Panchayati Raj is the traditional and oldest system of local government in the Indian subcontinent. It is a three-tier design of the Indian administration for rural development. The purpose of the Panchayati Raj is to create local self-governments in districts, zones and villages. The word “Panchayat” refers to the assembly (ayat) of five (panch) and raj means “rule”. Traditionally Panchayats comprised elderly and wise people preferred by the people in the local community, who used to resolve issues between individuals and villages. The leader of the Panchayat used to be known as Mukhya or Sarpanch. Usually, the elder-most or most senior person gets elected to this position.
The Panchayati Raj system identifies itself as a form of direct democracy, which means they practice all powers of a government at a village level instead of the leading notion that it is a type of representative democracy. According to January 2019, there are 630 Zilla Panchayats, 6614 Block Panchayats and 253163 Gram Panchayats in India. There are currently over 3 million elected representatives (of which more than 1 million are women) for panchayats at all levels.
For a long time, Panchayati Raj centres as local government units have been running in India in different permutations and combinations. Although, it was only in 1992 that the Indian Constitution formally set it up as the third level of India’s federal democracy through the 73rd Amendment Act.
The act has two types, namely compulsory and voluntary. State laws must include mandatory provisions that add to the creation of the new Panchayati Raj systems, while Voluntary provisions are at the discretion of the state government.
Rural development is one of the primary aims of Panchayati Raj, and this is present in all states of India except Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, and in all Union Territories except Delhi and certain other areas. These areas consist of the tribal areas and the scheduled locations in the states, the hill area of Manipur for which a district council works and the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council operates the space.
Salient features of Panchayati Raj:
- The Gram Sabha: It is the smallest and the only certain unit in the Panchayati Raj system. It is a body comprising all the people recorded in the electoral rolls who hail from a village, included within the Panchayat area at the village level. It will exercise powers and work on such functions as evaluated by the state legislature. The state legislature fixes the powers and functions of Gram Sabha as per the law on the subject.
- Reservation of seats: Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) have reserved seats, and the Chairperson’s position of the Panchayats at all levels have reservations for SCs and STs in proportion to their populace.
- Reservation for women: One-third of the total number of seats are reserved for women, while One-third of the seats reserved for SCs and STs also have a reservation for women. This policy functions to the office of the Chairperson at all levels as well (Article 243D). The reserved seats may be allocated by rotation to numerous constituencies in the Panchayat.
- Uniform policy: There is a uniform policy, with each term being five years. New elections take place before the expiry of the term. When it comes to the dissolution, elections are mandatory within six months time period
- Development: Panchayats have the accountability to make plans for economic development and social justice concerning the subjects according to the law’s implementation, which also strengthens the different levels of Panchayat, comprising the subjects as described in the Eleventh Schedule.
The act remains a crucial step in developing democratic institutions at the grassroots level in the country. It has revamped representative democracy into participatory democracy.