Panchayats used to be the seat of justice. Local disputes and other problems were referred to Panchayats and their decisions used to be respected by one and all. National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi had a firm faith in this system. The Constitution makers also considered this system to be very important and made provisions for it in the Directive Principles of State Policy.

The Constitution states that the State shall take steps to organise Village Panchayats and empower them with such powers and authorities as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of local self government. As a follow up, the present day Panchayats began functioning under the Community Development Programme introduced during the first Five year Plan.

To make the system more effective a Committee was formed under the Chairmanship of Balwant Rai Mehta that went into its details. The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee in its report submitted in 1957 recommended the establishment of a three-tier Panchayati Raj System: Gram Panchayats at the village level, the Panchayat Samitis at the block level or intermediate level and the Zila Parishad at the district level.

In 1958, the National Development Council also recommended a similar structure of local government where village was at the bottom of the system and district at the top. However, it is the 73rd Constitutional Amendment 1992 that provided the present shape to the Panchayati Raj System. Now the Panchayati Raj Institutions in most of the States have been set up at three levels, village, intermediate and district levels. But in smaller States having a population of less than 20 lakh, there are only two tiers, the village level and the district level.

The 73rd Constitutional Amendment, 1992

The passage of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 marks a new era in the federal democratic set up of the country and provides constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The main features of the Act are:

  1. Establishment of a three-tier structure: Village Panchayat (Gram Panchayat); intermediate panchayat (Panchayat Samiti; and the district panchayat (Zila Parishad)
  2. Regular elections, every five years
  3. Reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population
  4. Not less than one-third reservation of seats for women at three different levels of PRIs
  5. Establishment of State Finance Commissions to recommend measures to improve the finances of panchayats
  6. Establishment of State Election Commissions to conduct election to the PRIs
  7. Establishment of District Planning Committees to prepare development plans for the districts
  8. Preparation of plans for economic development and social justice and their execution concerning 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution
  9. Establishment of Grama Sabha (village assemblies) and their empowerment as a decision making body at the village level
  10. Rotation in accordance with the reservation of seats for women and the Scheduled Castes in the PRIs

By the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, the Panchayati Raj Institutions have been given such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function. It contains provisions for devolution of powers and responsibilities related to (a) the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice; and (b) the implementation of such schemes for economic development and social justice as may be entrusted to them.

1. Gram Panchayats

Organisation

Village Panchayat also called Gram Panchayat is the grass root institution of Panchayati Raj System. At village level there is a Gram Sabha or Village Assembly and a Gram Panchayat having a Chairperson known as Gram Pradhan or Sarpanch (Mukhia), a Vice Chairperson and some Panches.

A Gram Sabha or Village Assembly consists of all the adults i.e. voters (persons above the age of 18 years) living in the area of a Gram Panchayat i.e., village or a group of small villages. The Gram Sabha has now been recognised as a legal body. It acts like the legislative body. In one year at least two meetings of the Gram Sabha are held.

In its first meeting the Gram Sabha considers the budget of the Gram Panchayat. In its second meeting it considers the reports of the Gram Panchayat. The main functions of Gram Sabha are to review the annual accounts of Panchayat, discuss audit and administrative reports and the tax proposals of its Panchayat and accept community service, voluntary labour and schemes for Panchayat.

The members of Gram Sabha elect the members and also the Chairperson of Gram Panchayat. The States have to ensure that all the Gram Sabhas in their respective areas are functional.

The Village Panchayat or Gram Panchayat is the executive committee of Gram Sabha. It is the most important unit of rural local self-government. All the members of each Gram Sabha are voters who elect the members of the Panchayat by a secret ballot. In most of the States, a Village Panchayat has 5 to 9 members who are called Panches. In every Panchayat, one-third of the seats are reserved for women. However, there are States where the percentage of seats reserved for women is even more. Seats are also reserved for persons belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The Sarpanch (Mukhia) of the Panchayat is directly elected by all the voters of the village. Some offices of Sarpanches are now reserved for women, and some for persons belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Sarpanch calls the meetings of the Panchayat and presides over those meetings. He or She is to call at least one meeting of the Panchayat per month.

The Panches can also request him or her for calling a special meeting. He or She has to call such special meeting within three days of the request. Sarpanch keeps the records of the meetings of Panchayat. The Panchayat can assign any special function to him or her. A Vice Chairperson is elected by the members of the Panchayat. The tenure of the Village Panchayat is of 5 years.

Functions of Gram Panchayats

All the major functions of Gram Panchayat are related to the welfare and development of the village. With a view to fulfil the needs and requirements of the villagers every Gram Panchayat has to perform some important functions such as provision of safe drinking water, paving of streets, developing and maintaining good drainage system, ensuring cleanliness of the village, upkeep of street lights, dispensary, etc. These functions are known as obligatory functions.

Some other functions are discretionary and can be performed, if the Panchayat has the resources and funds. These are plantation of trees, setting up and maintenance of insemination centre for cattle, developing and maintaining play ground for sports and setting up and running the library. From time to time some other functions can be assigned to Panchayats by the State government or Union government.

But along with these functions of Panchayats, every member of the village also has the duty towards his or her village. One should keep the surroundings of home clean, not waste drinking water and plant more and more trees.

