The local bodies, rural and urban, act as grass-root democratic institutions, which also serve as the agencies for development and planning, channels of communication, units of decentralisation, and so on. These local institutions are of prime importance in a vast and democratic country like India. But unfortunately, the growth and working of rural local bodies in India have never been up to the mark.
These institutions of democratic decentralisation suffered problems due to a lack of will on the part of political leaders and bureaucracy. Over the years, these institutions became pictures of neglect.
There has been a long-standing demand to provide constitutional status to these bodies, which was ultimately met in the shape of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992.
It is thus of great significance to study and analyse the basic provisions of this amendment and its impact.
In this Constitution law note, you will learn more about the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992.
Balwant Rai Mehta Committee
The Indian government established a committee in 1957 to review the operations of the National Extension Service (1953) and the Community Development Programme (1952) and make recommendations for improvements. The committee advocated a plan for democratic decentralisation in its report, which was turned in and became known as the Panchayati Raj in November 1957.
Recommendations made by the Balwant Rai Committee are:
1. A three-tier Panchayati Raj System that includes Zila Parishad at the district level, Panchayat Samiti at the block level, and Gram Panchayat at the village level.
2. These tiers should be naturally connected through a system of indirect elections.
3. Members of Panchayats at each level, that is, village, intermediate, and district levels, should be directly elected.
4. These bodies should be in charge of all planning and development initiatives.
5. The executive body should be the Panchayat Samiti, while the advising, coordinating, and supervisory body should be the Zila Parishad.
6. The chairman of the Zila Parishad should be the District Collector.
7. These democratic entities should get a true transfer of power and duty.
8. These bodies should be given adequate resources to enable them to carry out their activities and fulfil their responsibilities.
National Development Council accepted these recommendations in January 1958, and the council also left it to states to evolve their patterns suitable to the local conditions.
Conditions Leading to the 73rd Constitutional Amendment
In 1947, India achieved independence. The Constitution makers were aware of the problems relating to local self-government, and they included in the Constitution certain provisions relating to the development of local self-government.
Article 40 of the Indian Constitution relates to Directive Principles of State Policy. It provides for the setting up of the village Panchayat and entrusting them with such powers as essential to their successful working as units of self-government.
Given some provisions about village Panchayats in the Constitution and the recommendations made by the Balwant Rai Committee appointed by the central government, a three-tier Panchayati Raj system was established in the 1960s’ by several states with a lot of expectations. It is rather unfortunate that the Panchayati Raj system set up with great jubilation could not work effectively. In the seventies, a feeling started developing that “Panchayati Raj” was like a God that failed. Several committees/study teams were set up by the central government and several state governments.
Similarly, various scholars came forward and gave a long list of reasons for this failure. The major reasons given for the failure of Panchayati Raj institutions were inadequate powers and resources, irregular elections and meetings, negative state control, political and public apathy, neglect of weaker sections and women, and above all, the lack of constitutional states.
Thus, over the years, there developed a feeling amongst the people and scholars that these institutions of grass-root democracy have not acquired the legal, administrative and political structure due to them. A few reforms made by the states have not been sufficient in the absence of the constitutional status of Panchayati Raj institutions.
In the 1980s, the union government did try to provide due status to local government institutions in the country. In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government introduced 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was subsequently dropped. However, the Congress government headed by Narasimha Rao got the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992, passed by the parliament. In the Constitution, Part IX and Schedule XI have been inserted to contain certain provisions for Panchayati Raj Bodies. Thus, the enactment of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 is, indeed, a first step in the process of devolution of powers to the people at the grassroots level and strengthening of the Local bodies.
Next, we highlight the salient features of the 73rd amendment and evaluate its impact on local government institutions.
Main Features or Important Provisions of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992
An institution of Gram Sabha consisting of all registered voters has been provided. The Act empowers the state government to provide for powers and functions statutorily.
These are the main provisions of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992:
1. To establish the Panchayat system at the village, sub-district and district levels, seats in the Panchayat bodies at each level are to be filled by direct election and in addition, there may be ex-officio members at intermediate and district levels.
2. Seats have been reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population. One-third of these reserved seats are meant for women.
3. Seats on a similar basis have also been reserved in regard to chairmanship at each level.
4. Reservation has been made for backward classes, too.
5. Term of the Panchayats has been fixed as five years, and elections are required to be held within six months of any dissolution.
6. Minimum age of members of Panchayat has been fixed at 21.
7. Powers and functions are to be assigned by the state legislature to the Panchayat bodies, which may include the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice as well as their implementation.
