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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 17 New Delhi April 13, 2019

Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Dalits and Decentralised Rural Governance in India: Ideas, Application and Reality

Saturday 13 April 2019


by Mahi Pal


Dr B.R. Ambedkar was one the greatest sons of India who was not only a parliamentarian, scholar of repute and constitutionalist expert but also a crusader for the Dalits in India.1 He struggled throughout his life for establishing such a social order which is based on liberty, equality and universal brotherhood. This requires not only liberty and deliverance of the oppressed, depressed and suppressed, but also establishment of such institutions which are not only democratic but also close to the masses as well as have adequate representation of women and vulnerable sections at various levels of government. For achieving this, decentralised rural governance2 is also very important to create a proper socio-economic development environment for holistic development of each and every individual and the society.

In the above perspective, it is interesting to study how the Panchayats had become a part of the Constitution after the debate in the Constituent Assembly and what were the views of Dr B.R. Ambedkar on the inclusion of Panchayats in the Constitution and how these institutions had become a part of the Constitution. Dr Ambedkar, who was initially opposing inclusion of Village Panchayats in the Constitution, had subsequently accepted the Panchayats’ inclusion in it. Before the Constituent Assembly debate, he was for the exclusion of Panchayats when the Bombay Panchayat Bill was debated in 1932. What has been the trajectory of the Panchayats since independence and particularly after putting those in Part Nine of the Constitution by the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1993?

At this juncture when a quarter century has elapsed after enactment of the 73rd Amendment, it is important to know whether what Dr Ambedkar had said about the issue seven decades ago has been proved wrong or not. This would be an interesting study of the ideas of local self-government and its implementation at the grassroots. The necessity of exploration of this truth is due to the fact that in the present context affecting the daily lives of the people rural local governments or Panchayats are more relevant than State and Central governments.

The present paper examines the above questions briefly so that the interest of scholars and researchers in this area increases and the reality among the people, particularly intellec-tuals, is also brought to the fore on the question of designating Dr B.R. Ambedkar against the Panchayats.

1. Constituent Assembly Debate and Panchayats

On November 4, 1948 Dr B.R. Ambedkar, while moving a motion in the Constituent Assembly for consideration of the Draft Constitution of India, made certain observations about the village. He quoted Metcalfe who had described the villages thus: “Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down. Revolution succeeds revolution. Hindoo, Pathan, Mogul, Maharatha, Sikh, English are all masters in turn but the village communities remain the same. In times of trouble they arm and fortify themselves. A hostile army passes through the country. The village communities collect their cattle within their walls, and let the enemy pass unprovoked.” (Jathar, 1964, p. 35) After the above quote he commented: “Such is the part the village communities have played in the history of their country. Knowing this, what pride can one feel in them? That they have survived through all vicissitudes may be a fact. But mere survival has no value. The question is on what plane they have survived. Surely on a low, on a selfish level. I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am, therefore, surprised that those who condemn provincia-lism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” (Ibid., 1964, p. 35)

The utterance of the above words by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in the Assembly had triggered a debate on the issue of village panchayats. The views of some of the members on the comments of Dr Ambedkar are given below in order to understand as to how the Panchayats were placed in the Constitution.

Shri Damodar Swarup Seth pleaded for local self-government. Prof S.L. Saksena endorsed the views of Mahatma Gandhi for village Panchayats or village republic. Shri H.V. Kamath also went for the Panchayats and asked that if not the Panchayati Raj, what remedy would Dr Ambedkar suggest for the upliftment of villages. Shri K. Santhanam, while agreeing to some extent with the views of Dr Ambedkar, did not agree with his condemnation of the village panchayats and his statement that they were responsible for all the national disasters. Shri R.K. Sidhwa observed: “This is a Constitution prepared for democracy in this country and Dr Ambedkar has negatived the very idea of democracy by ignoring the local authorities and villages... Local authorities are the pivots of the social and economic life of the country and if there is no place for local authorities in this Constitution, let me tell you that the Constitution is not worth considering.” (Ibid., 1964, p. 39)

