Write a note of Democratic Decentralization in India.


As the working of Panchayati Raj Institutions since 1959 has been argued as successful in a few states and a failure in most of the states. It means that the system has been experiencing ups and downs. Although, the concept of Panchayti Raj is a state subject but, basically each state is free to evolve its own system depending upon local needs, circumstances administrative conveniences and experiences. With the result, we have a variety of Panchayati Raj institutions with all kinds of combinations and permutations.

In fact, their success or failure depends upon their structure, powers, functions leadership, finances anti state control. In a big country like India, changes in different aspects of these bodies have been taking place as per the changing circumstances.

Although the whole activities of Panchayati Raj institutions are broad based but their resource base are very weak. As things stand today, the local economy is very weak which indicates that Panchayati Raj Institutions have very limited scope to impose taxes in their jurisdiction. Introduction of Panchayati Raj was hailed as one of the most important political innovations in independent India.

It was also considered as a revolutionary step. Panchayati Raj is a system of local self-government where in the people take upon themselves the responsibility for development. It is also a system of institutional arrangement for achieving rural development through people’s initiative and participation.

Panchayati Raj involves a three-tier structure of democratic institutions at district, block and village levels namely, Zila Prishad, Panchayat Samiti and Village Panchayats respectively. These institutions are considered as training ground for democracy and gives political education to the masses,These institutions were established in 1959 based on the philosophy of decentralization and gram swaraj. Rural development plans and programs are implemented at this level so that fruits of development can accrue to the community directly.

While distributing powers between the Union and the States, the Constitution of India at Article 40 (Directive Principles of State Policy) vested local bodies and Panchayati Raj as a subject with the states but did not further elaborate on the relations between the states and this third tier of Government Panchayati Raj was given another lease of life in the context of community development projects launched in 1952.

The Balwantrai Mehta Committee Report in 1957 underlined the role of elected Panchayat Samitis at the community development block/tehsil level as the basic unit of democratic decentralization. Only an advisory role was contemplated for the Zila Parishads constituted of panchayat samiti heads chaired by the Collector.

However, the legislation that followed the Committee’s Report basically continued the earlier enactments of Provincial Governments to iterate the three-tier structure and provide for over-riding powers of the State Government acting through the Collector.

All states hive enacted new Acts or incorporated changes in their existing Acts in conformity with the 73rd and 74th Amendments. In the recent past there has been a conscious effort to strengthen and revitalize local self-governance in India through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments.

The landmark legislation’s aimed at greater clarity between states and local governments in terms of devolution of adequate powers and resources to enable local bodies to function as vibrant institutions of local government.

Democratic Decentralization in Rural Areas.

Panchayati Raj was a strategy for rural development in a context of centralism that was then seen as a historical necessity. The moral weight of the national movement required that the aspirations of the peasantry to better conditions of life be fulfilled. The government that came to power initiated land reforms and institutional change to do away with nefarious traditions of discrimination and domination based on religion and caste.

This required the will of strong central and state governments to be pitted against local vested interests, whether landlords or ‘Superior castes’. Moreover, land revenues had to be reduced and since income levels were low and highly skewed between individuals and regions, reliance on the spread of indirect rather than the narrow incidence of direct taxes was necessary which naturally resulted in a centralized system of finance.

These constraints, along with others related to the legacy of the Raj, partition of the country and the enthusiasm for a planned economy, shaped centralism. However, this centralism was not conducive to the growth in the status of local bodies.

Democratic Decentralization in Urban Areas.

In the context of urban India, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (74th CAA) was a milestone as it gave Constitutional validity to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), codified the procedure for their constitution and defined their structures, functions and resource generation capabilities. The act aimed at greater clarity between states and urban local governments in terms of devolution of adequate powers, authorities and resources to enable the latter to function as vibrant institutions of local self-governance.

