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Lecturer in Political Science

M.S. Ramaiah College of Arts, Science and Commerce





Gandhian Studies Centre

Bangalore University

A sixty year-old demand for a separate state of Telengana has been catapulted into the centre stage of the Indian political arena. The issue of decentralization and devolution of political, economic and administrative authority and power has become the focus of intensive debate in both political as well as academic circles. Along with the privatization and deregulation of the economy, decentralization represents a substantial reduction of the authority of national governments over political and economic policy. In the wave of liberalization, privatization and globalization of the world economy, adoption of neo-liberal, neo-conservative economic and political policies by the governments all across the world was rampant.


In this new post-cold war, new economic and political order, large sections of the people, especially the rural, indigenous populations, are getting marginalized and cut off from the decision making process. In the efforts to cater to the interests of the big players such as the corporate houses, international lending agencies and power elites, the rural and the indigenous people and sectors find themselves sidelined. Special Economic zones, industrial corridors, and infrastructural projects have usurped large tracts of fertile land meant for agricultural purposes as also large tracts of coastal regions and forest land. Large numbers of agricultural and rural populations find themselves landless and uprooted from their traditional lands, and this has led to internal displacements of these rural and indigenous populations. The incidence of rural poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, rural underdevelopment which should have shown remarkable decrease seems to be on the upswing once again. The fruits of development have not percolated to the grassroots level. Coupled with these problems, there have been large scale migrations into the urban areas. These cities’ slender resources and infrastructure have been stretched to a breaking point as they are themselves overcrowded. Also there have been rapid inroads made by the Maoists and the insurgent groups in the regions which were a few years back free from the influence of such extremists. The rural areas have become a happy hunting ground for the penetration of such radical/ extreme ideologies. This is because we are sacrificing people and their development at the altar of pandering to the interests of the MNCS, international lending agencies, corporates and the forces of globalization.


A lopsided development with an asymmetry between the rural/urban sectors and a top-down approach by governments and policy makers has put the issue of decentralization on the forefront of national politics. This is especially important as decentralization has been advocated for countries whose size, social, economic and political complexities become untenable to administer from one centre. Countries such as Canada, USA, China, Australia, India which exhibit diversities in terms of race, religion, region, and socio-economic cleavages have opted for a federal form of government. In India, the decentralization of the Indian polity starts from the village panchayat at the village level, and stretches to the taluk panchayat at the block Taluk level, the zilla parishad at the district, and the states at the provincial level with the federal/national government at the apex.


This paper seeks to examine the relevance of Gandhian ideas and thought to the role of the state, issues of decentralization and Panchayati Raj system, which are so very relevant even in these turbulent times that we live in.




Decentralization implies not only the sharing of the decision-making authority with lower levels in the organization, but also in the context of institutional framework of division of power. Accordingly, decentralization combined with democratization, in its electoral representative form, might provide greater transparency, accountability, responsiveness, probity, frugality, efficiency, equity and opportunities for mass participation.[1] Another important term that is used in reference to decentralization is empowerment. This is in the context of social groups not covered by the process of democracy and development because of social and economic constraints. Empowerment is also creating popular knowledge, questioning the monopoly of the dominant paradigm and keeping alive the population’s resentment against the most visible aspects of political and social discrimination.[2] Decentralization is advocated for countries which are diverse in size, socio-economic complexity and have religion, language, economic development and cultural complexities. It is also feasible for nations whose customary law, traditional practices, community ethos, modes of living, organization make it impossible to govern from a single central government.[3] The Balwantray Mehta Study Team on Democratic Decentralization in its report defines decentralization as, “ a process whereby the government divests itself completely of certain duties and responsibilities and devolves them on to some other authority”.[4]Decentralization is not just devolution of powers but also responsibilities and duties by the central authority, to the institutions at the lower levels, thereby, providing to the latter adequate incentives for autonomous functioning. Lord Bryce described the local governments as, “tiny fountainheads of democracy”.[5] P.R. Dubashi calls it, “free popular management of local affairs”.[6] Harold F. Alderfer points out that in decentralization local units are established with certain powers of their own and certain fields of action in which they may exercise their own judgment, initiative and administration”.[7] Decentralization creates a corporate sense of responsibility. “ It is a training in self-government. It confines the administration of powers to those who feel most directly the consequence of those powers”.[8] The concept of democratic decentralization implies devolution of sizeable powers and responsibilities by the central government through properly enacted legislative measures to democratically created territorial units. These units enjoy more or less complete autonomy within the territorial and functional jurisdiction delimited to them. The clamour for further decentralization happens when the polity fails to address the needs of diversities, regions and groups. Decentralization relates to organizational tasks, finance and human resources, policy making, strategy formulation, planning, priority–setting and implementation of programmes. Financial and human resources autonomy relates to generation and procurement of resources, controlling and owning them and their effective utilization. [9]




