Post independence, governments expanded squeezing village republics out of existence
When a few merchants from the north went down to the south, one of the princes of the Deccan asked the question: "Who is your king?" The answer was, "Some of us are governed by assemblies, some of us by kings."
-- S Radhakrishnan asking for a governance system based on the existing village republics in the constituent assembly debate on January 20, 1947
Horomocho, Seed or Mendha are just replays of India's past. India had carefully evolved and maintained this decentralised democracy for centuries as a management tool for a complex livelihood system.
So strong were these republics that the British Empire tried to exclude them from their formal control, after years of effort to control them and before weakening them substantially. "The village communities are little republics, having everything that they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts," wrote Lord Ripon to the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1832.
Probably threatened by Ripon's assessment and the humiliation of the 1857 mutiny, the village republics were subjected to systematic dosages of government control till they lost their relevance. First, they weakened the institution by taking over part of village's traditional administrative and legal powers. Even then it could not completely wipe out the traditional institutions. They failed because they had to fight the whole society in each and every village. Ultimately they withdrew from some tribal areas and called them excluded areas (the Indian constitution's Fifth and Sixth Schedules recognise these areas as autonomous entities).
For other villages the final blow came in 1856, when Dietrich Brandis, a German botanist and India's first inspector general of forests, was making an inventory of India's trees. After nine years in 1865, the forest act came to existence, India's republics were facing the test of centralisation and also alien invasion. It formalised government control over forest and everything inside it thus making villages' access to resources a mercy at the hand of the Empire. Next came the government-created village level institutions to replace the traditional ones. The Appointment of Royal Commission on Decentralisation in 1907 decided that the local government should start from the village level rather than the district level, but favoured the government-created institutions like the panchayats to implement such programmes.
By 1947, such panchayats were in place as units of governance with government-defined judicial and administrative functions. India's freedom fighters opposed this dilution vehemently. Gram swaraj became an important agenda of the nationalist struggle. During the quit India movement in the 1940s, village-based parallel governments cropped up in different parts of the country to counter such panchayats. Many of such villages are now declaring self-rule again. Kamyapeta is one of them.
After Independence, constitution framers debated the village republics and many aggressively suggested a republic consisting of these tiny republics. But the final draft of the constitution decided to continue the British policy, rather more aggressively. The constituent assembly, that drafted the constitution, failed to legalise and adopt the traditional village institutions as units of governance. "I am glad the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit," said B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution.
This statement reflects in the constitution. The constitution underlines the role of the Union government, while giving wide-ranging powers to the states. The village self-rule, however, is not emphasised. Except in Article 40, where there is a provision to "take steps to reorganise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and functions as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government".
For over four decades, the Union and state governments debated the fate of these republics on one hand and on the other, implemented policies that curtailed their powers, particularly their control over resources. The forest act became the new instrument for the government to pursue its commercial interests. Large chunks of land were converted into forest using this act. Using a Cattle-Trespass Act, 1871, -- a separate act to protect forest areas meant for the British army that is still in use -- residents were not allowed to get fodder for their livestock. Even cattle were not allowed to graze in lush plantation areas. The village forest, as allowed under the forest act, was also taken over or made inaccessible to the villagers. Forest corporations were formed by different states to commercially extract timber and non-timber produce. Villages were forced to sell their forest produce to these corporations.
Similarly, using an archaic Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the government started acquiring lands, most of which belonged to the tribal villages. Pursuing Jawaharlal Nehru's policy of centralised management of water, all waterbodies and sources were transferred to the irrigation departments. The panchayats then became agents of such departments and the Sarpanchs started calling the shots.
By mid-1960s, it was clear from a nationwide survey of the local governments by the National Institute of Rural Development (nird) that these institutions had become fiefdom of sarpanch. The survey recommended revival of the gram sabha as the nodal bodies of self-governance. A committee set up in 1957 to evaluate the failure in community development programme with Balwant Rai Mehta, eminent social worker, as the chairperson, attributed it to the collapse of the village level traditional institutions or the collapse of the village republics. The committee recommended the three-tier panchayati raj system (see box: The patriarch on panchayat).
It took 35 years for the government to formally adopt the three-tier system through the adoption of Panchayati Raj Act in 1992. Though local self-governance has got constitutional mandate, it suffers from political will to implement it. Instead of strengthening these constitutional institutions, governments have been curtailing their power over the years. State governments can dismantle these institutions at the drop of a hat. "The constitution provides the maximum of guarantees for the autonomous existence of panchayati raj, while leaving the state legislatures to prescribe the maximum limits of powers and authority within which they could function," says the nird's India Panchayati Raj Report.
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