Panchayat Raj System In West Bengal
The Panchayati Raj System is the most successful scheme in the State of West Bengal. The very concept of Panchayati Raj has inspired the rural people to take a more active role in village administration which is the real object of the very concept of democratic decentralization.
The old conception of Panchayat has recently been changed by the introduction of a new term Panchayati Raj instead of the word Panchayat. The term Panchayat denoted the rural self-government system. But the term Panchayati Raj does not confine itself in the narrow ranges of rural self- government scheme; instead, it now means all the local self- government structure that encompasses all stages of administration from the rural to the district level.
Thus the Present Panchayati Raj system speaks of all the local self-government institutes and systems from the rural to district level though the aim and objective of such system remain unchanged from that what the earlier Panchayats had cherished. Like the old Panchayat system, the new Panchayati Raj also tries to give the rural people the taste of administering their own affairs.
Following the Balwant Raj Mehata Committee recommendation as approved by the government of India, the government of West Bengal had introduced the Panchayati Raj system in West Bengal by the Panchayat Act of 1957. Though West Bengal had accepted the ideal of Panchayati Raj, it had not followed the structure that the other states of India had taken. Thus when there was the three-tier local self-government system was introduced all over India, in West Bengal, it was a four-tier system—the Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti, Anchalik Parishad, and Zilla Parishad.
However, by the Panchayat Act of 1973, the West Bengal Government had introduced the three-tier system as was recommended by the Balwant Raj Mehta Committee and extinguished the Anchalik Parishad. Thus the present local self-government structure of India stands as— Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti, and Zilla Parishad. These three-tiers are set from bottom to top and shapes like a pyramid.
Both the 1957 Panchayat Act and the 1973 Panchayat Act have some inherent weaknesses. In the 1973 Panchayat Act, the first elected Panchayat was given three types of responsibilities—the local or compulsory duties, the optional duties, and the delegated duties. It was assumed that until the Panchayats become self-sufficient in every respect, it should try to perform its own works as well as should try to create resources by implementing the projects that the government might delegate to it. But both the 1957 and 1973 Acts were not sufficiently able to implement the political concept of the Panchayat into reality which was indeed the main objective of the local self-government institution and system.
It was realized that the mere giving of some powers in the three respective tiers of the Panchayat system, cannot fully materialize the concept of democratic decentralization of power, rather each of these tiers should be made trustworthy and self-sufficient units of local self-government. With this understanding the Left Front Government of West Bengal had amended the Panchayat Act of 1973 in 1983. In order to make this new Act of 1983 more democratic and self-sufficient provisions were made to make the Panchayat members submit the records of activities twice a year before the people. The tenure of office of the Panchayat was also extended from 4 to 5 years. The Panchayat was also made a party, the Integrated Rural Development Project (IRDP), and other developmental activities. It was also given the power to distribute lands and materialize the operation Barga as well as some financial powers like the levy and extraction of taxes and duties for the creation of its own resources.
To make the Panchayat Act a more powerful and democratic one, the West Bengal Government made further amendments to the Panchayat Act in 1992-93. For the first time, in this Act 1/3rd seats and posts of the total seats in each of the three-tiers, the Village Panchayat, the Panchayat Samiti, and the Zilla Parishad, were kept reserved for the women, and seats were also kept reserved for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes in the proportion of their population. In each tier of the Panchayati Raj, the responsibilities were distributed among the members on the basis of their departments. The income avenues and sources were also increased to make the Panchayati Raj financially self-sufficient. The audit system was strengthened to put proper checking on financial corruption and misuses. Arrangements were made to compel the Panchayat to submit reports twice a year so that they might remain responsible for their economic and administrative functions, Arrangements were also made to review the income and expenditure made by the Panchayats in each tier and arrange the amount of the grants‑in-aid by the government. It was also made obligatory that the election of the Panchayats in each of the tiers would be held every five years’ time. Moreover, excepting the Village Panchayat, the Sabhapati and the Saha-Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samiti and the Sabhadipati and the Saha-Sabhadipati of the Zilla Parishad were made full-time salaried employees.