The 11th Finance Commission of India (EFC) took the first constructive steps in measuring decentralization in the Indian context. Decentralization, as envisioned in the 74th CAA was taken as an important criterion that commanded twenty percent weight in estimating the amount of EFC grants to the states for the municipal bodies.

The EFC Measured decentralization on the basis of the following criteria:

  • Enactment of state municipal legislation’s in conformity with the 74th CAA of 1992.
  • Intervention/ restriction in the functioning of the municipalities.
  • De-jure assignment of functions to municipalities by way of rules, notifications and orders of state, governments.
  • De-jure assignment of taxation powers to municipalities.
  • Exercise of taxation powers by municipalities.
  • Constitution of finance commissions by states and submission of action taken reports.
  • Action taken on the major recommendations of the finance commissions of states.
  • Election to the municipalities.
  • Constitution of the District Planning Committees.

The above comprise a well-defined and clearly laid out set of criteria for estimating decentralization. However, measuring decentralization in line with the above concepts is not an easy task. It is made more difficult by the absence of designated agencies responsible for. collecting and documenting data and information On the above criteria in an objective and orderly manner.

Democratic Decentralization in Tribal and Schedule Areas.

The Constitution 73rd amendment dealing with Panchayats recognized the need for special provisions for scheduled areas and tribal areas. It empowers Parliament to enact legislation providing for exceptions and modification in respect of those areas. The extension, in one or two states, of the State’s Law on Panchayats to the tribal areas, without such modifications has created problems.

At the same time, the existence of different traditional systems of self-government in different tribal areas, the provisions of the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution, the lacunae in those sub-rules and the weaknesses in the implementation and the elaborate provisions of the 73rd amendment, make the exercise a very complex one. Several approaches to address these issues are possible.

Tribal interests are protected under various special provisions of the Indian Constitution, especially tribal autonomy and their rights over land, through Fifth and Sixth Schedules. Moreover, there is also a demand for inclusion of tribal-dominated regions of Andhra Pradesh under the Sixth Schedule which provides for establishing autonomous district councils and autonomous regions empowered with legislative, judicial, executive and financial powers, which has not been considered as yet.

Subsequent acts and amendments were also made with an intention to protect the rights and interest of the tribals in the state but the enforcement of the legislation has been weak.

As a result the tribals were alienated systematically from then resource endowments. The 73rd CAA although conferring constitutional status to Panchayats did not automatically cover the Scheduled Areas, as local self-governance in tribal areas has to be in consonance with traditions and customary laws and practices of the tribals.

Subsequently, the Government of India appointed a committee of parliamentarians and experts under the chairmanship of Dileep Singh Bhuria which submitted its report in January. 1995. Based on the recommendations of the committee, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act was enacted in December 1996.

The Act is a watered down version of the Bhuria Committee Recommendations, which was passed in the Parliament without debate. All the states that had scheduled areas within their geographical boundaries were mandated to amend their existing Panchayati Raj Acts by incorporating the provisions of PESA within a year of its enactment.

The Bhuria Committee has recommended a three-tier structure of self-governance in the tribal areas:

Gram Sabha: The overarching-role of Gram Sabha in deciding affairs of its people and recognizes it as a competent body to safeguard and preserve traditions and customs, cultural identity, community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution in the Scheduled Areas.

Gram Panchayat: Elected body of representatives of each Gram Sabha, also to function as an appellate authority for unresolved disputes at lower level.

A block: Or Taluk-level body as the next higher level. Additionally, an elected autonomous district council at the district level with legislative, executive and judicial powers for tribal areas covered under the Sixth Schedule.

Bhuria Committee has also recommended the powers and functions of these three levels in details. The Committee also proposes in general terms that the Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas should be vested with adequate powers to deal with problems like growing indebtedness, land alienation, deforestation, ecological degradation, displacement on account of industrialization and modernization, excise policy, alcohol and drug addiction, hydel and water resources etc. However, it suggests no concrete legislative or executive measures in these areas to empower the proposed institutions.

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