Gandhi’s ideas on democratic decentralization and Panchayati Raj have their roots in his understanding about the role the state and government in the lives of people. On one hand, he says that state had no place in an ideal society, it is superfluous and inimical to human progress. This view is influenced by the works of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).  State, which is based on power and violence, represents violence in a concentrated form. Hence, there is no room for such institutions. According to him, “political power means a capacity to regulate national life through national representatives. If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation becomes necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy”.[10]  In such a self regulated society there arises no need for an external authority to regulate the conduct of individuals. It is a society free from exploitation, inequality, class domination, class conflict, communal disturbance, strikes and any kind of violence. No society could be built on the denial of individual freedom.[11] In a democratic state, people reserve the right to withdraw their support to the government in case it betrays the masses. But, at the same time, they should not obstruct it by agitating against it, as it derives its strength, vigour and power from the individuals.[12] He was of the opinion that society should be organized in such a manner that the individual gets maximum freedom and opportunity to develop his personality and his character to the fullest extent. He was more concerned with the quality of life of the people.[13]


However, what he rejects is the western democratic model, which allows exploitation and denial of justice to the poor in society. He was for Parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people.[14] He writes in the Harijan in 1946 that legislatures can be useful if they carry out the popular will to benefit the masses. It is good only if the representatives are willing to work for the masses and in accordance with the will of the people.[15] In his understanding, equality was possible only when the ordinary amenities of life that a rich man enjoys are available to the poor also.[16] Only then one can effectively say that one has attained Purna Swaraj or complete self- government.


Economic equality involves abolition of conflict between capital and labour. He was opposed to the system of the concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few rich men while the rest of the population lived below the poverty line.[17] He envisaged a positive role for the government as he was for government intervention to provide opportunities for all.[18] In simple terms, he believed that the rule of the majority can be possible only when it is regarded as an expression of the collective social will. The minority could be brought around by gentle persuasion and reasonable argument, rather than by force or coercion. [19] In ordinary matters the principle of majority rule is, by and large, justice as the world understands justice. But the purest justice can exist only in the welfare of all. Gandhi states that, “It is only the government that fully protects the weakest among its citizens and safeguards all his rights, which may be described as perfectly democratic . Such a government does not mean the rule of the majority but the protection of the interests of even the smallest limb of the realm”.[20]


When asked about power politics, he opined that political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every aspect of life.[21] He was of the view that any group or party can serve the people even without capturing political power or government. One can even serve one’s own country by remaining outside the government.[22] According to him, people are fully competent to retain political power in their hands to reduce the interference of the state as minimum as possible, and to establish self-government to avoid coercive control.[23] However, Gandhi was not for unrestricted freedom of the individual. With the right education individuals would be able to tailor his needs and adjust according to needs of society and for social progress.[24]

On democratic decentralization, which is the focus of this paper, the whole basis of his premise was that it could provide individuals the opportunity to participate in the management of their own affairs and self-government. This is particularly true in countries like India where 80 percent of the population live in rural areas. Decentralization is incompatible with force and violence which are the hallmarks of a centralized political and administrative setup. Economic and political democracy is inseparable and economic democracy can reach millions of people in rural areas through mass efforts by the people themselves.




