Article 40 of the Constitution directs the State “to organise village panchayats as units of self-government”. In January 1956 a Study Team of Community Development and National Extension Services headed by Shri Balwant Rai Mehta was appointed. The committee recommended the establishment on Panchayati Raj on the principle of ‘democratic decentralisation’. The scheme envisaged a three-tier system of local self-government with Panchyats at the village level, Panchayat Samitis at the block level and Zila Parishads at the district level. In 1958, the National Development Council (NDC) endorsed the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee.
Rajasthan was the first State in the country to introduce Panchayati Raj system on October 2, 1959, followed by Andhra Pradesh. All States in the country today have Panchayati Raj in one form or the other except Meghalaya and Nagaland which have tribal councils instead. Three-tier system has been adopted by Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In Maharashtra and Gujarat the apex institution (Zila Parishad) is very powerful, whereas, on the other hand, in Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Rajasthan, the apex body has only advisory functions.
Three-Tier System Village
The administration at the village level is carried on by a Village Panchayat. This executive body usually consists of 5 to 31 members who are elected by the members of the Gram Sabha through secret ballot. The Gram Sabha is composed of all the voters of the village. The Panchayat is headed by a Chair-man who is designated as Sarpanch. The Sarpanch is directly elected by the people in certain State and by the members of the panchyat in other State. The Panchayat is responsible for looking after village sanitation, construction and maintenance of bridges, wells and ponds, improvement of health, improvement of agriculture and cottage industries, maintenance of village schools etc.
It is also responsible for the implementation of the various development programmes within its jurisdiction. The Panchayat is accountable for its working to the Gram Sabha which approves all the taxes and audits the accounts. The Gram Sabha also approves various development schemes to be implemented by the Panchayat. Some of the sources of village revenue include taxes on property, cess and revenue, tax on vehicles and profession fees for use of rent houses, water charges, lighting charges, taxes on shops etc.
Reorganisation of States
It consists of 20 to 60 villages. At this level the Panchayat Samiti is the chief executive body which is composed of heads of village Panchyat within its jurisdiction. In addition it also contains representatives of women, scheduled castes, co-operative societies and members of State and Union legislatures belonging to the area. The Panchayat Samiti has a non-official Chairman who is elected by the members of the Samiti.
The Samiti prepares the plans for the development of the area under its jurisdiction and implements these plans after they are approved by the State government. It also takes necessary steps for the advance-ment of health, primary education, sanitation and communication within its jurisdiction.
It is responsible for the coordination of the work of various Panchayat Samitis within its jurisdiction. The Panchayat Samiti depends for finances mainly on the State government. It receives a share of land revenue and grants from State government. It is also empowered to levy certain taxes.
The executive body responsible for the management of the Zila is known as Zila Parishad. It usually consists of representatives of all the Panchayat Samitis under its jurisdiction. The Members of Parliament and State Legislature from the area are also its members. The other members of the Zila Parishad include representatives of the cooperative societies, district level officers of Medical, Public Health, Public Works, Engineering, Agriculture, Veterinary, Education and other departments. Representatives of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and women are also associated with the Zila Parishad if they are not adequately represented in it.
The District Officer is also a member of the Zila Parishad and usually acts as the Chairman of this body.
The Zila Parishad mainly performs coordinating functions.
It exercises supervision and control over the Panchayat Samitis and advises the State government regarding the implementation of various development plans. The main functions of the Zila Parishad include establishment, maintenance and inspection of primary and secondary schools, primary health centres and maternity and child welfare centres, construction and maintenance of roads, parks etc., management of light, water-supply etc. The Zila Parishad depends for finances mainly on the State. It receives from the state a share in the land cess and other local cesses and taxes as well as other grants.
Balwantrai G. Mehta Committee
In 1956, the National Development Council appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Balwantrai G. Mehta to suggest measures for the better working of the Community Development Programme and the National Extension Service.
The Committee submitted its report in 1957 in which it recommended—
The recommendations of the Committee were approved by the National Development Council in January, 1958, and thus set the stage for the launching of Panchayat Raj institutions throughout the country. Although the broad fundamentals were to be identical, it did not insist on rigidity regarding the form and pattern. The states were free to evolve their own patterns suitable to local conditions. The three-tier system of Panchayat Raj was first adopted by Rajasthan on October 2, 1959. This was followed by Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Gradually the Panchayat Raj system was adopted by most states even though the system differed in matters of detail.
Ashok Mehta Committee
In Dcember, 1977, the Janata government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Ashok Mehta to review the working of Panchayat Raj institutions and to make necessary recommendations for its improvement.
In its report of 1978, the committee made the following suggestions to improve the working of Panchayat Raj institutions:
In July-August 1989 the Congress (I) Government under Rajiv Gandhi introduced a constitutional amendment bill with a view to streamline the Panchayat Raj. However the bill was defeated in the Rajya Sabha. In November 1989 the National Front Government, soon after assuming power, announced its intention to grant greater powers to the Panchayat Raj institutions and favoured its involvement in the formulation and implementation of plans. However, it could not give concrete shape of its ideas.
In December, 1992, Congress (I) Government of Narasimha Rao, carried out the 73rd constitutional amendment to decentralise the power, down to village level. The amendment became operative after being ratified by the requisite number of states and ascented to, by the President. As a result of this amendment, the Panchayat Raj institutions have been provided constitutional status. The Panchayat Raj institutions is constituted through direct elections, with provision of reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. The Panchayats have a fixed term of five years and if they are dissolved before the expiry of this term, elections must be held within six months.
The state government can bestow powers to these bodies, which may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government. The Panchayat Raj institutions have been authorised to make laws concerning economic and social development of villages. These have been listed in the Eleventh Schedule and comes to twenty-nine subjects altogether. A State Finance Commission shall be appointed by the Governor of each state, which will be responsible for the review of the financial position of the Panchayats and will make recommendations to the Governor about the distribution of the net proceeds of taxes between the States and Panchayats. It shall also recommend grants-in-aid to the Panchayats, from the Consolidated Fund of the State. Though, the amendment provides a three-tier system Panchayati Raj at the village, intermediate and district level, the small states with population of less than 20 lakhs have been given the option to avoid the intermediate level body.