When Panchayati Raj was started in India, the basic idea was that at the local level there should be a certain level of democracy which would give to people a sense of involvement, otherwise there was democracy at the state level, and democracy at the national level, i.e., election to the state legislative assemblies, election to the parliament, but at the local level there was no democracy, it was ruled by administrators. If the people are to be involved they have to be given some sort of engagement in the functioning of the institutions or development programmes. This was the only way to take democracy to the masses. In fact, in a real democracy, people have an opportunity to get involved in the development programmes. So the idea at the time was that the decision making level should be closer to the people.
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The Panchayati Raj aims at establishing democracy at grass-roots level and providing a sense of involvement to the people at the village level. As Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘In a democracy, decentralisation of political and economic power is essential, because a few centres of power cannot realize or fulfil the needs of vast multitudes of people. If India is to develop the power and responsibilities must be shared by all’  . The failures of our poverty alleviation and rural development programmes to achieve their avowed goals fully highlight this fact. These programmes were designed by few people at the top and have been implemented without the involvement of people at grass-roots level. They do not reflect the needs and aspirations of people and thus fail to satisfy them.
This paper basically aims at discussing how the Panchayati Raj system can actually learn from these past mistakes and thus bring on considerable rural development in India through the active participation of the rural people. It will cast a glance on the Gandhian perspective on this subject and then go on to look how far the Panchayati Raj system has tried to bring on rural development, and how far it has succeeded in its efforts.
Gandhi’s Ideology of Village Swaraj
No one perhaps in this country has laid greater emphasis than Mahtma Gandhi on the need to revitalise village life and rejuvenate the village Panchayats, if village swaraj were to be established permanently in India. Ever since his return from South Africa, Gandhiji expressed his firm faith that ‘purna-swaraj’ can be said to have been achieved, only when the seven hundred thousand villages of India were reordered into self-sustaining autonomic republics  .
He wanted the village Panchayats to come together to form a strong broad-based network of republics spread all over the country, peacefully cooperating with each other, primarily for mutual economic, social and political harmony and interaction, secondarily and more significantly to establish a strong nonviolent democracy, the underlying values of which will be different  . He was sure that the secular unity can thus only be preserved, and that the socio-economic equality and social justice could be achieved.
Gandhiji was very clear about the governance of the villages, and had thought about every aspect of it and had given enough suggestions and plans for their full and all-round development. He expressed the goal of the village Panchayat thus: ‘I have not pictured a poverty-stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured to myself an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius. I do not, however, picture it as a third-class or even a first class copy of the dying civilisation of the West.’ 
Rural Development through the present Panchayati Raj system
Panchayati Raj (PR) institutions have been assigned the most important task of rural development. They inevitably occupy the most prominent place in our democracy. The new PR system has two main objectives: the first is to strengthen the democratic setup at the lowest level and the second is the socio-economic uplift of the rural masses  . The main motive is to bring about socio-economic development of villagers and to raise their standard of living by their active and willing participation. As we have seen in the past, the overall picture of the working of the PR system has not been very impressive and satisfactory.
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 has broken a distinctly new ground. The PR institutions deserve to succeed as the principal vehicles for rural development. The economic development through various programmes that are to be taken up during the Eighth Plan, which has a massive provision for rural development, has to be channelized by provision of adequate funds and powers to the PR institutions with the active involvement of the grass-roots organizations in both planning and implementation  . The quality of implementation will also improve as the PR institutions are ideally suited to effective implementation of the programmes entrusted to them.
Involvement of people at the lowest level has been considered as the most effective means through which economic development can meet aspirations of the people and to ensure that the benefits really percolate down to the lowest strata of the society.
The Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India lists twenty-nine subjects which ought to provide an effective role to the PR system in planning and implementation of works of local significance ranging from drinking water, agriculture, land and water conservation to communications, poverty alleviation programmes, family welfare, education libraries and cultural activities, maintenance of community assets etc  .
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act has introduced a new PR system throughout the country. The primary goal has been to proceed with decentralisation, dispersal and redistribution of power. It seeks to give responsibility to the Panchayats to make them the true decision-making centres with local power.
