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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

Valuable Addition to the Literature on Grassroots Democracy

Monday 21 February 2011, by Ranbir Singh

BOOK REVIEW

Evolution of Panchayati Raj in India – from Traditional to Constitutionalised Panchayats by Dr Mridula Sharda; Kanishka Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi; 2010; Price: Rs 450.

The constitutionalisation of the Panchayats by the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution (1992) has accorded a new salience to the Panchayati Raj Institutions. It has made them the third tier of the Indian the political system. Earlier there existed only two tiers, the Union Government and the State Government. The Amendment has not only accorded a constitutional status to the Gram Sabha but also laid down the foundation of participatory democracy and decentralised planning. It has assigned the status of self-governing institutions to the Panchayati Raj bodies and has empowered them to make and implement plans for economic development and social justice on the subjects devolved by the State Legislatures out of the 29 items listed in the 11th Schedule.

Besides, the Amendment has made democracy inclusive by making provision of one-third reservation for women and reservation in proportion to their population to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Moreover, it has not only created State Election Commissions for ensuring free and fair periodical elections but also stipulated the constitution of State Finance Commissions for ensuring adequate resources to the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

But despite all these provisions, the new Panchayati Raj Institutions, which came into existence in 1994 as a result of the enactment of conformity legislation by the States, continue to lack in functions, functionaries and funds. Moreover, there persists a democratic deficit in the Panchayati Raj Institutions in most of the States.

Be that as it may, the structural and functional dimensions of the existing Panchayati Raj system can be properly understood only by keeping in view the historical perspective. But despite this most of the studies on Panchayati Raj have ignored this dimension and are exercises in crude empiricism. The work of Dr Mridula Sharda is one of the few exceptions in this context. She has not only traced the genesis of the Panchayats from the ancient period but has also examined their decay in the pre-colonial and the post-colonial periods.

Further, Dr Sharda has tried to relate the development of Panchayati Raj with the national movement and the modern Indian political thought. For this purpose she has discussed the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan. Furthermore she has not only traced the evolution of Panchayati Raj from 1947 to 1977 but also discussed the revival after the introduction of the 73rd Amendment. At the same time she has examined the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 and also analysed the implications of the new Panchayati Raj system. Last but not the least, she has suggested a concrete strategy for strengthening grassroots democracy in India.

However, it is difficult for the reviewer to agree with her glorification of the status of local bodies in ancient India. As a matter of fact she has projected a romantic view of the Panchayati Raj system of those days. Moreover, the socio-economic dimensions of Panchayati Raj have not been able to get adequate attention from her.

But in spite of these minor flaws, Dr Mridula Sharda must be complemented for bringing out an elegant and useful volume on the evolution of local democracy in India. Her study is bound to prove very useful to the students, researchers and teachers in the disciplines of political science, public administration and history. It can also be hopefully used by the policy-makers and the policy implementers. The book is indeed a valuable edition to the literature on grassroots democracy in India.

Prof Ranbir Singh is on the faculty of the Haryana Institute of Rural Development, Nilokheri, Karnal.

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