The concept of Panchayati Raj is nothing new. It was the dream of Gandhi, the father of the nation, its need was stressed by Pandit Nehru, and it was repeatedly and forcefully advocated by Late Shri Jai Prakash Narayan. But, unfortunately, for various reasons, not much headway could be made for the realization of this ideal. Ever since Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi came to the helm of affairs in the country he repeatedly stressed the importance of Panchayati Raj. He formed his views on the subject by under-taking whirlwind tours of rural India to familiarize himself with the realities of rural life, by holding frequent workshops of District magistrates all over the country, and thus assessing their views and understanding their difficulties.
As a result of this interaction with the people and the administrators, his views on Panchayati Raj gradually evolved, his thoughts ware clarified and he could from his own plan of Panchayati Raj and place it before the parliament with perfect self-confidence and case. He also sought to give it constitutional sanction by proposing to add a fresh chapter to the Indian constitution in the form of the 64th amendment, through the Bill which he moved in the parliament on the 15th of May, 1989. As a result of his clarity of thought and powerful advocacy, the bill was passed with near unanimity, with only five M.P.’s voting against it.
Late Shri Gandhi forcefully and clearly unfolded the concept of Panchayati Raj, the urgent need of constitutional sanction for it, and the salient features of his scheme for making it a reality. He pointed out that Panchayati Raj means taking democracy to the gross roots, it means transfer of power, in the real sense of the word, to the people living even in remote villages and bringing even the weakest sections of society into the national mainstream. He told the honorable members of parliament that, “Democracy was the greatest gift of our freedom struggle to the people of India. Independence made the nation free. Democracy made our people free. A free people are a people who are governed by their will and ruled with their consent. A free people are a people who participate in decisions affecting their lives and their destinies”. Gandhiji believed that democratic freedoms have to be founded in institutions of self-government in every village of India. He drew his inspiration and his vision from the Panchayats, the traditional ‘village republics’ of India. Panditji established the institution of Panchayati Raj as the primary instrument for bringing development to the doorstep of rural India. Indiraji stressed the need for the people’s participation in the processes of economic and social transformation.”
Yet, there can be no denying the fact that in most parts of the country, elections to the Panchayats have been irregular. The Bill seeks to put an end to such delays and difficulties. The essence of democracy is elections. But elections to Panchayati Raj institutions have been most irregular and uncertain.
A mandatory provision in the constitution is therefore necessary. A statutory provision in the state law does not quite have the same sanctity. The Bill provides for regular periodic elections of Panchayati Raj institutions. In the absence of any compelling provision to reconstitute Panchayats within a reasonable period of time, by democratic elections, suspended Panchayats have remained suspended for years and dissolved Panchayats have remained dissolved for up to a decade or even more. Their existence has depended less on the mandate of the people then on the whim of state Governments.
The bill leaves it to the state to determine the grounds and conditions on which Panchayats may be suspended or dissolved. The state Legislatures are to specify the grounds on which the Governor may suspend or dissolve a Panchayat. That is a matter for the Governor, acting in accordance with the constitution on the advice of the state Government. But dissolved Panchayats must be reconstituted within a reasonable period of time. It is the people who will determine, within a matter of months, the shape of the reconstituted Panchayat. The Bill will ensure that Panchayati Raj has a democratic character similar to the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies and Constitutional protection for their functioning as representative institutions of the people.
“The single greatest event in the evolution of democracy in India was the enactment of the Constitution which established democracy in Parliament and in the state Legislature. The historic, revolutionary Panchayati Raj Bill takes the place alongside that great event as the enshrinement in the constitution of democracy at the grassroots”. Once democracy is accorded to the Panchayats the same sanctity as is enjoyed by parliament and the state Legislature, the doors will be opened for the participation in democratic institution to about seven lakh elected representatives.
In this way the power-broker, the middlemen, the vested interests will be eliminated. For the minutest municipal function the people have to run around finding persons with the right connections who would intercede for them with the distant source of power. The system has been captured by the power-brokers who have established their vice-like grip on it, only because democracy has not functioned at the grass-roots. Once the people have their own elected representatives from electorates as small as a hundred persons, the source of power will lie only as far away as the Panchayat Ghar, not in some distant state capital or even the more distant capital of the country. There will be direct elections to Panchayats at all levels. Every voter will have his own representative in the Gram Panchayat, the mid-level Panchayat. The representative will be responsible to small and recognized electorate. It they fulfill the mandate of the people the re-elected; otherwise the people will throw them out of office, power of the vote.
In establishing the institutions of democracy in Parliament and in the state Legislature, our founding fathers gave particular recognition to the disabilities suffered by the Scheduled Castes and tribes. Provision was made for the reservation of seats for the total electorate. This is a principle which has not been incorporated in most of the Panchayati Raj legislations enacted by the state Legislatures. The democratic rights of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes cannot be secured by good intentions alone. It has to be secured in the first instance, by reservation in Panchayati Raj Institutions on the same basis as reservations are given in the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies. The Bill makes it mandatory for the state legislatures to ensure reservation for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population in the relevant Panchayat area. Also, there will be reservations in Panchayats at all levels of 30% of the seats for women. The presence of women in large numbers in the Panchayats will not only make the Panchayats more representative but will also make them more efficient, honest, disciplined and responsible. It is the strength of moral character which women will bring to the Panchayats.
The Panchayats will have the power and authority to draw of plans within the framework of guidelines and conditions to be laid draw by the state Government. These plans will constitute the basic inputs for the planning process of higher levels. This will ensure that the voice of the people, their needs, their aspirations, their priorities become the building blocks of the edifice of planning. The second major responsibility of the Panchayats will be the implementation of development schemes assigned to them by the state Governments. These schemes should cover the major economic concerns of rural India, commencing with agriculture and land improvement and going on to irrigation. They must comprise the diversification of the rural economy into animal husbandry, dairying, poultry and fisheries. They must incorporate industrial activity in rural India. They must look to the day-to-day concerns of rural India, housing, drinking water, fuel and fodder.
The panchayats will also have the major responsibility for the administration of poverty-alleviation programmes. They would have to look to the education and culture, to health and family welfare, and to women and child development. Social welfare programmes for the weaker and handicapped sections would be the responsibility of the Panchayats. It is also proposed to give to the Panchayats the responsibility for the public distribution system which is so crucial to the survival of the weakest and the poorest, as also to the general health of the rural economy.
In this way development will be taken to the grassroots in rural India. The same concern must be extended to the growing urban and semi-urban population of the country. To this end, a new chapter has been added to the constitution. Urban Municipalities and corporations have been brought within the two major questions have been raised repeatedly. Most reservations become a parliament feature of the Indian economic, educational and political scene? Must social disability, with the attached stigma of being a Harijan and hence being disallowed to enter the places of worship etc. continue for all times, privileges as their counterpart in the rural areas? Efforts have also been made to recast revamp and rejuvenate the cooperative movement, which Pundit Nehru always regarded as the essential compliment to Panchayati Raj.
Our democracy has reached the stage where the full participation of the people brooks no further delay. Those who decry Panchayati Raj as an election stunt are only those whose feudal interest will be overthrown by the power reaching the people. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said, “We trust the people. We have faith in the people. It is the people who must determine their own destinies and the destiny of the nation. To the people of India let us ensure maximum democracy and maximum devolution of power. Let there be an end to the power-brokers. Let us give power to the people.