Dr Monomohan Das, although not opposing the village Panchayats, cautioned that“Unless and until our village people are educated, unless and until they become politically conscious, unless they become conscious of their civic rights and responsibilities and unless they become conscious of their rights and privileges, this Village Panchayat system will do more harm than good.” (Ibid., 1964, p. 40)

Prof. N.G. Ranga had pleaded for Panchayats in these words: “Do we want centralisation of administration or decentralisation? Mahatma Gandhi has pleaded over a period of thirty years for decentralisation. We, as Congressmen, are committed to decentralisation. Indeed all the world is today in favour of decentrali-sation.” (Ibid., 1964, p. 41)

The views expressed by various members show that almost all members were for inclusion of Panchayats in the Constitution and therefore disagreed with the views of Dr Ambedkar.

On November 22, 1948, K. Santhanam moved the following motion:

“That after Article 31, the following new Article be added. 31A. The State shall take steps to organise village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.”

This amendment was immediately assented by Dr Ambedkar in these words: “I have nothing more to add.” In this way, the motion was adopted unanimously and Article 31A became Article 40 as a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. (Ibid., 1964, p. 43)

It is may be noted that Dr B.R. Ambeadkar, who was criticising the Panchayats, agreed to the motion moved by Santhanam for inclusion of the village Panchayats in the Constitution.

2. Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s Views on Panchayats in 1932

It is interesting to study why he had not spoken for the weaker sections’ space in Panchayats in the Constituent Assembly debate in 1948, while 16 years before the Constituent Assembly debate on October 6, 1932, when the Bombay Village Panchayat Bill was discussed in the Bombay Assembly, he had favoured for a policy of devolution with special provisions for the depressed classes.

To quote Dr Ambedkar, “I should like to say at once that I have no objection in principle to the policy of devolution. If it is found that the local boards of this Presidency are overburdened by the functions which are placed upon by the Local Board Act and if by reason of that they are unable to discharge their functions efficiently, then I say by all means institute village Panchayats so as to disburden the local boards.” (Moon, 1982, p. 106)

As far as the space for the depressed classes is concerned, Dr Ambedkar commented: “The Bill provides that the village Panchayats shall be elected on the basis of adult suffrage both for males and females....but I should like to make it clear... that speaking for the depressed classes, I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that adult suffrage is not sufficient for us. The Hon’ble Minister has forgotten that the depressed classes are in a minority in every village, a miserable minority, and assuming that he adopts adult suffrage, he will readily admit I am sure that adult suffrage cannot convert a minority into a majority. Consequentially, I am bound to insist that if these Panchayats come, there shall be special representation for the minorities. At any rate, there shall be special representation for the depressed classes... I can never accept the principle of self-government for India unless I am satisfied that every self-governing institution has provision in it which gives the depressed classes special representation in order to protect their rights...” (op. cit., p. 107)

3. Critique

Initially, Dr Ambedkar opposed inclusion of the Panchayats in the Constitution. But when a number of Members of the Constituent Assembly argued for Panchayats and when Shri Santhanam moved the motion for inclusion of Panchayats in the Directive Principles of State Policy, Dr Ambedkar accepted the inclusion of Panchayats in the Constitution. The reason why Dr Ambedkar accepted Village Panchayats in the Directives Principles of State Policy might be that he had read between the lines that since the Panchayats would be set up on the wishes of the State governments, these institutions would not flourish or get strengthened. And the provisions of Article 40 would largely be confined to the Constitution. The experiences of the functioning of Panchayats after 1932 might have given enough inputs to Dr Ambedkar that if the Panchayats had been made a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, those would not be strengthened by the political leaders and bureaucrats as they were not interested in making Panchayats strong and pulsating institutions.

