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Pandemic & Panchayat

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  • Published
    29th Apr, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed elected representatives in local governments on April 24, 2020 to mark the National Panchayati Raj Day. He addressed them when India’s local governments have taken the centrestage in this disruptive stage of the fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed elected representatives in local governments on April 24, 2020 to mark the National Panchayati Raj Day. He addressed them when India’s local governments have taken the centrestage in this disruptive stage of the fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.


  • In the ongoing 40-day national lockdown, India has not had much to celebrate as number cases positive to the SARS-COV-2 virus have spiked.
  • But if anyone wants to seek a silver lining, it is there in almost every village: The ubiquitous panchayat elected member.
  • In a crisis without precedent, both in spread and scale, everybody needs to speak to the panchayat member.
  • Whether how to quarantine returning migrants to villages, or how to identify the hungry and immediately reach food relief to them, a chief minister needs these elected members more than his elected members of the legislative assembly.
  • At least 16 states have now COVID-19 emergency strategy that puts the panchayats at the core of implementation.
  • An Indian has more per capita elected member due to these local governments than a hospital bed or a doctor or a government welfare officer.
  • With more than three million of them, India’s local government, or the Panchayati Raj, is the largest experiment in direct democracy in the world. 
  • And they are in the forefront of the country’s fight against the pandemic. They are proactive in readying the infrastructure to treat people, to arrange massive movements of food grains for community kitchens and also to maintain that crucial hygiene and “social distancing” at village level.
  • They have emerged as the bridge between the decision makers and the community that would have to adapt or implement such decisions.


What is Panchayati Raj System?

  • Panchayati Raj is the oldest system of local government in the Indian subcontinent.
  • Panchayati Raj Institutions as units of local government have been in existence in India for a long time, in different permutations and combinations.
  • However, it was only in 1992 that it was officially established by the Indian Constitution as the third level of India’s federal democracy through the 73rd Amendment Act.
  • The Panchayat Raj Systemwas first adopted by the state of Rajasthan in Nagaur district on 2nd October 1959. The second state was Andhra Pradesh.
  • The Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) consists of three levels:
    • Gram Panchayat at the village level
    • Block Panchayat or Panchayat Samiti at the intermediate level
    • Zilla Panchayat at the district level
  • The word “Panchayat” means assembly (ayat) of five (panch) and raj means “rule”.
  • Traditionally Panchayats consisted of elderly and wise people chosen by the local community, who used to settle disputes between individuals and villages.
  • The Panchayati Raj system is also recognised as a form of direct democracy (i.e they exercise all powers of a government at a village level), as opposed to the popular notion that it is a type of representative democracy.
  • In modern India, Mahatma Gandhi was one of the leading advocates of Gram Swaraj i.e village self-governance where the village would be responsible for its own affairs.
  • The Panchayati Raj system of governance can be found all over South Asia in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, where it goes by the same name.


National Panchayati Raj Day:

  • The first National Panchayati Raj Day was celebrated in 2010. Since then, the National Panchayati Raj Day is celebrated on April 24 every year in India.
  • Every year on this National Panchayati Raj Day Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj organises National Conference and awards best performing Gram Panchayats with 'The Panchayat Shashakatikaran Puraskar/Rashtriya Gaurav Gram Sabha Puraskar'.

Understanding the structure:

  • Gram Panchayat:
  • Gram Panchayat consists of a village or a group of villages divided into smaller units called “Wards”.
    • Each ward selects or elects a representative who is known as the Panch or ward member.
  • The members of the Gram Sabha elect the ward members through a direct election.
  • The Sarpanch or the president of the Gram Panchayat is elected by the ward members as per the State Act.  The Sarpanch and the Panch are elected for a period of five years.

Block Panchayat:

  • Panchayat Samiti (also called Taluka Panchayats or Block Panchayats) is the intermediate level in Panchayati Raj Institutions.
  • The Panchayat Samiti acts as the link between Gram Panchayat (Village) and District Panchayat (Zilla).
  • The block council consists of all of the Sarpanchas and the Upa Sarpanchas from each Gram Panchayat along with members of the legislative assembly (MLA), members of parliament (MPs), associate members (like a representative from a cooperative society) and members from the Zilla Parishad who are a part of the block.
  • The Gram Panchayat members nominate their Sarpanch and Upa Sarpanch amongst their ranks, which extend to the selection of the chairperson and vice-chairperson as well.
  • The Executive Officer (EO) is the head of the administration section of the Panchayat Samiti.

District Panchayat:

  • The District Panchayat also known as the District Council or Zilla Parishad is the third tier of the Panchayati Raj system.
  • Like the Gram Panchayat, it is also an elected body.
  • Chairpersons of Block Samitis also represent the District Panchayat. Like the Block Panchayat, the MP and MLA are also members of the district panchayat.
  • The government appoints the Chief Executive Officer to carry out the administration of the district Panchayat along with the the Chief Accounts Officer, the Chief Planning Officer and one or more Deputy Secretaries who work directly under the Chief Executive Officer and assist him/her.
  • The Zilla Parishad chairperson is the political head of the district panchayat.