The vehicle that was most ideal to initiate both political and economic democracy at the grassroots level was the Panchayati Raj system. Mahatma Gandhi’s tours all across the country reinforced his convictions that India would benefit if the villages were governed by Village Panchayats based on the principal of “simple living and high thinking”. These were village republics which were self-contained and self-reliant and having all that people want. These were the institutions where minimum standard of living could be accorded to all human beings. An individual had maximum freedom and opportunity to develop his personality to the greatest extent. In these republics there would be a diminution of the state and the roots of democracy deepened. According to him centralization cannot be sustained as a system without adequate force.[25] He aimed for economic decentralization by setting up of Khadi Movement and village industries. This would promote the production and distribution of the necessities of life, promote the interests of the poorest and the helpless, promote full employment of human resources of the society. Such a measure would minimise discontent and provide adequate opportunity for expression of reasoned discontent.[26] Involving the people in such institutions would accord them a new status, which constitutes the strength of a nation. Gandhi wanted villages to be production centres and the towns clearing houses for such products.[27] Each village a little republic, self-sufficient, enjoying maximum freedom for deciding the affairs of the locality.[28] As Ensminger puts it, “with democratic decentralization the administration will shift from making decisions and issuing orders to helping people to make decisions through their Panchayats, Cooperatives and Samithis”.[29] He writes that the city people are brokers and commission agents for the big houses of Europe, America and Japan. According to him, “Indian villages produced and supplied to the Indian towns and cities all their wants. India became impoverished when our cities became foreign markets and began to drain the villages dry by dumping cheap and shoddy goods from foreign markets”. [30] In the same vein, Acharya Kripalani wrote that the most intelligent and active members who could have contributed to the life of the villages have migrated to cities, to seek employment as the industrial complexes are located there.[31] Gandhi also proposed a scheme of government under the Gandhian Constitution beginning from the primary unit the Village Panchayat to the level of the All-India Panchayat, with the powers being assigned to all levels of the government.[32] He spoke about the distribution of powers and finances to the seven hundred thousand villages which would become the shareholders of those assets. And this in turn would make them responsible for the effective management of these assets.[33] These villages should not only be self-sufficient but also capable of defending themselves, even if need be, against the whole world.[34]


The basic functions he assigns to the Village Panchayat are education, sanitation, medical needs, upkeep and cleanliness of the village wells and ponds and the uplift of the so-called untouchables.[35] During the non-cooperation movement the Panchayat System offered an alternative to the cumbersome English judicial system. These Panchayats fuctioned as arbitration courts to dispense speedy justice to the parties. Several thousand panchayats were established during the non-cooperation movement ‘to provide speedy, cheap and efficient justice’.[36] In his Presidential Address at the Belgaum Congress, Gandhi said that the Panchayat was not only a right medium for securing cheap justice but also an instrument for avoiding reliance on government for the settlement of mutual justice.[37] Accordingly, the poor peasant need not go out of his village, spend his hard earned money and waste weeks and months in towns for litigation purposes, if the village panchayats were equipped with both civil and criminal jurisdiction to dispense justice.[38] Gandhi was of the view that the rajas, zamindars and capitalists will continue to hold sway so long as the common people do not realize their own strength. Only through non-cooperation can the hold of such powers can be stemmed.[39] He stated that every village can become such a republic today without much interference from the present government whose sole effectual connexion with the village is the exploitation of the village revenue. …. Here is a perfect democracy based upon individual freedom. The individual is the architect of his own government. The law of non-violence rules him and his government”.[40]


Gandhi’s ideas on democratic decentralization and Panchayati Raj system were not without their critics. As Fesler put it, “the Gandhian approach is an turn the clock back … to restore traditional values and face-to-face dealing between men . This approach is an attractive picture, a romantic work of art or that of terrifying ideological conflicts”.[41] Gunnar Myrdal opined that the village as a basic unit of polity should not be preserved as it is the stronghold of stagnation. The forces of change can be mobilized only by integrating the village into a bigger unit right from the start. Only then can we see some level of socio-economic transformation. [42]. Alvin Toffler categorised Gandhi as the thinker of the future, for his is the voice of the age to come and not that which is fading and should fade away.[43]A Utopian, for he, “sought to prepare us for life in a disarmed world. We must pull out of the world of strife and hatred and get ready to work on the basis of cooperation and harmony”. [44]





Good governance demands respect for human rights, rule of law, strengthening of democracy, promoting transparency and capacity in public administration. The responsiveness of the state and its institutions to the needs and aspirations of the people, and inclusive citizenship are imperative to good governance.

Democracy depends upon the equality of all human beings, their right to participate in social and political transformation and the right to development, to live in dignity. Inclusion of structurally and historically marginalized and disenfranchised populations such as children, migrants, dalits and indigenous people are integral to the process of grassroots democratization. Instead of focussing our energies towards the upliftment of such sectors of society, we are, in turn, creating many more such internally displaced populations in the name of development, special economic zones, large projects, and other infrastructural development. Precious, fertile agricultural land is being lost in the process and there will be a time when the country will be faced with chronic food shortage and an angry population, twin disasters which the country can ill-afford. Already we are seeing increasing resistance to and people’s movements against the policies and projects of the governments, undertaken on the behest of the international lending agencies and governments of the capitalist, industrial nations of the West.


A bottom-up approach to social change, an efficient people-oriented government which is accountable, involving all stakeholders, a society which is fair, just, and non-discriminatory, focussed on development is the need of the hour. Otherwise the world will be faced with people’s movements and rebellions against the state and its institutions. Many more Singurs and Nandigrams are waiting to happen. There is a danger of Mao-type ideologies and factions spreading their tentacles to parts of the country which have so far remained unaffected by such extreme ideologies and ideologues. Only when people are empowered to ask questions, seek justice and claim participation, when citizens have the legal and institutional interfaces though which they mediate and interact with the state and seek accountability, can the existence of good governance can be claimed.