It is evident from the functioning of the Panchayats after independence that they could not play any significant role in the development and planning of the life of villagers after 1947. The leaders, who argued and showed enthu-siasm for the development of village Panchayats during the debate in the Constituent Assembly, had not shown any active participation in the development of Panchayats for about a decade. (Jather, 1964, p. 45)

However, from the point of view of the author of this article, Dr Ambedkar should have argued for placing Panchayats in Part IX of the Constitution and suggested to the Constituent Assembly to provide adequate space for vulnerable groups like SCs, STs and women in these institutions. Had it been given to marginalised groups as was given as per the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act after 43 years of coming into force of the Constitution, their conditions would have been far better today. Dr Ambedkar might have seen the plight of marginalised groups in the Panchayats in terms of using their powers and authority by the dominant section of the villages. So, he was averse to the Panchayats. But for this, he might have argued for capacity development support to the elected representatives in general and marginalised groups in particular.

4. Seventythird Amendment Act and Marginalised Groups

As per the provisions of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act 1992, Panchayats have been included in its Ninth Schedule. These have both mandatory and enabling provisions. Mandatory provisions are those provisions which are invariably included in the State Panchayat Acts. Enabling provisions are the provisions which are left to State Legislatures to take a call on those. The reservation for marginalised groups like SCs, STs have been made at all levels of Panchayats. Provisions have also been made for women who would be at least one-third of the total number of seats at the membership and President levels. The seats are to be rotated among different constituencies of a Panchayat.

As per Article 243G of the Constitution, Panchayats would prepare plans for economic development and social justice including 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution. These 29 subjects, among others, include agriculture, poverty alleviation pro-grammes, health, education, small scale industries, women and child development, social welfare including welfare of weaker sections, public distribution system and maintenance of community assets.

It is clear from the above that the 73rd Amendment Act has given a framework for empowerment of Panchayats and making them de facto rural local governments.

5. Working of Panchayats from the Perspective of Vulnerable Sections

In this part of the article, experiences of the functioning of Panchayats from the time of independence upto the period of passing of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1993 and the progress in this regard achieved from 1993 till date are presented.

5.1 Working of Panchayats from Independence upto 1993

There has been space for the vulnerable sections in the Panchayats. There have been provisions for constituting standing committees in the State Panchayat Acts for specifically zeroing in on issues relating to them. But not much has been done concretely for decentrali-sation from the States and Centre to the Panchayats. In the context of the Panchayats and Dalits, the then National Commission for SCs and STs organised a conference. In this conference, what the then Prime Minister had said about Dalits is worth quoting here.

The Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had at the national conference on Panchayati Raj and SCs during February 24-27, 1989, organised by the National Commission for SCs and STs at New Delhi, summarised the extent of decentralisation that had taken place in the countryside. In his address on February 24, 1989 he said: “The issue is that in the event of bestowing of powers how can we ensure to give special strength to the weaker sections of our society in the envisaged structure? I am talking of special strength and not of providing protection.” (NCSCST, 1989, p. 40) In his concluding remarks he said: “The Harijans and the Adivasis must be having the feeling that a number of obstructionist forces are creating impediments in their development. There are power brokers who are coming in the way of their progress. We want to break these power brokers and bestow powers in the hands of the people.” (NCSCST, 1989, p. 40) In his valedictory address on February 27, 1989, he was more specific:        “We have seen that during the last 40 years whatever we have attempted to do from Delhi or State capitals, the power brokers have affected the goals adversely...Until and unless we are in a position to strengthen your hands, we shall not be able to fight the battle. I am not thinking to pass on this struggle in your hands by means of decentralisation of powers but we would like to fight this struggle along with you unitedly.” (NCSCST, 1989, p. 45)

It may be deduced from the above obser-vations of the then Prime Minister that even after four decades of putting Panchayats in the Constitution, still in place of people and their organisations, power brokers have been holding the balance in rural local governance. It may also be stated that what Dr Ambedkar spoke about Indian villages and Panchayats was also true till the passage of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution.

