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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 39 September 23, 2023

India’s Panchayati Raj, First Step for Women’s Equality in Parliament | Narain Dutt

Saturday 23 September 2023


Panchayats have been working as local self-government institutions in India since ancient times. The Panchayati Raj is a political system, found mainly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It is one of the oldest systems of local government in the subcontinent, and its first historical mention is dated to the 250 Christian Eera period. The word raj means ‘rule’ and panchayat means ‘assembly’ (ayat) of five (panch or mukhia) elders. These five were supposed to be respected elders of villages, elected through a process of consensus. In modern India, a series of Panchayati Raj Institutions take the election process of representatives, community leaders, and spokespersons to the grassroot level.

TRADITIONALLY, MUTUAL DISPUTES in the rural areas of the subcontinent were settled through panchayats or village councils. In the past people of the countryside were made to associate divine powers with the panches or village council heads. In due course of time, however, the then-rulers did the work of making the system ineffective by shifting the responsibilities of this system of the village to the headmen or landlords. Then came the colonial period, when the panchayats had to lose their power due to the centralising of administration by the British government. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that Panchayats were not a part of the government during this period. However, their importance remained the same in rural areas.

After independence, efforts were made to re-establish an effective Panchayati Raj system in almost all the States of the Indian Union. The seeds of Panchayati raj originated in Bihar in 1948, when regular elections provided the country with the first model of a decentralised governance system, decades before the Constitutional Amendments established the three-tier panchayat system with regular elections, says the Hindustan Times (Ref). The initiative to set up panchayats was to help develop constructive interest and participation in the minds of the public at the village level, aimed at rural reconstruction as well as development of India.

With this objective in mind, on 2 October 1952, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, the Community Development Programme was inaugurated with financial support from the Ford Foundation (USA). Later that year, the then-newly appointed American Ambassador in India, Chester Bowles, offered assistance of 50 million dollars for this development programme. India’s first Union Cabinet minister for Cooperation and Panchayati Raj, Surendra Kumar Dey (1906-1989) was the chief architect of this programme and played an important role in implementing the development programme in the rural areas of India. Subsequently, the National Extension Service Programme was initiated in 1953. By the late 1950s, however, the US role in rural India decreased dramatically.

The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had visualised that the Community Development Programme would be successful in bringing about a silent revolution in India’s rural society. But after a short period of five years, he realised that the programme had failed to seek people’s participation. To review the reasons for the failures of these two programmes, on 16 January 1957, a committee called the ‘Community Projects’ Committee’ was constituted. It was headed by Balvant Rai Mehta. The committee submitted its report on 24 November 1957 after an in-depth analysis of the problems prevalent in India’s rural societies of the time.

In its review, the committee found that the Community Development Programme and the National Extension Service Programme could not yield the expected results due to a lack of public cooperation and a shortage of funding. Keeping in view this fact, it was suggested that the old district boards be abolished and it was decided to form an interrelated Three-Tier Structure of democratic decentralisation. The study group suggested the formation of Gram Panchayat at the lowest village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block or intermediate level and the Zila Parishad at the district level – all three organically linked to each other.

Thus, after the acceptance of recommendations of the Mehta Committee by the National Development Council, on 2 October 1959, Nehru inaugurated the concept of democratic decentralisation by lighting a lamp in the Nagaur district of Rajasthan, which was popularly known as Panchayati Raj. He stated that the purpose of this concept is to take Swaraj (self-government) to the masses. Successively, due to Nehru’s faith in decentralisation and the efforts of Minister S K Dey, the same system was implemented in other States of India. After that, accepting the importance and indispensability of panchayats in the country, various committees and commissions were constituted by the Union Government from time to time.

In 1977, a 13-member committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Ashok Mehta. It suggested the establishment of a two-tier Panchayati Raj system in place of the Three-Tier concept of Panchayati Raj. It was also suggested to establish a Mandal panchayat at the grassroots level in place of Gram Panchayat and Zilla Parishad at the district level. But a member of the committee, E M S Namboodiripad from Kerala opposed the recommendations of the committee. He suggested setting up of a four-pillar democratic structure to strengthen Panchayati Raj, in which there would be Centre, State, district and village panchayats at the lowest level. However, considering the report of the committee, there was talk of preparing a structure according to it, but the Janata Party-led Union Government steering these suggestions resigned in the middle of 1979. Consequently, with the fall of the central government, the recommendations of this committee were also shelved.

