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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 43, October 10, 2009

Unfinished Agenda of Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj: Fifty Years of Panchayati Raj

Sunday 11 October 2009, by Ranbir Singh

Although the Father of Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, advocated for ‘a village based political formation fostered by a stateless, classless society’ for the creation of Gram Swaraj, the idea of Panchayati Raj did not find a place in the Draft Constitution of India. This happened because the Congress Constitution Committee rejected the idea ‘believing that the Congress could neither forgo its political role nor become so utterly decentralised’ as envisaged in the Gandhian concept of Gram Swaraj. (Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, 1966 p. 29) So much so that the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution and the Minister of Law, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, did not care to reply to the letter dated May 10, 1948 from Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, as to why the Draft he had circulated did not even use the two words ‘Panchayati Raj’. Instead, the reply came four months later in September 1948 from the Secretary of the Law Ministry saying that the Draft had already been circulated and that it was far too late to make any changes and if any amendments were desired, the same could be moved on the floor of the House.

Not only this, Ambedkar’s response to the criticism by Gandhians like H.V. Kamath, Arun Chandra Guha, T. Prakasam, K. Santhanam, Shibban Lal Saxena, Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar, N.G. Ranga, M. Anathsayanam Ayyangar, Mahavir Tyagi, K.T. Shah and others was: Village Republics (Panchayats of Village Communities) were a cause of the “ruination of India”. They were nothing but “sink of localism and of ignorance and communalism” and “I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit”. His stance on Panchayats was perhaps based on his apprehension that the Panchayats shall be dominated by upper castes and exploit and repress the Scheduled Castes. But, the then Prime Minister of India and the leader the Congress Parliamentary Party, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to remain silent on this issue; perhaps, he favoured a centralised polity for making India a modern and developed state.

But, the passionate pleas of the Gandhians like Prof N. G. Ranga and others virtually forced Ambedkar to accept an amendment moved by K. Santhanam which later on got incorporated into Article-40 of the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution of India. It directed the state to set up Village Panchayats and endow them with the authority to function as units of self-government.

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This did lead to the enactment of Gram Panchayat Acts by various States; these were no more than half-hearted attempts for the creation of rural local government institutions. But the failure of the Community Development Programme, which had been launched for bringing a silent revolution in rural society by awakening the dormant forces of progress, led to the appointment of Balwantray Mehta Study Team. It was the scheme of democratic decen-tralisation suggested by this Team (1957) that led to the creation of the Panchayati Raj which was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, at Nagaur in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959.

It was the Panchayati Raj that set up local democracy at the district, block and village levels in the form of Gram Panchayats, Pan-chayat Samitis and Zila Parishads respectively. However, the Panchayati Raj proved to be the proverbial God that failed on account of several reasons. The main among these was the hostility of political leaders and the bureaucracy. Consequently, the Panchayati Raj, developed during 1959-1964, became stagnant during 1964-1971 and the decade thereafter. The attempt of the Ashoka Mehta Committee (1978) failed to revitalise the Panchayati Raj Institutions. However, the States of West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh did take the lead in this direction.

But the real rejuvenation process started as a result of the moving of the 64th Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha in 1989 by then Prime Minister of India, late Rajiv Gandhi, who appears to have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gra0m Swaraj. It was passed by the Lok Sabha by a two-thirds majority but failed to get the same in the Rajya Sabha and was rejected in the Upper House. This vision was, however, subsequently institutionalised in the form of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (1992). This led to the establishment of the new system of the Panchayati Raj in the States in 1994 through the enactment of conformity legislations.

But the studies of several distinguished scholars on the working of the Panchayati Raj in different States and the Status Report of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (1996) lead us to the inference that the Gandhian ideal of Gram Swaraj remains an unfinished agenda even after fifty years of the implementation of the Panchayati Raj on the recommendation of the Balwantray Mehta Study Team on October 2, 1959 at Nagaur in Rajasthan and even 17 years after the enactment of the 73rd Amendment and 15 years after its implementation by various States in 1994 through conformity legislations for several reasons. The foremost among them is the lack of political will in most of the governments of the States. Even the concerted efforts of the former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Iyer (2004-09), have failed to make much difference. Therefore, concerted, systematic and sustained endeavours are needed on the part of those for whom Gram Swaraj remains a cherished dream for the empowerment of people and for making India a participatory democracy.

The author is a retired Professor of Political Science, Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra, and presently a Consultant, HIRD, Nilokheri.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62