The soul of India lies in her villages
As per the 2011 census data, Indian demography constitutes 68.84% of rural distribution. Understandably, the figure was much higher at the dawn of the Independence era, when a newborn country was slowly warming up to the concept of democracy.
At the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi declared, “This is not India. You people are seeing Delhi. This is not India. Go to villages; that is India. Therein lies the soul of India,” – wrote R.V. Jather in his book Evolution of Panchayati Raj In India. His statement holds true for India since the times of ancient kings and mythical folklore, where decentralised administration featured heavily.
Local governance during the colonial regime
In the pre-independence times, the British have time and again tried to adopt decentralisation models to properly administer India from the grassroots level. Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the precursive strongholds of the East India Company witnessed the introduction of a municipal administration in 1793, which evolved in policy and structure over the upcoming two centuries. Villages were under the control of regional monarchy at that time; they did not feature in British governance until 1863. By then, the colonial rule had penetrated the very veins of the country and further decentralisation was an urgent necessity.
The framework of local governance under the British evolved over the next few years, with the focus being shifted down the provincial pyramid, from states to districts to villages. The Government of India Act of 1919 mandated the creation of the Gram Panchayat system in eight major provinces.
During the Second World War, the British administration in India witnessed a chaotic setback, not only due to the rising nationalistic sentiments but also due to the failure of local governance, since village population became a neglected entity at the time of the biggest war in history.
Gandhiji & Ambedkar’s differences over local governance
Mahatma Gandhi, the proprietor of Grama Swaraj, first tabled the idea of self-sustainable village units. “This Panchayat will be Legislature, Judiciary and Executive combined, to operate for its year of office. Any village can become such a republic today without much interference,” he had described.
However, post Independence, when the Constitution was being drafted, somehow the crucial concept of decentralised governance did not find much prominence. In fact, the First Five Year Plan of 1952 completely overlooked the local governments. One reason often cited for this was the ideological differences between Gandhiji and B.R. Ambedkar in this regard. While Gandhiji advocated the importance of local democracy, Ambedkar was concerned about the existent casteism in villages which might hinder equalist legislation.
Balwant Rai Mehta – Father of Panchayati Raj
Balwant Rai Mehta, recognised as the Father of Panchayati Raj, came into the picture in 1957 when the government appointed him as the head of a committee to decide on the structuring of local governments. The Balwant Rai Mehta committee recommended ‘democratic decentralisation’ which paved the way for the establishment of Panchayati Raj much later.
Though the committee’s recommendations were made before 1960, implementation was halted due to an imminent agrarian crisis, political turmoil and two consecutive wars that marked the 1960s decade and the early years of 1970s.
Final recognition in 1993
In 1977, when the Janata Party government assumed power, the Ashok Mehta committee reiterated the need for establishing Panchayati Raj. The consideration was abrupted by a political turnaround. The same happened later as well during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure from 1984 to 1989. The idea was there, but the question of local governance found little attention amid the tumultuous political scenario at the Centre.
Eventually, in 1993, officially Panchayati Raj came into being which segregated local government into three tiers, namely, Gram Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block level and Zilla Parishad at the district level.
Panchayati Raj – evolution over the years
Since then, the attitude of the Central government towards Panchayati Raj can be deemed as quite lukewarm, though there had been occasional adoption of progressive measures like the enactment of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005 under the UPA-I regime. There had been consistent upgradation of the scheme in every financial budget ever since.
Perhaps another great success of the Panchayati Raj is 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) since 2009. Speaking from a grassroots level perspective, the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) constituted by women in Panchayats across India are highly effective in initiating immense socio-economical change.
Success rates differ from state to state
Recently, annual Panchayat awards were introduced in diverse categories to identify the best Panchayats in the country who have spearheaded substantial development. Still, the overall success of the Panchayati Raj in terms of development cannot be coalesced simply in binary terms. In states like Kerala, Panchayati Raj has been instrumental in bringing forth many changes, while states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab or Jharkhand have grossly failed to utilise the local government institutions. At the same time, progress at Panchayati levels has stagnated in the traditional Panchayati Raj States like West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, with some isolated exceptions.
Efforts For Good take
Imagine one of those gigantic machines you find at factories. Outwardly, the fully automated robotic giant might evoke awe, but malfunctioning of a single cog will send the entire mechanism into complete disarray. Such is the significance of the local governance units or Panchayati Raj in the context of Indian administration.
However, the hype around national politics often shifts the average citizens’ attention from development in his own village to certain vague political doctrines which hold little relevance in everyday life. The outlook can be mended only if the Central government pays more attention to the devolution of power and maintains better cognisance of the work done at Panchayat levels.