In the above context, it is also pertinent to mention that the Jyoti Basu government of the Left Front in West Bengal, N T Rama Rao Government in Andhra Pradesh and the Janata Party Government of Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka had established Panchayati Raj in their respective States as per the recommendations of the Ashok Mehta Committee. After that, in 1985, the Congress Government headed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, formed the G V Rao Committee. This committee laid emphasises on making the Panchayati Raj Institutions active by giving them more powers. It is considered a ‘geographic district’ as the main unit for planning development and operation. The L M Singhvi Committee formed in 1986, with support from the Ministry of Rural Development, suggested that ‘constitutional status’ be provided to the Panchayati Raj Institutions and also justified the establishment of ‘Nyaya’ Panchayat for the villages, like a court that arbitrates village issues.

In 1988, the Sarkaria Commission was constituted to study on Centre-State Relations, opposed the proposal of according constitutional status to Panchayati Raj Institutions, and recommended regular elections to Panchayats, along with devolution of financial and administrative powers. In 1988, P K Thungon Committee recommended constitutional recognition to ensure elections to Panchayati Raj Institutions in five years. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was of the view that there should be maximum or complete participation of the public in the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Poverty alleviation is impossible unless there is direct participation of the villagers in the developmental works. He gave the slogan, Jan ki satta sampo jan ko (it is rule of the people, let people have power) and said that, ‘we are nearing a tremendous revolution’, a revolution which was envisioned by Nehru three decades ago while implementing the Panchayati Raj programme. ‘This revolution could not be successful because it did not have constitutional protection.’

In compliance with this objective, Rajiv Gandhi, after having discussions with the representatives of Gram Panchayats, the General Committee of the Congress Party, and the Chief Ministers, passed the 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill in 1989 to give constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions. This bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on August 10, 1989, with a two-third majority but could not make its way into the Rajya Sabha because of vested interests.

As per the above objective, a revolutionary turn in the establishment of Panchayati Raj Institutions came when Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s minority government reintroduced the Panchayati Raj Bill in Parliament, taking other allies into confidence. This bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on 22 December 1992 and by the Rajya Sabha on December 22 as the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992. A revolutionary change was made by providing constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions for the first time, with the assent of the President on 20 April 1993, after the bill was ratified by 17 State Assemblies. On 24 April, 1993, the Act was implemented in almost all the States of Indian Union except Jammu and Kashmir. In 1991, Odisha effected 33% reservation for women in panachayats. The 1992 Constitutional amendment made this quota national and inserted a 33% sub-quota for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe women.

Through this Constitutional amendment, a new Part IX was inserted to the Constitution, in which 11th schedule, 16 articles and 29 subjects were included. Now, Panchayati Raj Institutions could make plans and implement them using their resources for economic development and social justice. Under the Act, provision has been made for formation of Three-Tier Panchayati Raj system in all those States whose population is more than 20 lakh.

However, in the States and Unions whose population is less than 20 lakh, no provision was made to constitute Panchayats at the intermediate level. With the provision of reservation of seats for women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Act, not only has the political participation of these sections increased, but democracy has been able to reach the doorstep of every household. Under the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Bill, the legal obligation has been imposed on the State Governments to conduct elections of Panchayats regularly in a period of five years, and elections to suspend Panchayats in a period of six months. With this provision, not only have these institutions become more empowered from the perspective of democracy, but the tendency of State governments to arbitrarily dissolve them prematurely, or not to conduct elections for a long period has also been contained.