5.2 Working of Panchayats from 1993 onward

Seven decades have elapsed since Dr B.R. Ambedkar had said in the Constituent Assembly that “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” And 25 years have also elapsed since the Panchayats were elevated from being mere units of self-government to being institutions of self-government and included in Part IX of the Indian Constitution. Importantly, adequate space has also been provided for SCs, STs and women. Besides, the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 has also been implemented to hand over the economic and social system of the tribals in their hands. It may further be noted that over a period of time the Panchayati Raj System (PRS) has moved from the periphery to the centre-stage of academic research and policy studies.

Experiences revealed that initially partici-pation of SC and ST representatives in decision-making on both governance and developmental issues remained low. But subsequently over three elections, representatives of SCs and STs have been able to air their concerns in the atmos-phere created by the reservation of seats for them. Awareness about their role in rural local governance and their entitlements has promoted collective action to achieve their rights in accessing services like mid-day meal and entitlements like land and resources. Their approach of addressing issues and their solutions has also changed from contestation and resistance to dialogue and problem-solving. (State of Panchayats, 2008-09, p. 105) Such developments have been taking place where civil society has been active in promoting awareness among the Dalits and deprived. But in most of the places the dominant section of the village society has been holding the balance.

Further, an example of constituting Social Justice Committees (SJCs) in Gujarat for the marginalised sections is an example in this regard. A study of SJCs revealed that “on the whole, the prevalence and performance of SJCs has not been very encouraging. Generally, panchayats do not yet function with an entitlement approach. They are still very much dependent on the State Government and are largely managed by the bureaucracy at all three levels.” (Bhat, 2013, p. 218 in Mathew, 2013)

In addition to the above, on the basis of two very recent micro studies of Uttar Pradesh adequate grassroots evidence shows as to how far decentra-lisation has enabled Dalits to participate in decentralised governance, planning and develop-ment. Siddhartha Mukerji, in his study of three Gram Panchayats of the Gorakhpur district of UP, discloses that all Gram Panchayats (GPs) are headed by Dalits. Out of these, one GP has been headed by an SC woman. The study in its core explores the interplay of money, power and violence as the determining factors in the Panchayat elections. A Panchayat election has emerged as a business deal among three stakeholders, namely, the dominant caste leaders, the proxy candidates, and the voters. Elections involve heavy investment with higher dividend. In reserved constituencies, the dominant castes made direct investment for their proxy candidates. In the above referred GPs, “... an average of Rs 5 lakh-Rs 6 lakh was spent in election campaigning. The proxy candidates were also lured by the financial incentives of pradhans... The voters were paid in cash and kind ... incentive. They were given Rs 2000-Rs 3000 in addition to alcohol and non-vegetarian food for men, and sari and payal for women.” The dividend has been managed through grants received under various State and Central Government sponsored schemes.

But it may be also viewed as compulsion on the part of the pradhans and panchayats because as the study pointed out, “A pradhan can survive in politics only if he pays commission at different levels of this chain. This includes the gram vikas secretary, the junior engineer, staff at the block level and zilla panchayat.” In some cases, greasing the palm of officials has become a compulsion which has been vividly explained by the former pradhan of Devipur, GP as cited in the study. He said: “Around 75 per cent of funds allotted goes into paying commission to the Panchayat Secretary, junior engineer, staff at block and Zilla panchayat levels and the rest 25 per cent is used for development work. If the commission is not paid then we would have to run around the Block office and Zilla Panchayat and the files would never be cleared. If there is an honest person nobody would allow him to work. He will be rejected by both the family and society. Honest people also take but very little.”

It is evident from the above case study that caste and money factor play an important role in rural local governments. In fact, elected representatives, particularly ward members of Panchayats, have not shown any political will to weed out the existing system of corruption.

