Inaugurating the Nagaur panchayat in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959, which was the 90th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “We are going to lay the foundations of democracy or panchayati raj in our country…. It is a historic event. It is fitting that the programme of panchayati raj should be inaugurated on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday…. The progress of our country is bound up with the progress in our villages.”
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The launch of the Nagaur panchayat laid the basis for political decentralisation in India, which was later instrumental in strengthening people’s participation in democracy at the local level. It brought accountability at the grass roots, and the assurance of systematic service delivery.
Village-level bodies such as the panchayat date back to ancient India. During the struggle for independence, Mahatma Gandhi had articulated his idea of village swaraj, but there was no consensus on the issue when the Constitution was being framed. So it was included only in the Directive Principles of State Policy and there were no legislated local bodies.
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The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee appointed in 1957 recommended the establishment of three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), and they were set up in several States. Even though West Bengal and later Kerala and Karnataka robustly developed PRIs, it was clear that these bodies were not playing an effective role in rural development in many parts of the country. This led to the passage of the historic 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1992. These mandated the creation of local government institutions at the level of the village, taluk, and district, with a similar structure established for towns and cities. As part of these landmark pieces of legislation, one-third of the seats were reserved for women and reservation was also provided for persons belonging to the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes.