The institution of Panchayati Raj is not new to India. It existed since earliest times. We get ample references about the Panchayats in Manusmriti, Arthasastra and the Mahabharata. During the Muslim rule also the system continued to operate unobstructed.
With the assumption of power by the British and the adoption of policy of centralization, the Panchayats suffered a temporary setback. But soon the British realised the value of this institution and the Decentralization Commission recommended in its report in 1907.
“In ignoring the village as the primary unit of local self- government, the government made the beginning with a false step. This scany success hitherto made to introduce a system of rural self-government, is largely due to the fact that we have not built from the bottom and hence it is most desirable to constitute and develop village Panchayats for administration of certain local affairs Dr. with the villages”.
However, the Government of India did not pay any heed to the recommendations of the commission. The outbreak of the First World War gave a further setback to the demand for revival of Panchayats.
With the introduction of the system of Dyarchy under the Montague Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 the responsibility of local self-government institutions was transferred to the ministers. These ministers enacted a set of laws with a view to revive the Panchayati Raj institutions. But paucity of funds stood in the way.
During the 1920′s Mahatma Gandhi made a strong plea for introduction of self-government in the villages with a view to improve their economy. He had pointed out that independence must begin at the bottom. Every village should be a republic or a Panchayat having full Bran powers. The greater the power of Panchayats, the better for the people. However, the British Government did not pay any heed.
It was only in 1937 when the Congress Ministry was formed that attention was paid to the establishment of the Gram Panchayats and their reorganisation. However, before they could achieve anything substantial in this direction, the British declared India as a Party to war without consulting the popular ministries. This resulted in the resignation of the Congress Ministries. These developments gave a severe blow to the movement for revival of Panchayats.
Soon after World War II, the elections to the central and such; provincial legislatures were held and the Congress was returned on the to power. Once again, it paid attention to the issue of revival of Panchayats and passed numerous Acts. When India became independent in 1947 perhaps one-third of the villages of India had traditional Panchayats and their functioning was not up to the mark.
The Congress Government made a determined effort to promote the creation of Panchayats to make them effective units of local government. Article 40 of the Constitution of 1950 declared: “The State shall take steps to organise Village Panchayats and to CON endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary Anal’ to enable them to function as units of Self-government”.
The aim was to foster democratic participation, to involve villagers in the development effort and to ease the administrative burden on the states. The subject of implementation of the Panchayati Raj was com placed in the State List. In the initial years after gaining independence, no efforts were made for the setting up of the Panchayati Raj.
The Community Development Programme was launched in October 1952 to seek people’s participation and involvement in the task of rural reconstruction. The programme failed in its mission without an agency at the village level. The Planning Commission, in the Second Five Year Plan, recommended its review.
In January 1957, a team for the study of Community Projects and National Extension Service, headed by Balwant Rai Mehta, was appointed. The Committee observed “Admittedly, Emai one of the least successful aspects of the C.D. (Community Development) and N.E.S. (National Extension Service) work is its attempts to evoke popular initiative.
We have found that few of the local bodies at a level higher than the Village Panchayat have shown any enthusiasm or interest in their work and even the Panchayats have not come into the field to any appreciable extent.
An attempt has been made to harness local initiative through the formation of adhoc bodies, mostly nominated personnel and invariably advisory in character. These bodies have so far given indication of neither durable strength nor the leadership necessary to provide the motive force for continuing the improvement of economic and social condition in rural areas.
The Committee asserted, “So long as we do not discover create a representative and democratic institution which will supply the local interest, supervision and care necessary to ensure that expenditure of money upon local object conforms with the needs and wishes of the locality, invest it with adequate power and assign to it appropriate finances, we will never be able to evoke local interest and excite local initiative in the field of development.”
The major recommendations of Balwant Rai Mehta Committee on democratic decentralization are as follows:
1. There should be a three-tier structure of local self- government from the village to the district with the village at the bottom and the district at the top with its intermediary link of institutions all organically related to one another;
2. There should be genuine transfer of power and responsibility to these institutions of local government;
3. Adequate resources should be transferred to these bodies to enable them to discharge those responsibilities;
4. All programmes of social and economic development formulated through the network of planning should be channelled through those institutions;
5. The whole system of Panchayati Raj should facilitate further devolution and dispersal of power, responsibilities and resources in the future.
The Committee recommended that while the broad patterns and the fundamentals of the PR institutions might be uniform, there should not be any rigidity in the details of the pattern, in view of the vastness of the country and the complexity of its problems. What really counts is the genuine transfer of power to the people. If this is ensured, the form and pattern could vary according to the conditions prevailing in different states.
The National Development Council affirmed the basic principles underlying democratic decentralisation. In accordance with the recommendations of the Committee, a number of states created three-tier system of rural local self-government institutions, on the pattern of Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, with some modifications.
Some of the states like Maharashtra introduced a system which was drastically different from the system introduced in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Some of the states created only one-tier viz. the Village Panchayats (Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala), while others created a two-tier system (Haryana).
Even in those states which created three-tier system there was difference attached to each of them. Even the level at which the three- tier system operates in different states differs. Despite these differences the basic pattern of the system is largely based on the recommendations of the Mehta Committee.