good in village India. Gandhi’s village swaraj was an attempt to give back to the village panchayats what had been lost during the British regime, though during the period of national movement much was not done. The Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), under Article 40, provides for the state’s efforts to organize the village panchayats as units of self-governance, though the whole Part IV dealing with Directive Principles of State Policy has been made nonjusticiable. Numerous committees have, from time to time, suggested the reorganization of the panchayats and have debated on their functions.
Some of the recommendations of major committees like the Balwantrai Mehta Committee are:
(1) The establishment of elected local bodies and devolution of necessary resources, power and authority to them;
(2) Too much control by the government or government agencies, be avoided;
(3) Such bodies be constituted for five years by indirect elections from the village panchayats, its functions should cover the development of agriculture in all its aspects, the promotion of local industries and services such as drinking water, road building, etc.;
(4) The higher level body, Zilla Parishad, would play an advisory role. The structure of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), which developed subsequently, did not yield requisite democratic momentum. Hence, the expected rural development did not occur. Political and bureaucratic interference by the state, lack of adequate financial resources, apathetic awakening at the rural level, domination of the rural elite and the like were the major factors responsible for the dismal result.
The K. Santham Committee (1963) was appointed to give the details of the PRI finances. The committee recommended:
(i) panchayats should have special powers to levy special tax on land revenues and home taxes, etc., (ii) all grants and subventions at the state level should be mobilized and sent in a consolidated form to various PRIs,
(iii) a Panchayati Raj Finance Corporation should be set up to look into the financial resource of PRIs at all levels, provide loans and financial assistance to these grassroots level governments and also provide non-financial requirements of villages.
The Janta Party rule decided to appoint a high-level committee under the chairmanship of Ashok Mehta (1978) to examine the measures to strengthen PRIs.
Its recommendations were:
(i) the district be made a viable administrative unit for which planning, coordination and resource allocation are feasible and technical expertise available;
(ii) PRIs to havae two-tier system, with Mandal Panchayat at the base and Zilla Parishad at the top; (iii) the PRIs be made capable of planning with the resources available at their disposal;
(iv) district planning should take care of the urban-rural continuum;
(v) representation of SCs and STs in the election to PRIs on the basis of their population;
(vi) four-year term of PRIs;
(vii) participation of political parties in elections;
(viii) any financial devolution should be committed to accepting that much of the developmental functions at the district level would be played by the panchayats.
The committee was appointed in 1985 to look at various aspects of PRIs. It recommended:
(i) PRIs have to be activated and provided with all the required support to become effective organizations;
(ii) PRIs at the district level and below should be assigned the work of planning, implementation and monitoring of rural development programmes; and
(iii) The block development office should be the spinal cord of the rural development process.
(i) Local selfgovernment should be constitutionally recognized, protected and preserved by incorporating a new chapter in the Constitution.
(ii) Non-involvement of political parties in Panchayat elections. The suggestion of giving panchayats constitutional status was opposed by the Sarkaria Commission, but the idea gained momentum in the late 1980s during the times of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1989, the National Front government introduced the 74th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which could not become an Act because of the dissolution of the Ninth Lok Sabha. All these suggestions and recommendations served as the background while formulating the new Constitutional Amendment Act.