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Panchayati Raj System in India: An Overview

17 min read

By: Arryan Mohanty

Published on: May 22, 2022 at 16:57 IST

Introduction

What was Abram Lincoln’s take on democracy? It is a government “Of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as the phrase goes.

Every person in a democracy should be included in this system, from educated professionals in metropolitan areas to illiterate farmers in rural areas. Each person should be able to vote for his or her own representatives from that area, who would oversee the matters with their knowledge.

The central government is unable to monitor the operations of all of the country’s smallest units.

As a result, one of the most important characteristics of a good representative democracy is the percolation of self-rule to the grassroots level, which leads to more effective decision-making and more accountability.

With this in mind, our Constitution calls for the establishment of panchayats, municipalities, and cooperative societies to oversee the affairs of India’s villages and cities. Panchayati Raj is a three-tiered Indian administrative organization for rural development.

The Panchayati Raj is a system of local self-government in India that aims to establish local self-government in districts, zones, and villages.

Rural development is one of Panchayati Raj’s key goals, and it has been implemented in all Indian states save Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, as well as all Union Territories except Delhi and a few other places. These areas include:

  1. The scheduled areas and tribal areas in the states.
  2. Manipur’s hill area, which has a district council.
  3. Darjeeling, West Bengal, which has the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

The Legislature, on the other hand, has the option of extending Part IX to some of the above exceptions. According to the Constitution, the Parliament has the authority to extend the laws of Part IX to the Scheduled Areas indicated in above.

Part IX may also be extended to Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram by respective legislatures (except the Scheduled and tribal areas).

Scheduled Communities were exempted from Part IX because these mostly tribal areas frequently had their own governance practices or had been given with other specific systems for their advantage.

However, the tribes became increasingly vulnerable, and many of their forests, minerals, rivers, and other natural resources were lost to development projects. As a result, they needed a well-established self-governance framework.

Evolution of Panchayati-Raj

In India, the Panchayati Raj system is not just a post-independence phenomena. For generations, the village panchayat has been the primary political entity in rural India.

Panchayats were traditionally elected councils having executive and judicial authority in ancient India. The prominence of village panchayats had been eroded by foreign dominance, particularly Mughal and British, as well as natural and forced socio-economic developments.

However, prior to independence, the panchayats served as vehicles for the upper castes’ rule over the rest of the village, furthering the gap based on socioeconomic position or caste hierarchy. The Panchayati Raj System, on the other hand, received a boost following independence and the writing of the Constitution.

“The state shall take steps to organize village panchayats and invest them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to allow them to function as units of self-government,” the Indian Constitution stated in Article 40.

The Indian government set up a number of committees to look into the implementation of self-governance in rural areas and make recommendations on how to get there.

The following committees have been formed:

  • Balwant Rai Mehta Committee
  • Ashok Mehta Committee
  • G V K Rao Committee
  • L M Singhvi Committee

Balwant Rai Mehta Committee was constituted in 1957 to study and recommend improvements to the Community Development Program and the National Extension Service. The committee recommended that a democratic decentralised local government be established, which became known as the Panchayati Raj.

The committee recommended that:

  • Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti, and Zila Parishad are the three levels of the Panchayati Raj system.
  • The gramme panchayat is made up of directly elected representatives, while the Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad are made up of indirectly elected representatives.
  • The Panchayati Raj system’s core goals are planning and development.
  • The executive body should be the Panchayat Samiti, while the advisory and supervisory body should be the Zila Parishad.
  • The chairperson of the Zila Parishad will be the District Collector.
  • It also asked for resources to assist them in carrying out their tasks and responsibilities.

The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee revitalized panchayat development in the country, recommending that Panchayati Raj institutions may play a significant role in community development programmes across the country.

The Panchayats’ goal was thus to achieve democratic decentralization through effective engagement of locals through well-planned programmes.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s then-Prime Minister, backed the panchayat system, saying, “…Authority and responsibility must be entrusted to the people in the villages…. Let’s give the panchayats more power.”

Ashok Mehta Committee was appointed in 1977 to propose solutions to resuscitate and enhance India’s ailing Panchayati Raj system.

