The Preamble to our Constitution speaks of ‘We. the people of India……
Hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution’.
The transfer of power from the hands of the British masters took place on 15 August 1947. The Constitution was adopted on 26 November 1949. With its commencement on 26 January 1950, the Sovereign Democratic Republic of India was born. On that day, if not earlier, power was supposed to have come to the people. From being subjects of a foreign power, they were supposed to have become citizens of a free country. But the very fact that even after sixty years scholars keep talking of transfer of power to the people is proof enough that all these years power has been in the illegitimate hands of some usurpers. It has still to reach the people where it really belongs. The ordinary Indian in his hut and hamlet still has to feel the glow of freedom or the transfer of power to his hands. Masters have changed but the colonial model of rhe rulers and the ‘subjects’ continues. In a genuine democracy, the ordinary people should be respected as the real masters and all the administrators, legislators, ministers and judges should regard themselves as their servants.
The philosophy, motivation and historical evolution of the Panchayati Raj institutions as also the structural-functional parameters and nuts and bolts of the entire machinery in operation need to be studied in depth and widely debated, not only in the academia or among professional seminarians but by the people at large. The ethos of democracy can find real nourishment only when power reaches the grassroots level. For the ordinary citizen, it is local democracy which can have real meaning and significance. In a vast country where large masses are still unlettered, village panchayats and participative democracy can d o wonders. If the aim is to establish a democratic society, where change is brought about by voluntary consent and willing cooperation and not by the force of arms, there may be no alternative to Panchayati Raj or Local Self Government institutions. In that sense, the most revolutionary measures in recent decades have been the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments.With 3.5 million elected rulers today-over a million of them women-Indian democracy could become a unique model for the rest of the world.
While Panchayath Raj was always close to the hearts of Indians, the British rulers for the first time thought of reversing the trend of centralisation only in 1882 when the Government of Lord Rippon issued a resolution proposing steps in the direction of local self-government. It was deemed desirable not for providing better government but as ‘an instrument of political and popular education’.
The resolution called upon the provincial governments to establish a network of local boards charged with definite duties and entrusted with definite funds throughout the country. These boards were to have preponderance of non-official members chosen by election wherever possible. The control exercised by provincial governments was to be only from outside and only supervisory. The Collector was no longer to be the ex officio chairman of the Board. But, despite the very progressive and comprehensive nature of these Rippon reform proposals, precious little was done in the matter of implementation. The local boards continued to be wholly nominated. The Collectors continued to be ex officio Presidents. The boards practically became sort of departments of government administration subject to excessive outside control.
The Decentralization Commission which reported in 1909 made some far reaching suggestions to remove some of the defects in the working of local boards. In 1915, a government resolution endorsed the Commission proposals. But, again no concrete steps in the matter were taken by the provincial governments and in practice the status quo ante continued.
Following the Montagu declaration of 1917 regarding introduction of responsible government in gradual stages beginning with the local bodies, a resolution was issued by the Government of India in 1918 and, under the scheme of provincial dyarchy, by 1919, rural self-government was put under the charge of the Indian ministers. Some progress was made. Besides Municipal and Local Boards Acts, laws were also passed in almost all the provinces to introduce panchayats in villages. The whole purpose of improving local government under the British was, however still the need for ‘improved finance and a higher standard of administration’ and not self-government.
“In the case of the villages, the official policy in the inter-war period had generally been described as one of rural uplift, a policy to which the states adhered, the Punjab as early as 1923 and other states by the 1930s. Village development schemes were officially sponsored and small grants were made available to the villages on condition that the local community matched these with equal sums in contributions. Some of these schemes were outstandingly successful, but the number of villages affected was probably less than 10 per cent and the general impact upon the rural life was small.” There was thus no uniform pattern of local self-government in the country.
Under the Government of India Act, 1935 Provincial Autonomy started functioning in the provinces from April 1937. Congress Governments took office in eight of the 11 provinces. Considerable progress in the direction of Panchayath Raj was made during the period of the Congress rule. Specially because of the Gandhian influence and direction, constitution of village panchayats had become as important item in the programme of the Congress.
According to the January 1948 Plan of Gandhiji, each village panchayat would constitute a working party with an elected leader; 50 such leaders would elect a second grade leader who would coordinate their efforts and who would also be available for national service.
Second-grade leaders could elect a national chief to “regulate and command all the groups”. Above the village panchayat came the hierarchy of indirectly elected bodies-taluka and district panchayats each of which comprised of the sarpanchs of the next lower panchayats.
Members from the district and municipal panchayats would make up the provincial panchayat. Presidents of provincial panchayats would comprise the All India Panchayat whose president will also be the Head of the State and of the Government. Among the responsibilities of the provincial panchayats would be transport, irrigation, natural resources and cooperative banks. The national panchayat would be responsible for defence, currency, customs, running of key industries of national importance and the coordination of provincial economic development plans.