Panchayati Raj Institution – Delivering Democratic Intervention to the Last Mile

    • By,
      Sanket Sanjay Mate – Student, Kautilya

India, with its roots deeply entrenched in its villages, has always believed that the nation’s progress is intricately linked to its rural areas’ progress, as Mahatma Gandhi emphasized. The concept of ‘Swaraj’ advocated by Gandhi further expounds on the development of rural India. Acknowledging the importance of empowering these rural regions, the ‘Panchayat Raj System’ was established three decades ago through the 73rd Amendment Act of 1992 . This move aimed to enhance people’s participation in local-level administration and governance within the Indian federal system. As we commemorate the 75th year of India’s independence on August 15, 2022, and embark on the journey towards the next 25 years of Amrit Kaal, with the vision of transforming India into a superpower by 2047, it is crucial to recognize the pivotal role rural India will play in achieving this goal. Nevertheless, amidst this ambitious pursuit, it becomes imperative to reflect upon the present state of comprehensive and strategic development of the Panchayati Raj Institution at the grassroots level and ponder the significance of this institution for the country and people at large.

Gandhi’s vision of ‘swaraj’ or self-rule was the fundamental inspiration behind the genesis of the Panchayati Raj system in India. The essence of this system lies in bringing governance closer to the people and encouraging their active participation in decision-making processes concerning their community’s welfare. By promoting participatory democracy, Gandhi believed that ordinary citizens should play a pivotal role in local governance, fostering a stronger sense of responsibility and accountability.

The Panchayati Raj System, a decentralized local government system in India, strives to empower rural communities and foster democratic principles at the local level. It was established in 1992 by the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution. Three-tiered Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), including Gram Panchayats at the village level, Panchayat Samitis at the block level, and Zilla Parishads at the district level, are to be established, according to the system.

PRI is a tool of empowerment and an effective form of government in terms of value; it emphasizes decentralization , which allows local communities to actively participate in decision-making and results in more responsive and inclusive governance. The PRI system makes impactful changes at the grassroots level by promoting social inclusion by guaranteeing representation and involvement in decision-making for underrepresented groups by reserving local government seats for women, Scheduled Tribes, and Scheduled Castes. Local leaders have a better grasp of community concerns to recognize and respond to regional needs. Decentralization encourages accountability and transparency since PRI members are elected directly by the community, which makes them more responsible to the people they serve. The system’s localized approach enhances service delivery by better adjusting public services to the community’s specific needs, ultimately increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

PRI System in India suffers from significant policy-level challenges in effective functioning at local level governance regarding financial dependency on the state or central government grants, sometimes restricting the autonomy of local bodies, preventing them from making independent decisions and implementing projects effectively. The lack of administrative capacity among many panchayat members poses a challenge to managing complex governance issues, necessitating comprehensive training and capacity-building initiatives. Political interference from higher levels of government undermines the spirit of decentralization and local autonomy enshrined in the constitutional mandate, leading to compromised decision-making and accountability. Despite the 33% reservation of seats for women at local self-governing bodies for women’s representation; still, gender inequality persists at the grassroots level, with women representatives facing cultural and societal barriers that impede their meaningful participation. The system’s uneven development across states and regions reflects varying political will, differential resource allocation, and socioeconomic disparities, limiting its impact in certain areas.

Addressing these gaps, the government has endeavored to bring some systematic changes through the transformative E-gram Swaraj accounting application that has revolutionized Panchayat’s functioning by enhancing transparency, accountability, and effectiveness in planning, budgeting, implementation, accounting, and monitoring. The streamlining of Gram Panchayat Development Plans (GPDP) emphasizes on efficiency and accountability, while the Panchayat Development Index (PDI) measures performance and guides targeted improvements. The Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan (CB-PSA) has empowered Panchayats with essential skills and knowledge, enabling effective governance and mandate fulfillment. The Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (RGSA) has synergized efforts for rural development, and Localising Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to align initiatives with local needs.

Despite Central & State governments taking some steps regarding the development of PRI, they should also focus on ensuring financial autonomy, increasing local revenue and government grants for development projects, conducting capacity-building programs to empower elected representatives and PRI functionaries, promoting digital empowerment through technology integration, and focus on local planning. The implementation of one-third reservation for women effectively in PRIs and promote women’s empowerment through skill development and leadership training. Panchayats should conduct social audit mechanisms for community involvement in project evaluation, facilitating collaboration among PRIs for regional development, prioritizing sustainability and eco-friendly practices, launching awareness campaigns, and encouraging private sector collaboration through CSR initiatives. Incentivize good governance practices to foster healthy competition among local leaders. These far sighted policy-level reforms will unlock the potential of Panchayats, driving rural transformation and creating a more equitable and prosperous future for rural India.

Looking towards 2047 as a developed nation, when we complete 50 years of the Panchayati Raj system in 2042, we should bridge the gap between Rural and Urban India through inclusive, sustainable development.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.