In fact, the Panchayat Act of 1992 was a refined and modified shape of the Panchayat Acts of 1973 and 1983. Like the other two previous Acts, its main object was to introduce democratic decentralization properly and to make the local self-government system more useful as well as to spread the various development activities of the government into the remote villages as well. The Panchayat Act of 1983 had taken a pledge to spread democracy at the grassroots level and also to empower the Panchayat with all necessary rights and responsibilities to become self-sufficient. The Panchayat Amendment Act of West Bengal of 1992 tried to make that pledge more powerful and consolidated.
Experts have opined that the West Bengal Amended Panchayat Act of 1992 will surely bring a motion in the activities of all the three tiers of the Panchayati Raj and make them dynamic. In fact, the Village Panchayat has been given those powers which made it more autonomous and self-sufficient. It has been said that the number of members of the Village Panchayat should be between five and twenty-five. One-third of the total seats should be kept reserved for the women and likewise, seats are kept reserved for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population. No member of the Panchayat Samiti can become the Pradhan or Upa-Pradhan of the Village Panchayat. The Pradhan or Upa‑Pradhans must not be salaried posts. The Village Panchayat will have to submit twice a year their projects, plans, and recommendations to the Village Samsads constituted with the electors of each area. In each village, there will be a Gram Sabha constituted with the voters of that village who will discuss all the subjects in the agenda of the Village Shamshad and give its own recommendations. The subjects like education, health, village development, production and distribution of foods, etc. have been made the Village Panchayat responsible both economically and from the administrative point of view, arrangements have been made to prepare the audit reports and examine them and to put other necessary checks thereof. The new Act has also empowered the Panchayat to arrange and increase its own resources and income.
The new Act of 1993 has also increased rather than changed the activities of the Panchayat Samiti. Now the West Bengal Panchayat Samiti has become more responsible in almost every aspect of development like making plans for comprehensive and consolidated urbanization, its implementation and giving final approval in cases of house building, etc, to enquire and supervise the activities and advancement of the Village Panchayats; to establish standing committees under the approval of the State Government; to look after the health centers, schools and water supply system under its area; to send its representatives to the executive committees of the banks and other financial funding agencies. These are all the new responsibilities of the Panchayat Samiti.
The New Panchayat Act, 1993, however, has tried to bring speed in the activities of the Zilla Parishad. The Zilla Parishad is the apex of the entire Panchayat system. Its powers have been increased enormously. It has been given special power to look into the affairs like education, public health, water supply, making projects and implementing it; to look after and control the activities of the Panchayat Samiti; to collect independently funds and resources; to supervise and control the Village Panchayats, etc. The number of its standing committees has been increased from 7 to 11 so that with their assistance the Zilla Parishad can look after all the aspects like finance, public health, education, agriculture, cottage industry, preservation of forests, food supply, electricity, environment, transport and communication, information and sports, etc.
Thus it is a fact that the new constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 has lessened the control of the state government on our Panchayati Raj System than what was there in the past. However, the state government has retained the power of acquisition of any Panchayat on the charge of corruption or misappropriation of funds and misuse of power. It can cancel or suspend a definite Panchayat on any of the above charges. But the Government will have to use this power very carefully. In order to exert governmental control over the corruption, misappropriation of money, etc. greater importance has been given to the creation of the Finance Commission and the employment of Audit and Account’s Officer.
In fact in West Bengal, the Panchayati Raj has become a social basis of politics. No doubt the Panchayati Raj has played a very significant role in the field of West Bengal Zilla Parishad. In order to supervise the overall activities of the Panchayat, the government can appoint a Panchayat Adhikarta or Panchayat Superintendent through whom practically the absolute supremacy and control of the government over their Panchayats are established.