The committee recommended that the three-tier system be replaced with a two-tier structure, with the Zila Parishad (district level) and Mandal Panchayat (local government) (a group of villages).

As per the recommendations, after the state level, the district level is the first level of supervision. The committee also recommended that at the district level, the Zila Parishad should be the executive body in charge of planning.

To mobilise their own financial resources, the institutions (Zila Parishad and Mandal Panchayat) should have obligatory taxing powers. G V K Rao Committee was appointed by the planning commission in 1985.

It acknowledged that due to bureaucratization, development was not visible at the grassroot level, resulting in Panchayat Raj institutions being referred to as “grass without roots.”

Therefore, it made the following significant recommendations:

  1. In the plan of democratic decentralization, the Zila Parishad is the most important body. The Zila Parishad will be the primary body in charge of district-level development programmes.
  2. Specific planning, implementation, and monitoring of rural development programmes to be assigned to the district and lower levels of the Panchayati Raj system.
  3. The creation of a post of District Development Commissioner. He will be the Zila Parishad’s chief executive officer.
  4. Elections to Panchayati Raj levels should be held on a regular basis.

L M Singhvi Committee was appointed by the Indian government in 1986 with the goal of recommending methods to revitalize the Panchayati Raj systems for democracy and development.

The committee made the following recommendations:

  • The committee proposed that the Panchayati Raj systems be recognized by the Constitution. It also proposed that the Panchayati Raj systems include constitutional provisions that recognises free and fair elections.
  • The committee suggested that villages be reorganized to make the gramme panchayat more sustainable.
  • It was suggested that local panchayats be given more funds to support their work.
  • In each state, judicial tribunals will be established to hear cases involving elections to Panchayati Raj institutions and other issues connected to their operation.

All of these committees supports the argument that panchayats can be very effective in identifying and solving local problems, involving the people in the villages in developmental activities, improving communication between different levels of government, developing leadership skills, and, in short, assisting the states’ basic development without requiring too many structural changes.

In 1959, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh became the first states to implement Panchayati raj, with additional states following suit subsequently. While each state has its own characteristics, there are some that are shared by all.

In most states, for example, a three-tier system has been established, with panchayats at the village level, panchayat samitis at the block level, and zila parishads at the district level.

The Parliament passed two amendments to the Constitution – the 73rd Constitution Amendment for rural local bodies (panchayats) and the 74th Constitution Amendment for urban local bodies (municipalities) – making them ‘institutions of self-government’ as a result of the sustained efforts of civil society organisations, intellectuals, and progressive political leaders.

Within a year, every state had passed legislation in accordance with the new constitutional requirements. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, also known as PESA, was the law that allowed Scheduled Areas to be exempt from the 73rd Amendment.

Ten of the fifteen states with Scheduled Areas have implemented the self-governance system. However, in the case of Union of India v. Rakesh Kumar, PESA was challenged.

Provision of Panchayati-Raj System in Constitution

In order to develop democratic institutions at the grass-roots level, the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992 was enacted to strengthen the panchayat system in villages.

The overall goal is to transform panchayats into thriving units of self-government and local administration in rural areas, allowing them to serve the teeming millions of people who live there. The Amendment is historically significant because it aims to promote strong, effective municipal government.

It is envisaged that as a result, rural development programmes will be implemented more quickly. The panchayat system was based solely on state legislation until the introduction of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, and its operation was erratic. The Constitutional Amendment aims to enhance the system by ensuring that it is protected by the law.

Significance of the Act

  • The Act adds Part IX, “The Panchayats,” to the Constitution, as well as the Eleventh Schedule, which contains the panchayats’ 29 functional items.
  • Part IX of the Constitution contains Article 243 to Article 243 O.
  • Article 40 of the Constitution (directive principles of state policy), which requires the state to organize village panchayats and provide them with powers and authority so that they can act as self-government, is given shape by the Amendment Act.
  • Panchayati Raj systems are now covered under the justiciable part of the Constitution, which requires governments to adopt the system. In addition, elections in Panchayati Raj institutions will be held independently of the state government’s wishes.
  • The Act is split into two categories: mandatory and voluntary. State legislation must incorporate mandatory elements, including the development of new Panchayati Raj systems. The state government, on the other hand, has discretion over voluntary provisions.
  • The Act is a significant step forward in the country’s efforts to establish democratic institutions at the grassroots level. Representative democracy has been replaced by participatory democracy as a result of the Act.

