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Decentralisation in India

Decentralisation and local governance are central issues in India today. When India gained independence in 1947 it had a population of 360 million, apart from the Provinces under direct British rule, in 562 princely states that came together to form the Union of India under the Constitution adopted on 26 November 1949. In terms of plurality of religion, culture, language and diversity, India has no parallel. When India became a republic on 26 January 1950 it was considered a highly centralized system.

In the last five decades, India has travelled a long road towards decentralisation,especially through institutions of local self-government. This study examines briefly the half-century history of the decentralization process, which has been democratic rather than administrative.2 The factors which have accelerated this process and the problems faced in bringing about full-fledged decentralisation, especially with regard to local governance, are dealt with in some detail. However, the focus of the study is the accountability mechanisms built into the present system from the village community to the district level, and the status of their functioning. India’s traditional society with its stratification and hierarchy based on the caste system give ample scope for the growth of clientelism, patronage and primordial loyalties perpetuating favouritism, corruption and misappropriation of public funds

Self-governing village communities had existed in India from the earliest times. These village bodies of five persons were known as panchayats, a term that could best be translated as Village Councils.

  • They looked after the affairs of the village, had police and judicial powers and were the lines of contact with higher authorities on matters affecting the villages.
  • Custom and religion elevated them to a sacred position of authority.
  • These panchayats were the pivot of administration, the centre of social life, and, above all, a focus of social solidarity.
  • Besides these panchayats or village councils, there were also caste panchayats, whose role was to ensure that persons belonging to a particular caste adhered to its code of social conduct and ethics.
  • With the advent of the British, the self-contained village communities and their panchayats were replaced by formally constituted village administration.
    Local self-government in India was the creation of the British.
  • Although not the first reforms of its kind, the Ripon Resolution of 1882 providing for local boards consisting of a large majority of elected non-official members and presided over by a non-official chairperson, is considered to be the Magna Charta of local democracy in India.

The term self-government had begun to gain currency and it triggered several resolutions aimed at strengthening the panchayats and local government on the part of the Congress Party, which was fighting for India’s freedom, including self-government as the political goal for the country. But most importantly, village panchayats became central to the ideological framework of India’s national movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. For him the village panchayat was a complete republic based on perfect democracy and individual freedom.

  • The political head of the municipality is the municipal chairperson.
  • In a municipal corporation he is called the mayor.

      The largest experiment in democracy conducted anywhere in the world is this new system of local government.

  • There are now about 36 lakh elected representatives in the panchayats and municipalities, all over the country.

At times, this number exceeds the total population of certain countries. Constitutional status for local government has helped to deepen democracy in our country. This has also increased women’s representation and voice in our democracy. But there are many difficulties as well. Gram sabhas are not held regularly while elections are held regularly and enthusiastically. The local governments have not been transferred most of the significant powers of the state governments nor adequate resources.

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