Sources of Income of Gram Panchayats

Financial resources are essential for performance of the functions by Panchayats, whether these are obligatory functions or developmental work. Gram Panchayats can work better, if they have adequate funds to spend. Over and above the Grants-in-aid, State governments have empowered Panchayats to levy taxes and collect funds. Some of the sources are:

  • Taxes on property, land, goods and cattle
  • Rent collected for facilities like Barat Ghar or any other property of panchayat
  • Various types of fines collected from the offenders
  • Grants-in-aid from the State government and Union government
  • A part of the land revenue collected by the State government given to the Panchayats
  • Donations collected from the villagers for some common cause

2. Panchayat Samiti

Composition

Panchayat Samiti is the intermediate or the middle tier of the Panchayati Raj System. These are named differently in different States. Its organisation and functions also vary as these are determined by the Act passed by the concerned State. It coordinates all the activities of the Panchayats in a Block. A Panchayat Samiti is constituted by the following members:

  • All the Sarpanches (Mukhias) or Chairpersons of the Gram Panchayats within the Block
  • MPs, MLAs and MLCs of that Block
  • Some directly elected Members
  • The elected Members of Zila Parishad from that Block
  • Some Officers of that Block

 A Panchayat Samiti is created at the Block level. Each Block consists of the areas of several Panchayats. In different States it is known by different names: in Andhra Pradesh Mandal Praja Parishad, Assam the Anchalik Panchayat, Gujarat the Taluka Panchayat, Karnataka the Mandal Panchayat, Madhya Pradesh the Janapada Panchayat, Tamil Nadu, the Panchayat Union Council, and Uttar Pradesh the Kshetra Samiti. However, its most popular name happens to be Panchayat Samiti.

The term of each Panchayat Samiti is five years in all States. In its very first meeting, each Panchayat Samiti elects two of its members as Chairperson and Vice Chairperson. Chairpersonship of at least 1/3rd Panchayat Samities stand reserved for women members. Likewise, some of the offices of Chairperson are reserved for members belonging to Scheduled Castes. The tenure of the Chairperson is coterminous with the tenure of the Panchayat Samiti.

The members of a Panchayat Samiti can remove the Chairperson by passing a resolution supported by 2/3rd majority. A Panchayat Samiti usually meets at least six times in one year. There cannot be a gap of more than two months between its two meetings. A meeting of Panchayat Samiti is either ordinary or special.

The date of every meeting is fixed by the Chairperson of the Panchayat Samiti and in his or her absence by the Vice-Chairperson. Its chief administrative officer is Block Development Officer popularly known as BDO.

Functions of Panchayat Samiti

Panchayat Samiti performs a number of functions. Some important functions are: agriculture, land improvement, watershed development, social and farm forestry, and technical and vocational education. Besides, the Panchayat Samiti implements certain schemes and programmes for which specific funds are allocated by the State government or Central government.

It promotes and coordinates different development programmes of its areas. It also has the responsibilities like

  • provision of drinking water in the villages
  • development and repair of rural roads
  • framing of rules and regulations for the markets
  • provision of improved seeds and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural tools and implements
  • promotion of cottage industries such as handlooms, handicrafts, traditional art and artisans
  • welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes and other backward classes
  • promotion of the self employment schemes in the rural areas

Sources of Income

The main source of income of Panchayat Samiti is the Grants given by the State government. Besides, it also levies taxes, levies and receives a fixed percentage of land revenue.

3. Zila Parishad

Composition

Zila Parishad is at the apex, being the third tier of Panchayati Raj System. It is situated at the district level. Zila Parishad also has a term of five years. Some of its members are directly elected and the Chairpersons of the Panchayat Samitis are ex-officio members. MPs and MLAs belonging to the district are also the members of Zila Parishad.

Chairperson of the Zila Parishad is elected from the directly elected members. Not less than 1/3rd of the offices and seats are reserved for the women members. Seats are also reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Functions of Zila Parishad

The following are the major functions of the Zila Parishad:

  1. Providing essential services and facilities to the rural population, planning and executing the development programmes for the district.
  2. Supplying improved seeds to farmers, informing them of new techniques of farming, undertaking construction of small-scale irrigation projects and percolation
    tanks, and maintaining pastures and grazing lands.
  3. Setting up and running schools in villages, executing programmes for adult literacy, and running libraries.
  4. Starting Primary Health Centers and hospitals in villages, managing mobile hospitals for hamlets, conducting vaccination drives against epidemics and family welfare campaigns.
  5. Executing plans for the development of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, running ashram for adivasi children, and setting up free hostels for scheduled caste students.
  6. Encouraging entrepreneurs to start small scale industries like cottage industries, handicrafts, agriculture products, processing mills, dairy farms, etc., and implementing rural employment schemes.
  7. Constructing roads, schools and also taking care of the public properties.

Sources of Income of Zila Parshad

The Zila Parishad performs a number of important functions. For exciting them it needs money. This is arranged through its sources of income that are:

  • Income from taxes levied by Zila Parishad, license fees and market fees.
  • A share is given to Zila Parishad from the collected land revenue.
  • Income from various properties of Zila Praishad.
  • Grants from the State and Central governments.
  • Funds allotted by the State for developmental activities.