Gram Sabha

The Gram Sabha is the Panchayati system’s most fundamental unit. Article 243(b) of the Constitution defines it as “the body of all persons registered on a village’s electoral rolls.”

The electorate is represented by this permanent body. All other entities, including as the Gram Panchayat, Zilla Parishad, and others, are chosen by the Gram Sabha. Furthermore, the Gram Sabha serves as a place for individuals to address governance and development issues.

Gram Sabha is thus the most important and fundamental element of the local self-government system. However, as stated in Article 243A, the scope of its functions is determined by the policy of the state in which the village is located.

A Gram Sabha’s membership is limited to those over the age of 18 who live in the village. This is done so that the best judgments may be taken that are in the best interests of the community.

Constitution of Panchayats

Panchayat‘ is defined as an institution of self-government in rural areas under Article 243(d) of the Indian Constitution.

The construction of a three-tier Panchayati system is provided for in Article 243B:

  • At the village level i.e., Gram Panchayat
  • At the intermediate level i.e., Panchayat Samiti
  • At the district level i.e., Zila Parishad

Intermediate-level panchayats, on the other hand, are only found in states with populations over 20,000.

Gram Panchayat

In the panchayat pyramid structure, the gram panchayat is the lowest level. Each ward in a hamlet is divided into even smaller entities known as wards, each of which elects its own representative.

Ward members, also known as the Panch, are members of the Panch. The Sarpanch, the head of the Gram Panchayat, is also elected by the Gram Sabha. As a result, the Gram Panchayat is made up of the Sarpanch and the Panch.

The Gram Panchayat’s key responsibilities include social issues, the construction and maintenance of schools, roads and drainage systems, and the levying and collection of local taxes.

The Gram Panchayat is responsible to the Gram Sabha, the village’s general group of voters, as well as the two levels of authority above it in the hierarchy.

Panchayat Samiti

The Panchayat Samiti is the next level in the hierarchy of the Panchayat–Raj system. It supervises the work of all of the Gram Panchayats in the villages that fall under its jurisdiction. The Pradhan is in charge of the Panchayat Samiti.

He or she is chosen by a body that includes all members of the Panchayat Samiti as well as all Panchs of the Gram Panchayats that fall under its jurisdiction.

Zila Parishad

This is the highest level of panchayat in the rural self-government structure, also known as District Panchayat. It supervises the operations of all of the Panchayat Samitis in the district under its jurisdiction, as well as all of the Gram Panchayats that fall under them.

It also oversees the distribution of funding across all Gram Panchayats. It is in charge of developing district-level development plans. The Chairman is in charge of the Zila Parishad. It also has a member that is elected by the State government: the Chief Executive Officer.

Composition of Panchayats

All members of the panchayat hierarchy’s three levels are elected by the eligible voters in the area. The state, on the other hand, can make provisions for Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) or other authorities to be represented in the panchayat.

Under Article 243C of the Constitution, the Drafters have taken care of the norms governing the composition of the panchayats. In a single state, a huge number of panchayats are formed.

The ratio of population and territory under one panchayat to the number of seats in that panchayat should be the same throughout the state. For the sake of conducting elections, each territory with a single panchayat is divided into constituencies.

It would also be ideal if the population of each constituency and the number of seats awarded to it were the same across the panchayat region.

Disqualification of Members

In certain circumstances, a person’s membership in the panchayat might be revoked.

This can happen if the person has been disqualified from participation in the Union or State Legislature for whatever reason, or if he has been specifically disqualified from membership in the panchayat by any law, according to Article 243F of the Constitution.

If a doubt arises about a person’s membership being disqualified, it will be resolved by the authority and process determined by the Legislature.

In the case of Bhanumati Etc. vs State of Uttar Pradesh, where under the U.P. Panchayat Laws (Amendment) Act, 2007, a no-confidence resolution was passed against the Chairman of a Zila Parishad.

She argued that because no provision for a no-confidence motion was included in the Constitution, it could not be presented under the statute. The appeal was dismissed by the court, which stated that the Constitution gives the state the authority to establish precise election and membership regulations.