The second case study is also from the Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh where the Voters Union (Matadhikar Sangh) has been struggling to usher in de facto Panchayati Raj where the Gram Sabha (village assembly) and its executive body (GP) hold the balance in rural local governance. It is estimated by the Voters Union that about Rs 23,000 is being allotted for each and every member of the GS to be spent with the concurrence of the GS. However, the corrupt officials prepare spurious record of the meetings and siphon off money meant for the members of the GS. Officials charged upto 40 per cent commission for works like housing, pensions, health insurance, construction of roads, drainages, construction of streets, solar lights, etc. It was claimed by P.N. Kalki, who is the main convener of the VU, that on account of showing meetings of the GS on paper out of 24 lakh houseless households four lakh (about 17 per cent) were ineligible households. There was a fraud of Rs 260 crores in the Sitapur district brought out by the VU last year. Not only this, the instructions issued for proper conduct of the meetings of the GS by the Principal Secretary, Government of Uttar Pradesh have not been honoured by officials working as cutting edges. Who are those who need government assistance? They are the poor Dalits, tribals and lower level OBCs. One should not understand that such cases are confined to UP alone.

In view of the above, much groundwork has to be done to disprove what Dr B.R. Ambedkar had said seven decades ago in the Constituent Assembly debate.

The solution lies in bringing more democracy at the cutting edge level. With a rough estimate, there are about one lakh associations and organisnations which are manned by Dalits. These associations should come forward to give support in the form of resource centres3 to presidents and members of Panchayats who belong to vulnerable groups at the local level. Secondly, capacity development of Panchayats in the form of devolution of triple Fs, creation of requisite infrastructure such as Gram Panchayat buildings, internet etc. should be provided on a priority basis. The idea behind these suggestions is that there would be demand among the Dalits for decentralisation. Because at present due to lack of any solid support they are afraid of assisting.4


To conclude, Panchayats have been constitutio-nalised and adequate representation has also been provided to weaker sections of the rural society. But still participation of these sections has been at the periphery. Two case studies given in the article show where the shoe pinches in the context of decentralisation and Dalit empowerment. If Dr B.R. Ambedkar has to be disproved, Panchayats have to be made an integral part of Indian federalism and as the powers of States and the Centre are distributed by the Constitution, in the same way powers between States and Panchayats have to be distributed. Panchayats should not be left to the mercy of the State Legislatures. Powers to those have to be carved out in the Constitution.


Jathar, R.V. (1964): Evolution of Panchayati Raj in India, Institute of Economic Research, Dharwar-4.

Moon, Vasant (1982): Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol. 2, Education Department, Government of Maharasthra.

National Conference on Panchayati Raj and Scheduled Castes—A Brief Report, National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, New Delhi, February 24-27, 1989, Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi.

Mahi Pal (2004): “Haryana—Caste and Patriarchy in Panchayats”, Economic and Political Weekly, 3583-84.

State of Panchayats, 2008-09, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India.

Bhat, Rajesh G. (2013): “Gujarat” p. 218 in State of Panchayati Raj in States and UTs of India, Institute of Social Sciences, (ed.) G. Mathew.

Mahi Pal (2017): “The Panchayati Raj factor in Gujarat Assembly election results”, The Indian Express, December, 28.

Mahi Pal (2018): “Dalits feel helpless!”, Sopan, October, 2018.

Mukerji, Siddhartha (2018): “The 2015 Gram Pradhan Elections in Uttar Pradesh—Money, Power, and Violence”, Economic and Political Weekly, June.


1. Dalits denotes depressed, suppressed and oppressed sections of rural India. Broadly, SCs, STs, most backward classes and women come under the Dalit fold.

2. Governance means collective action with the involve-ment of people, civil society, government and markets. Here decentralised rural local governance denotes governance through the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

3. These centres provide access to information about various aspects of Panchayati Raj and guidelines of various rural development programmes. These would act as beacons for the Dalits’ empowerment and entitlements.

4. In a number of places in rural areas, the author asked the Dalit youth to motivate members of GPs to partake in the meetings of GP and GS. Their reply is “log darte hai” (people are afraid).

Dr Mahi Pal is a former officer of the Indian Economic Services and an expert in local governance.

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