8. Panchayats are empowered by the state legislature to impose taxes, fees and duties and are entitled to a share in state government taxes and grants in aid.
9. A fund is to be constituted for crediting all money received and for withdrawal of such money from there by or on behalf of the Panchayats.
10. A finance committee to review the financial position of the local bodies is to be constituted every five years by the state government. It is to make recommendations to improve the financial position.
11. A state Election Commission is to be appointed by the governor to supervise, direct and control Panchayat elections.
12. The Act also puts a bar on interference by courts in electoral matters of Panchayats.
Impact of 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992
Because of the Constitution Amendment Act, all the state governments amended their Acts, and fresh legislations were enacted; for instance, in Punjab, the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act (1994) came into force. With this, there started a process of handing over powers directly to the people. For instance, all the state governments set up State Selection Commissions and State Finance Commissions. Similarly, reservations for women and backward classes were made besides SC/ST. Nearly all the state legislation provides for a three-tier system with direct elections at all levels.
Similarly, Gram Sabha, the villager’s body, found its legitimate place in the Act. In most states:
- Village Panchayat is the implementing authority,
- Panchayat Samiti is the monitoring body, and
- Zila Parishad has been entrusted with the task of formulating plans.
The implementation of these legislations provided a long-delayed impetus to the process of decentralisation. This political step was historical as it was expected to make major structural changes to restore the rightful place of local bodies as democratic units in the present system of governance. This would also give decision-making power to the people at the grass-root level. Also expected was that the local bodies would be endowed with such power as might be necessary to enable them to work as institutions of self-government and also devolve powers and responsibilities upon them by the state legislatures for the preparation of plans and implementation of development schemes.
To add more, regular elections should make those elected to the local bodies more sensitive to local opinion. Protection against arbitrary action by the state governments should help the local bodies take a more independent view of the requirements of their constituents. And an improvement in the financial position of these bodies should enable them to meet local requirements directly.
Whereas the central Act (73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992) has several plus points, it has minus points too. The Act has not clearly defined the role of political parties. It makes no mention of political parties being able to participate in elections in their official capacity. It is also silent on the interaction between Panchayati Raj institutions and local government bureaucracy. Aside from that, decentralisation’s experience in various states reveals that the effective transfer of power has its own set of challenges.
Decentralisation without restructuring power may mean empowering the local elite rather than the local people. When we have a very feudal power structure, decentralisation results in less power for the poor than more. The rural rich would minimise the Panchayati Raj elements unless the “balance of forces” in those areas is adjusted. Hence decentralisation must be followed by a significant transformation of the power structure.
Clear indications are there that some states are unwilling to hand over the powers to the Panchayati Raj institutions in the true spirit of the constitutional Amendment Act. Thus, there is a need for constant vigil. It is, therefore, significant to see how far the aims and objectives of the constitutional amendment and the aspirations generated by it have been met.
In this regard, a lot of interest has been generated by the people, academicians, and political leaders who believe in democratic decentralisation. During the last few years, all over the country, conferences, discussions, and seminars have been held to find ways and means for implementing the provisions contained in the Act. Even after constitutional recognition and new legislation brought about by the state legislatures in the country, the success of the Panchayati Raj largely depend upon the political will of the state governments.
State leaders and bureaucracy must understand that with this enactment, the Panchayati Raj institutions are not only the part of Constitution but also the third level of government.
As a result, the devolution of finances and the excessive use of authority and responsibility by the Panchayati Raj institutions are the current challenges that are most important to the effectiveness of these small pockets of democracy in the years to come.
At present, one thing is clear: some states are sincerely thinking in realistic terms and have started the process of devolution of powers to the Panchayati Raj institutions. Others will have to follow suit to endow Panchayati Raj institutions with the necessary powers and authority to enable them to function as institutions of self-government with the responsibility of preparing plans for economic development and social justice and implementing them.
With virtually no provisions regarding Panchayats in the Constitution, the local bodies were left to the mercy of state governments. In most states, the local bodies presented a dismal picture and were neglected badly. There were regular elections, paucity of funds, political interference, bureaucratic hurdles, and so on, which led to the building up of pressure to stabilise and strengthen them through constitutional and legislative measures. With these amendments and subsequent legislation, the scene is bound to change for good.
With regular elections reservation of seats for weaker sections and women, with added powers and resources, these grass-root institutions are expected to become effective organs of democratic decentralisation and development.
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