So, the motion of no confidence was upheld. Thus, this case illustrates how a person’s participation in a Zila Parishad was threatened with disqualification under existing State legislation, and how the court upheld that motion.

Reservation of seats in Panchayats

The framers of our Constitution were well aware of the reality of widespread prejudice in India at the time of independence, which has sadly not abated even today. Keeping that in mind, they made special provisions for the representation of marginalized communities in the local self-government too.

This was done to ensure that women, members of oppressed castes, and others in rural areas could have their voices heard as well. The Indian Constitution’s Article 243D provides for the reservation of seats in panchayats for specific communities. According to the provisions of the Article:

  1. In the panchayat, seats should be reserved for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the same proportion as their population to the village’s total population.
  2. Women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should be given at least one-third of the above-mentioned seats.
  3. Women should have at least one-third of the total seats in the panchayat (including the seats reserved under Clause 2).

Duration of Panchayats

Article 243E of the Constitution specifies the period of a panchayat’s functioning. It specifies that unless dissolved earlier by law, every panchayat shall continue to exist for a term of five years. It further states that elections to panchayats must be completed before the expiration or dissolution of the panchayat.

Powers, Authority and Responsibility of Panchayats

Panchayats have the authority to draught plans and programmes for the village’s economic development and social justice promotion. They are in charge of developing practical and well-thought-out programmes that will enable the villages’ interests to be furthered

. The State, according to Article 243G, decides the particular scope and degree of the panchayat’s powers in the foregoing subjects.

The following are some of the key functions of a panchayat:

  1. Providing basic services such as sanitation and medical support, as well as schools, irrigation, roads, and drinking water.
  2. Developing annual development plans for the area, including strategies for more scientific agriculture, job creation, and so on.
  3. Creating an annual budget and overseeing the district’s finances.
  4. Putting into action and coordinating government-sponsored programmes, such as the Public Distribution System.

Powers to impose Taxes and Funds of Panchayats

Clearly, a panchayat has a lot of responsibilities. And, as we all know, nothing in this world is free; we need money to do anything. So, where do the panchayats’ monetary resources come from?

On our earnings and expenses, we all pay taxes to the government. The government can use this as a source of money. The panchayats receive a portion of these revenues. Panchayats, like the government, collect their own taxes, tolls, and fees from the public to keep their machinery working efficiently.

According to Article 243H, the State has the authority to:

  • Provide the panchayat the authority to charge taxes, tolls, and fees.
  • Assign some of the money collected by the panchayat in a similar manner to the panchayat.
  • Lend the panchayat money or set up a fund for it.

Finance Commission

The Constitution provides for the appointment of a Finance Commission by the Governor under Article 243I to make the process of mobilizing finances for the panchayats easier.

The following are the provisions of the Article:

  1. The Finance Commission appointed by the Governor would examine the panchayat’s financial situation and provide suggestions on two issues: how to allocate money between the state and the panchayat, and how to improve the latter’s financial situation.
  2. The composition of the Commission, as well as the qualifications of its members and the powers it would wield, would be determined by the Legislature.
  3. The Governor must inform the state of all of the Commission’s recommendations, as well as the steps that must be taken to put them into effect.

Audit of Accounts of Panchayats

According to Article 243J of the Indian Constitution, state governments have the authority to decide who would audit panchayat accounts and what method will be followed in their own states.

Election to the Panchayats

Article 243K of the Indian Constitution establishes the right to vote in panchayat elections. The State Election Commissions are to conduct and manage the Panchayat elections, according to the law. Hence, election rules differ from state to state.

Application of Part-IX to Union Territories

The Constitution says that the provisions concerning panchayats apply to Union Territories in the same way that they apply to states, but the President may modify this provision by public notification.

Continuance of existing laws and Panchayats: Article 243N

There were laws and provisions relating to Panchayats in several states even before the implementation of the 73rd Amendment in 1992.

As a result, Article 243N states that such laws and provisions will remain in effect even if they are in conflict with Part IX of the Constitution unless specifically repealed or altered by a competent Legislature or other responsible authority.

