The reincarnation of Panchayati Raj, as a system of local self-government administered by a council or ‘Panchayat’ duly elected in a free and fair manner, is a step in the right direction.
It is in keeping with the very spirit of democracy. It is essential that, to strengthen democracy, the panchayat system in India be given all possible help and encouragement. It will further help decentralisation of power and check the degeneration of democracy in a very effective manner. It has been an established fact that authoritarianism and too much concentration of power are the main obstacles in the process of democracy, which stands for full participation of the masses- in the administration through regular fair and free elections, etc. The Panchayati Raj system has been purposefully and specially designed to take care of various rural problems. It provides the administrative and legislative apparatus for implementation of the programmes of rural development. The 64th Constitution Amendment Bill of May 15, 1989 has been a landmark in this context.
It gave a new lease of life to Panchayati Raj as a truly representative system in our country. During the debate on the subject, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told the Lok Sabha that “Too often in the past Panchayati Raj has had functions without finances, responsibilities without authority, duties without the means for carrying them out. The Bill seeks to remove these disparities and bottlenecks and to make these rural legislatures or councils a fit and effective instrument of self-government.
” The Bill also made it obligatory that elections be held regularly every five years, but various states have failed to fulfill this obligation and the Centre has had to intervene. Thus, the Bill has proved a milestone in revitalizing an ancient and time-tested democratic institution. The Panchayati Raj system is best suited for developmental and administrative requirements of rural population and society because of wide variation in the nature of local problems. It is an inexpensive form of local self-government, which can suitably identify the local problems and issues, particularly of the poor and weaker sections of society, like scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, small, marginal and landless farmers, women and backward classes. It also ensures quick and equitable measures to solve the problems. It provides a proper forum, where local people can meet, discuss and chalk out programmes, policies and their speedy implementation. It also ensures decentralisation of power, and effective developmental activities, in which active participation of the rural masses can be envisaged. The main objective of the system is to develop a method of decentralisation and devaluation of powers, functions and authority to the rural folk with a view to ensure rapid socioeconomic progress and speedier and inexpensive justice.
This is to be achieved through increasing agricultural production, development of cottage and rural industries, fuller and proper utilization of available local, natural and human resources with the active participation of the people. Besides progressive decentralisation of powers and authority, it aims at improving the living standard of the rural people in general and the weaker sections in particular. It has a three-tier structure that includes Village Panchayats, Panchayat Semites and the Zila Parishads. While in most of the states there is a three-tier structure, in some states and Union Territories there is only a two-tier system and in some cases only one-tier structure.
The village or Gram Panchayat functions at the village level. Each village has its own panchayat. In case of very small villages, there can be a common panchayat for a group of villages. The Gram Sabha or the Village Council, consisting of all the adult members of the village, elects the members of the panchayat. These members elect their chairman or head, known as Pradhan. They hold the office of the Gram Panchayat normally for a period of three years. Every panchayat has its own secretary and a Gramsevak to help it in its various functions.
The panchayat chalks out the programme for agricultural production and co-operative management of the land. It also seeks to ensure a minimum standard of cultivation for raising agricultural production. Panchayat Samitis work at the block level.
These main executive bodies have all the elected Village Prashads of the Gram Panchayats as their members. The Presidents and Vice Presidents of these Samitis are elected from among these members for a period of three years. The main function of the Panchayat Samitis is to prepare, execute and co-ordinate the developmental programme at the block level. It is responsible for preparing and implementing plans for the development of agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, cottage and small scale industries, rural health by the block development officer and extension officers.
Then there are Zila Parishads. These function at the district level and are responsible for making, executing and coordinating the programmes of rural development for the entire district. A Zila Parishads has the presidents of the Panchayat Samitis in the district, the members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from the district and the members of the Parliament (MPs) representing the district as its members.
All these members elect their Chairman, from amongst themselves. The district collector and other government officials provide guidance and help for formation and implementation of development schemes and programmes. Thus, the panchayat system in India assumes a very significant role because nearly 80% of its population lives in villages, spread over about 95% of its geographical area. This system is quite rational, practicable and in perfect harmony with the spirit of democracy and should be further strengthened and encouraged. It should be made economically viable and self-sufficient by providing adequate resources, funds and generous grants. The reservation of seats for women, scheduled castes and tribes in panchayats is a welcome step, for it would make the institution of panchayat more democratic, representative and balanced. The panchayat elections are conducted and supervised by the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections.
All these measures ensure a bright and long lasting future of panchayat system in India.