It is notable that the Panchayats are the primary institutions of democracy where people from village, block and district could participate. Devolution of power has to start here and this is also where people at local levels get into the mainstream of development as well as public affairs. The Panchayats, especially the ‘gram sabha’, make the concept of ‘direct democracy’  . The gram sabha has been designed to be the place where development issues should be discussed, development programmes initiated and beneficiaries of development schemes selected. It may be added that the prospects of the PR system would be on the increase keeping in mind the pace of economic liberalization in India  . In fact, they would become watchdog bodies to ensure proper implementation of the employment generation programmes. In fact, the Panchayats would play an important role in accelerating socio-economic development in rural areas.
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It is hoped that administration of rural development and welfare schemes would be greatly facilitated through democratic decentralization and the three tier structure of self-government envisaged in the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act  . The question of devolving adequate powers on Panchayats is being vigorously pursued by the Centre with the states. Together with this, the rural development programmes have received added impetus in the in the wake of substantial setup in central allocation, which have gone upto Rs. 30,000 crores in the Eighth Plan from Rs. 11,000 crores in the Seventh Plan  .
In the Ninth Plan (1997-2002), the Panchayats in rural areas will be directly involved in the development process. People’s involvement through their elected representatives will be realized through genuine democratic decentralization  .
Broad Spectrum of Activities
There are three stages of rural development. The first stage includes co-operative village management, rural extension programmes, community development, abolition of intermediaries, land reforms, democratic decentralization, additional investment in agriculture, irrigation, industry and so on. These development activities were expected to change the rural scenario, divert rural people from agriculture to other occupations and reduce the pressure of population on agriculture. But there was no spectacular change in rural economy even though the economy as a whole made some progress.
In the second stage, new technology in agriculture was introduced. Production increased but did not improve the economic condition of rural people. From the starting of the Fourth Plan (1969-74), an attempt was made to attack poverty through poverty eradication programmes like Small Farmers Development Agency (SFDA), Marginal Farmers and Agricultural Labourers Agency (MFAL) and Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP)  . In the Fifth Plan (1974-79), the Minimum Needs Programme was introduced to improve the quality of life of the poor  .
Since all this did not bring about substantial improvement in rural areas, a number of radical poverty eradication programmes were introduced in the Sixth Plan (1980-85), which continued during the Seventh Plan (1985-90)  .
But unfortunately, the rural development programmes failed to involve people in the planning and implementation of programmes. It was noticed that the Community Development Programme (CDP) as well as other rural development programmes, instead of being people’s programmes with government’s assistance, were being more and more government programmes with varying degree of people’s participation  . Panchayats were also found weak and ineffective to mobilize the masses in support of the programmes.
Experience of various rural development programmes reveals that a mere project approach or a sectoral approach is not adequate to lead to an overall development of the area and distribution of benefits to local population, particularly the weaker sections of the society  . The distribution of unemployment and poverty and the potential for development of agriculture and related activities vary widely from region to region and also within a region. Different areas in the country are at different levels of development and have varying degrees of potential, depending on local endowments. The efforts will now be to make more area specific programmes and utilize the local endowments for growth, social justice and full employment. It will, therefore, be necessary to plan for integration of various programmes and establish appropriate linkages for optimal utilization of local endowments consistent with the plan objectives, local needs and environmental balance.
Though some development has taken place, but its gains have not yet reached every family in the rural India. There still remains a vast majority of the rural poor and the landless labourers for whom greater efforts need to be made in terms of creating employment opportunities and providing assistance in income generating with a view to enabling them to cross the poverty line. This can only be done by effective participation of the rural poor themselves, and what better institution is there than the PR system to ensure this?
Besides, as the experience indicates, though initiatives by the government to help the rural poor have reduced the incidence of poverty, many of the programmes could not yield desired results, mainly due to lack of people’s participation and well-organized institutional support, particularly at the grass-roots level. Thus the Panchayats have to take a number of measures to ensure that the benefits of these special schemes reach the real poor instead of the intermediaries. People belonging to weaker sections have to be given priority in the development efforts so that the benefits of planned investment can go to the relatively backward sections of the community.
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