In the case of Usha Bharati v. State of Uttar Pradesh, where the Adhyaksh (Chairperson) of the Zila Parishad of Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, was the appellant.

A motion of no confidence was carried against her by the villagers almost two years after her election, signed by 37 members, to force her departure. As per the provisions of Section 28 of the U.P. Kshetra Panchayat & Zila Panchayat Act, 1961, this was done.

The appellant argued that because no provision for a no-confidence motion in panchayat elections was made in the Constitution, it was unlawful and invalid. The court said that any existing state laws relating to panchayats will remain in effect unless repealed or altered under Article 243N.

It did not violate Part IX of the Constitution because the provision for a no-confidence motion in the U.P. Act had not been repealed and had instead been confirmed in other judgements since then.

It further stated that the Constitution permitted the state to enact legislation governing the election of panchayat chairpersons, and that the no-confidence motion in the state was consequently supported.

Courts to not interfere in electoral matters

Article 243O of the Constitution prohibits courts from meddling in panchayat matters such as delimitation or seat allocation. Courts do not have authority over panchayat elections.

This means that if a dispute arises during the election process, the court will not be able to intervene. Elections in a panchayat can only be challenged through an election petition filed with the State government’s designated body.

The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996

The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, also known as PESA, was the law that allowed Scheduled Areas to be exempt from the 73rd Amendment. Ten of the fifteen states with Scheduled Areas have implemented the self-governance system.

The provisions of Part IX do not apply to the places listed in the Fifth Schedule. The Parliament has the authority to extend this Part to such areas as it sees fit, subject to any modifications and exceptions it deems necessary.

Parliament enacted the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, often known as the PESA Act or the extension act, to implement these laws.

The main objectives of the PESA Act, 1996 are as follows:

  • To extend Part IX’s provisions to the designated regions.
  • To give the tribal inhabitants self-rule.
  • To have participatory democracy in village governance.
  • To develop participatory governance in accordance with traditional methods.
  • To protect and preserve the tribal population’s traditions and customs.
  • To provide panchayats the authority they need to meet tribal needs.
  • To prevent higher-level panchayats from absorbing the powers and authority of lower-level panchayats.

However, the case of Union of India v. Rakesh Kumar challenged the validity of the Act. Section 4(g) of the Act allows for the reservation of seats in panchayats for Scheduled Tribes members. It further stated that only a member of the Scheduled Tribes would be elected as Chairman in panchayats in Scheduled Areas.

Reservations in Scheduled Areas panchayats in Jharkhand were supposed to be proportionate to the rest of the population and may go up to 80%. In this case, these requirements were challenged.

The claim was that the reservations were excessive because they exceeded the 50 percent reservation ceiling established in Indira Sawhney v. Union of India (1992) and M.R. Balaji v. State of Mysore (1963), and that they violated Article 14 of the Constitution.

The court ruled that these reservations were essential in order to assist Scheduled tribes. Because reservations were meant to be proportional, the government in Jharkhand had commitments to Scheduled tribes that went beyond the 50 percent cap.

However, the 80 percent reservation requirement was merely a guideline; it was not essential to occupy all of the seats.

Conclusion

India has progressed toward what has been called as “Multi-level federalism” as a result of these constitutional moves taken by the union and state governments, and more importantly, it has broadened the democratic base of the Indian polity.

Prior to the modifications, the Indian democratic framework was limited to the two houses of Parliament, state assemblies, and select union territories through elected representatives. The system has taken governance and issue redress to the country’s grassroots levels, although there are still problems.

If these challenges are addressed, they will go a long way toward building an environment that respects some of the most basic human rights. Following the establishment of the new generation of panchayats, a number of issues relating to human rights have surfaced.

The nature of Indian society, which, of course, influences the form of the state, has had a significant role in the human rights situation in relation to the panchayat system. Inequality, social hierarchy, and the rich-poor split are all well-known features of Indian society.

The caste system, which is unique to India, is responsible for the social hierarchy. As a result, caste and class are the two aspects that should be considered in this context. Hence, the local governance system has challenged long-standing hierarchical traditions in rural sections of the country, particularly those relating to caste, religion, and gender discrimination.

Edited by: Tanvee Jain, Publisher, Law Insider

References

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