Because of its size and its relatively ambitious efforts to decentralise government,
Amendment to the Constitution formally recognised a third tier of government at the sub-State level, thereby creating the legal conditions for local self-rule – or Panchayati Raj.Since this time, the experience has been highly variable, ranging from ambitious attempts at Gram Swaraj (or village self-rule) in Madhya Pradesh to political recentralization in Karnataka.
A commitment to the reduction of poverty has been a defining characteristic of the Indian state, from the time of
From an early stage in this process, the reduction of poverty and the empowerment of poor and politically marginal groups in India have been strongly associated with at least some form of decentralisation (e.g. Drèze and Sen, 1996; Jha, 1999). Perhaps the most enduring image of decentralisation in
Perhaps the most important among these – particularly since independence – were the B. Metha Commission of 1957, the Asoka Metha Commission of 1978, and the G.V.K. Rao Committee of 1985. An enduring issue that features in all of these assessments is the notion that the Panchayats have been weakened or undermined on three fronts: (1) States that are unwilling to devolve substantive power; (2) a resistant bureaucracy and (3) the power of ‘local élites.’ Such realisations were instrumental in the drive to give the Panchayats constitutional status in the 73rd Amendment (Jha, 1999).
Milestones in Indian decentralisation
1882 The Resolution on Local Self-Government.
1907 The Royal Commission on Decentralisation.
1948 Constitutional debates between Gandhi and Ambedkar on Gram Swaraj, ‘self-rule’.
1957 Balwantrai Mehta Commission – an early attempt to implement the Panchayat structure at district and block (Samithi) levels.
1963 K. Santhanam Committee – recommended limited revenue raising powers for Panchayats and the establishment of State Panchayati Raj Finance Corporations.
1978 Asoka Mehta Committee – appointed to address the weaknesses of PRIs, concluded that a resistant bureaucracy, lack of political will, ambiguity about the role of PRIs, and élite capture had undermined previous attempts at decentralisation, recommending that the District serve as the
administrative unit in the PRI structure. Based on these recommendations, Karnataka, Andhra
1985 G.V.K. Rao Committee – appointed to address weaknesses of PRIs, recommended that the block development office (BDO) should assume broad powers for planning, implementing and monitoring rural development programmes.
1986 L.M. Singvhi Committee – recommended that local self-government should be constitutionally enshrined, and that the Gram Sabha (the village assembly) should be the base of decentralized democracy in
1993 The 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution – PRIs at district, block and village levels are granted Constitutional status. The Gram Sabha is recognised as a formal democratic body at the village level. The 74th Amendment, granting Constitutional status to municipal bodies, is passed soon after.
1996 The Adivasi Act – Powers of self-government are extended to tribal communities living in ‘Fifth Schedule’ areas.
The 73rd Amendment gives village, block and district level bodies a constitutional status under Indian law. The more important features of the Amendment are summarised in
1. The establishment of a three-tier PRI structure, with elected bodies at village, block and district levels (States with populations less than 2 million are not required to introduce block-level Panchayats);
2. The recognition that the Gram Sabha constitutes a deliberative body at the village level;
3. Direct elections to five year terms for all members at all levels;
4. One-third of all seats are reserved for women; reservations for SCs and STs proportional to their populations;
5. Reservations for chairpersons of the Panchayats – Sarpanches – following the same guidelines;
6. State legislatures may provide reservations for other backward groups;
7. A State Election Commission (SEC) will be created to supervise, organise and oversee Panchayat elections at all levels;
8. A State Finance Commission (SFC) will be established to review and revise the financial position of the Panchayats on five-year intervals, and to make recommendations to the State government about the distribution of Panchayat funds.
At the village level, the most important provisions relating to participation and accountability are those governing reservations and the Gram Sabha. Under the 73rd Amendment one-third of all seats must be reserved for women. Likewise, reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are made in proportion to their population. At the village level, the Gram Sabha, which constitutes all eligible voters within a Gram Panchayat area, is meant to serve as a principal mechanism for transparency and accountability. Among its principal functions are:
• to review the annual statement of accounts;
• to review reports of the preceding financial year;
• to review and submit views on development programmes for the following year;
• to participate in the identification of beneficiaries for some government schemes.
This last provision is particularly important because it confers substantive authority over an area that is particularly prone to misallocation and corruption.
a three tier structure of Panchayat