The latest PR elections took place in Uttar Pradesh in April 2021 and such polls are due in the State of Punjab in December 2023. However, it is to be noted, this is nowhere near to proportional representation for India’s women. Only in about twenty States, including Bengal and Tamil Nadu, have 50% institutional seats at the panchayat and zilla level reserved for women (Ref). The Women’s Reservation Bill, introduced in the new Lok Sabha on 20 September 2023, only offers 33% of parliamentary seats to women (out of 550 seats). Parties will, therefore, not offer half their seats to women candidates in the May 2024 elections, though there will be about 450 million eligible women voters. It is only in 2029 that this 33% percent sent women’s quota will apply to parliament, say constitutional experts.

The provision related to the constitution of the Finance Commission to review the financial situation is a welcome step. Gram Sabha has been given constitutional status for the flow of democracy from top to bottom. Thus, we can safely say that with the implementation of the 73rd Constitutional amendment, we have entered the revolutionary democratic era and this amendment can be a milestone in the history of Panchayati Raj. It will certainly prove a boon for the expansion of democracy as well as the deepening of democracy in rural areas, in particular, and in India in general.

(Author: Prof Narain Dutt is former Assistant Professor at Dyal Singh College, Karnal, Haryana and Master trainer HIRD Nilokheri, Karnal)


  • Narain Dutt, Mahatma Gandhi’s Concept of Gram Swaraj and Panchayati Raj: An Analysis, edited Ram Pal Saini, Ajay Upadhyay, Balram Sharma (Contemporary Relevance of the Ideas of Mahatma Gandhi), Authors Press, New Delhi, 2023.
  • Ibid.
  • Narain Dutt, Mahatma Gandhi Ka Gram Swaraj Aur Panchayati Raj: Ek Vishleshan, Panchayati Raj Update, New Delhi, July 2023.
  • Ibid.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Panchayati Raj Update, June 2022.
  • Narain Dutt, Mahatma Gandhi Ka Gram Swaraj Aur Panchayati Raj: Ek Vishleshan, Op cit.
  • S R Bakshi, Public Administration: Problems and Solutions, Vol. II, VistaInternational Publishing House, Delhi, 2009.
  • For details see, Patterns of Panchayati Raj in India, edited, G Ram Reddy, The Macmillan Company of India Ltd., Delhi, 1977.
  • Mahi Pal, Rural Local Governance and Development, Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2020.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Op cit.
  • A S Narang, Indian Government and Politics, Gitanjali Publishing House, New Delhi, 1985.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Op cit.
  • S Viswanathan, A New Political Class, Frontline, Chennai, 17 June, 2005.
  • Ibid.
  • Mahi Pal, Rural Local Governance and Development, Op cit.
  • S Viswanathan, A New Political Class, Opcit.
  • Ranbir Singh and Anupama Arya, Nehru’s Strategy of National Integration, The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. LXVII, No. 4. Meerut. Oct-Dec 2006.
  • G R Jayanandam and Panjala Narasaiah, Two Decades of Panchayati Raj- Gaps and Challenges, Kurukshetra, New Delhi, January 2014.
  • George Mathew, Panchayati Raj in India: An Overview, edited George Mathew (Status of Panchayati Raj in The States and Union Territories of India 2013), Concept Publishing Company Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2013.
  • S Viswanathan, A New Political Class, Op cit.
  • George Mathew, Panchayati Raj in India: An Overview, edited George Mathew, Op cit.
  • Arpita Sharma, Government Programme to Empower Panchayati Raj, Kurukshetra, New Delhi, January 2014.
  • Chandra Shekhar Kumar and Mohd. Tauqueer Khan, Journey of Panchayats, Yojana, New Delhi, November 2021.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Op cit.
  • A S Narang, Bhartiy Shasan and Rajniti, Gitanjali Publishing House, New Delhi, 2009-2010.
  • Ibid.
  • E K Santha, Political Participation of Women in Panchayati Raj, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, 1999.
  • Ibid.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Op cit.
  • Partha Nath Mukherji, Participatory Democratisation: Panchayati Raj and The Deepening of Indian Democracy, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, 2007.
  • Bidyut Chakrabarty and Rajendra Kumar Pandey, Indian Government and Politics, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2012.
  • Ibid.
  • Narain Dutt, Azad Bharat Me Panchayati Raj Vyvastha, Op cit.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
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