Salient features of Panchayat:

  • The Gram Sabha is a body consisting of all the people registered in the electoral rolls who belong to a village comprised within the area of the Panchayat at the village level.
  • Permanent: Gram Sabha is the smallest and the only permanent unit in the Panchayati Raj system. The powers and functions of Gram Sabha are fixed by state legislature according to the law on the subject.
  • Reservation: Seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) and chairpersons of the Panchayats at all levels are reserved for SCs and STs in proportion to their population.
    • Women: One-third of the total number of seats are to be reserved for women. One-third of the seats reserved for SCs and STs, are also reserved for women. This policy extends to the office of the chairperson at all levels as well (Article 243D). The reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the Panchayat.
  • There is a uniform policy with each term being five years. Fresh elections must be conducted before the expiry of the term. In the event of dissolution, elections compulsorily within six months (Article 243E).

    Major committees on Panchayat:

    Balwanth Rai Mehta Committee

    • The committee was appointed in 1957 to study the Community Development Programme and National Extension Scheme.
    • It submitted its report in November 1957 in which it identified lack of people’s participation as a main cause of failure of both programmes. The committee made the following recommendations:
      • Three- tier structure for PRIs – Zilla Parishad, Mandal Parishad and Gram Panchayat. It was the first committee to propose a three tier structure for PRIs.
      • indirect elections for Zilla Parishad and Mandal Parishad and direct elections for Gram Panchayat.
      • transfer of powers and responsibilities to these institutions and transfer of resources to discharge these responsibilities.
      • all social-economic development programs must be channelized through these institutions.
      • tenure of five years

    Sadik Ali Committee:

    • The Committee was appointed in 1964 by the Rajasthan Government to study the reasons for failure of the institution. The Committee identified the following reasons:
      • Meetings of Gram Sabha were not announced
      • When meetings were arranged they were not used to discuss people’s problems but were used as a platform to promote government policies and initiatives.
      • Meetings were mostly organized during peak agricultural seasons.
      • No records of Gram Sabha were maintained as a consequence of which there was absolutely no progress.

     G. L. Vyas Committee:

    • Appointed in 1974 by Rajasthan government to suggest measures for improving performance of PRI’s, recommended the following:
      • Statutory recognition should be given to Gram Sabha
      • Compulsory attendance of sarpanch in Gram Sabha meetings
      • Meetings to be held in non agricultural seasons
      • Village level workers must attend Gram Sabha meetings and maintain a record of meetings.

    Ashok Mehta Committee:

    • The Committee was appointed in 1977 to suggest measures for improvement of LSG in India. Recommendations of the Committee:
      • two tier Structure for PRIs – Zilla Parishad and Mandal Panchayat
      • Open participation of political parties in elections
      • Social Audit by district level agencies
      • Compulsory taxation to powers
      • Reservations for SC, ST and women
      • Separate ministry of Panchayati Raj Institutions’ in state

    N. Singhvi Committee:

    • The Committee was appointed in 1986 on Revitalization of PRI’s for democratic Development (CRPDD). Recommendations of the Committee:
      • Constitutionalization of Panchayati Raj Institutions
      • Gram Sabha is an embodiment of direct Democracy therefore it should be made compulsory

    Role & Functions:

    • Panchayats have the responsibility to prepare plans for economic development and social justice with respect to the subjects as per the law put in place, which also extends to the various levels of Panchayat including the subjects as illustrated in the Eleventh Schedule (Article 243G).
    • Panchayats are directly in charge of the crisis management at the local level.
    • Besides the elected members, a panchayat also commands the local development work force like the ASHA workers and also the ever expanding women self-help groups.
    • More than 10 million such workers (including the elected panchayat members) are implementing pandemic-related works like as urgent as cooking food for thousands.


    • E-panchayat is one of the Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) under National e-Governance Programme (NeGP).
    • It is aimed at making Panchayats more efficient, transparent and symbols of modernity by leveraging ICT to become modern institutions of self governance at the cutting edge level by ensuring greater openness through transparency, disclosure of information, social audit, efficient delivery of services, improving internal management of Panchayats, procurement etc. 

    Why is the Panchayat suddenly such a sought-after institution?

    • The government have often ignored this elected third-level government as another corrupt department.
    • In the last 28 years, since the Indian Constitution made them an elected government with clear functions like that of the other two — the Union and state — the country has accumulated vast local experience of managing complex development challenges.
    • While as a country we have abandoned the Five-year plan, each Panchayat has to make at least five such plans for five years: One each for sanitation, water security, education, development under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and overall village development.
    • Panchayats implement close to 80 percent of the rural development schemes evolved by the governments, making them a unique elected body that also function as an executive.
    • At their disposal is a dedicated fund under the Finance Commission, like that of states and also close to Rs 90,000 crore annually for implementing various rural-development schemes.
    • And Panchayat members, in elections every five years, get voted out the most, as a general trend, compared to members of Parliament and legislative Assemblies. 


    When the history of India’s first pandemic in the 21st century will be written, these grassroots governance system will emerge the winner. But, it is also time to give these governments their constitutional rights. While we have transferred functions to Panchayats as mandated by the Constitution, we are yet to fully transfer the right funds and functionaries to them to effective function like an elected government. It is time we make them the government.

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