Panchayati Raj system is, mostly or maybe a refined and accommodated version of the self-rule that existed years ago. The very first evidence of the same comes from the Rigveda dating around 1,700 BC that confirms the existence of sabhas or self-governing village bodies. In 1870, the Mayo Resolution aimed at decentralization of power owing to the Company’s burden to deal with the activities at the lowest rungs and the increasing demands of a division of power from the subjects. The Rippon Resolution of 1882 aimed at enhancing administrative efficiency and political literacy. After the revolt of 1857, due to intense financial pressure and takeover of the Indian administration by the British Crown, the road and public works of other kind were devolved to local bodies or city councils. In 1907, a royal commission on decentralization was initiated on strengthening the local bodies. However, the Montague-Chelmsford reforms followed by the Government of India act of 1935 placed the subject of local bodies under the jurisdiction to be exercised by the provinces and then, different provinces had their own measures in preserving or destroying the same.
In the interim period, Mahatma Gandhi envisioned a highly decentralized polity with extensive political and economic autonomy to the villages. He used the term ‘Gram Swaraj’, envisaging a string of self-sufficient village republics. According to him, the village republics were the only way to meet the basic needs of the people. He envisioned a hierarchy-less and anti-pyramidal structure where life becomes an oceanic circle with the individual at the centre who’s ready to perish for the village. In addition to that, Mahatma Gandhi urged for production activities based on the available local resources.
Gandhian views were considered outside the realm of practical politics and were discarded while framing the constitution. As a concession to the advocates of the village Republics, the Panchayati Raj system was incorporated in part IV of the Constitution of India that dealt with the Directive Principles of State Policy. The state governments were, hence encouraged (and not mandated) to organize Panchayats within the proposed federal structure. The critics of the Village Republics argued that the weakening of the centre would result in unleashing of centrifugal forces that could threaten the very foundation of the new nation that formed after an unprecedented partition and ongoing attempts to integrate the princely states into the Union of India. One such critic was Dr B R Ambedkar who insisted that village republics were the cause of India’s ruin and empowering them would perpetuate the dominance by the upper class. He discarded villages as a ‘sink of localism, den of ignorance and narrow-mindedness’. The Inclusion of Panchayati Raj into the Directive Principles, therefore, can be seen as a compromising attempt among Ambedkarites and Gandhians.
The first phase of the post-independence era witnessed the implementation of various community development programmes (1952) that was reviewed by the Balwant Rai Metha Committee of the Planning Commission of India. The prime reason behind instituting a committee to review the performance of the Community Development Programmes was the lagging in performance of the same owing to its bureaucratic organization. The report remarked:
Community development can only be real when the community understands its problems, realizes its responsibilities, exercises necessary powers through its chosen representatives and maintains constant and intelligent vigilance on local administration.
The committee report further argues that the programmes thus initiated would be effective only if there’s an agency at the village level representing the entire community, assume certain responsibilities and offer leadership for implementing developmental programmes. The study team led by Balwant Rai Metha also recommended the three-tier structure of the Panchayati Raj system.
In 1957, Panchayati Raj was inaugurated by Nehru in a district in Rajasthan that declined after five years. The Rajasthan experiment mirrored the fact that the Panchayats were riddled with group rivalry and factionalism and ensured that the entrenched elite groups remain in power. Also, attention was diverted to the most urgent problems from droughts and food crisis to the Indi-China war. From 1962, the Panchayats declined further. The failure of Community Development Programmes joined hands with a sharp cut in financial supply for meeting the needs of food security and war. The period from 1964 to 1980 also witnessed neglect to the Panchayats. Elections were postponed and the local leaders linked themselves with the state parties for providing vote banks. The Panchayats were left with little responsibility for planning and few powers to raise resources. On the other hand, the Government used its bureaucratic machinery to carry out various Centrally Sponsored Schemes (Small Farmers Development Agency, Drought Prone Area Programme and Tribal Development Programmes are some examples of Centrally Sponsored Schemes) and poverty alleviation programmes. The poverty alleviation programmes that gained considerable momentum during the fifth five year plan period were implemented at the local level by the state and the district administration.
The second phase of the post-independent era started with the end of one-party dominance at the centre. The Janata party rule of 1977 witnessed political coalitions represented by regional parties. The five-year plan of 1978-83 aimed at progressive decentralization supplemented by the creation of full-time planning machinery at block and district levels. In 1978, Ashok Metha Committee was instituted for further recommendations for decentralization. The committee proposed a system with districts as the unit of administration and planning. They modified the three-tier system by removing the intermediate tier. Also, they urged for the functioning of political parties at the district level. The then governments of West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh responded politically to the decentralization attempts made at the centre. They started organizing panchayat samitis and started resuming the elections that were put off. Also, they devolved some powers to the Panchayats. The over-enthusiasm exhibited by West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh were politically motivated owing to the constant threat from the centre. The congress governments of both the states feared dismissal by the Janata government at the centre. On the other hand, Karnataka attempted to make the district level the third tier of the federal system but this idea was short-lived as the party which proposed the same lost the subsequent elections. The 1977 coalition, ipso facto stopped at demands for decentralization at the district level and was reluctant to decentralize further.
In 1982, the Planning Commission released a Working Group Report on District Planning followed by the institution of the GVK Rao committee. The committee recommended that the Panchayati Raj institutions shall be re-activated and supported supplemented by a Block development office that was to be central to rural development. In 1986, the L M Shingvi committee was instituted that recommended the constitutional recognition of the Panchayati Raj Institutions.
The third phase of the post-independent era witnessed the beginning of coalition politics. In 1989, the 64th Amendment Bill to the Constitution of India was drafted. The bill accepted the proposed three-tier structure and attempted to confer constitutional recognition to the Panchayati Raj Institutions. However, the proposed amendment was defeated in the Rajya Sabha that saw the bill as the centre’s attempt to directly intervene at the local level, bypassing the states, through the Centrally Sponsored Schemes. They perceived it as an encroachment on the rights of the State to legislate on the matters of the Panchayats.
Finally, the 73rd and 74th amendment of 1993 awarded constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj institution. The Act made it mandatory for each state to constitute local bodies according to the three-tier structure. The 11th and the 12th schedule of the Constitution of India enumerated the subjects of responsibilities to be devolved to the Panchayati Raj institutions as legislated by the states. Furthermore, in 1996, the Panchayati Extension to Scheduled Areas Act of 1996 was passed to institute Panchayati Raj Institutions in the areas covered in the 5th schedule.