 The Gandhian ideas of Gram Swaraj and Panchayati Raj system can become vehicles for ushering in the much needed social and political change by including all the stakeholders in the process of decision-making and public policy formulation. As Gandhi said, “Panchayat Raj represents true democracy realized. We would regard the humblest and the lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land”.[45] He was of the view that, “India has still to attain social, moral and economic independence in terms of seven hundred thousand villages as distinguished from the cities and towns”.[46] His views that India lives in its villages is so much true as, in the mad rush towards industrialization, urbanization and corporatization, we are losing sight of the need to focus our attention towards the rural regions. His was truly an alternative vision of just and democratic governance, a vision which was far ahead of its times, which the rulers of present India should take congnizance of. As Schumacher puts it in his work “Small is Beautiful”,   “wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology, towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and the beautiful”, He favours technology with a human face, a study of economics “as if people mattered”, and he adds, “Man is small and therefore small is beautiful. To go for gigantism is to go for self-destruction”.[47] Hence it is so very important to revitalize the Panchayati Raj system, make them efficient and effective vehicles of social, economic and political transformation and accelerate the process of development, make it more people-oriented and  inclusive of all stakeholders.



[1] Crook, Richard  C ,  and James   Manor, Democracy and Decentralization in South Asia and West Africa, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 2

[2]  Majid Rahnema, “Participation”, in Wolfgang Sachs, (ed), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, (New York, Orient longman, 1997), p. 163

[3] Bhuria Committee Report,Report of the Committee of Members of Parliament and Experts Constituted to make recommendations on law concerning extensions of provisions of the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992 to Scheduled Areas,  (New Delhi, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India,  1995), p. 3.

[4] Government of India, Report of the Team for the Study of Community Development and National Extension Service, (New Delhi, Committee on Plan projects, 1957), Vol 1, p. 7.

[5] Quoted in S. Bhatnagar, Panchayati Raj in Kangra Distict, (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1974), pp. 3-4.

[6] P.R. Dubashi, Rural Development Administration in India, (Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1970), p. 11.

[7] Harold  F. Alderfer, Local Government in Developing Countries, (New York, McGraw Hill, 1964),p. 176.

[8] Harold J. Laski, A Grammar of Politics, (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1960),p.61.

[9] Udai Pareek, Decentralization for Effective Governance, (Jaipur, Centre for Administrative Change, 1989), p. 2.

[10] M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works, ( New Delhi, Publications Division, August 1969), Vol. XLVII, p. 91.

[11] Harijan-A Journal of Applied Gandhism-1933-1935, (New York and London, Garland Publishing House Inc, 1973),  Vol IX, p. 27.

[12] M.K. Gandhi, Delhi Diary, (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, March 1948), p. 86.

[13] George Khateb, Utopia and Its Enemies, (New York, The Free Press, 1963), p. 31.

[14] Collected Works, Vol. XLI, p.220.

[15] Harijan, 17 February, 1946, Volume X, p.13

[16]Collected Works, July 1971, Vol VII, p.

[17] M.K. Gandhi, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1968), p. 26.

[18] Gandhi’s Correspondence with the Government 1942-1944, ibid., p.174

[19] Collected Works, November 1966, Vol. XXII, p.256.

[20] Collected Works, September 1965, Vol XVII, pp. 466-67.

[21] Collected Works, Vol XLVII, p. 91.

[22] Shriman Narayan (ed), The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1968), Vol VI, p.456.

[23] Ram Chander Gupta, “Gandhi’s Approach to Socialism”, in  K.S Saxena (ed), Gandhi’s Centenary Papers (New Delhi, Publications Division, Council of Oriental Research, 1972), Vol IV, pp. 88-89.á

[24] Harijan, 27 May, 1939, Vol VII, p.144.

[25] Harijan, 30 December 1939, Vol VII, p. 391.

[26] G.N. Dhawan, in K.P. Mishra and Rajender Avasthi, (ed), Politics of Persuasion, (Bombay, Manaktalas, 1967), p. 274.

[27] Ram K. Vepa, New Technology: A Gandhian Concept, (New Delhi, Gandhi Book House, 1975), pp.152-53.

[28] Collected Works, Vol XLVI, p. 12

[29] Ensminger, Democratic Decentralization: A New Administrative Challenge, Indian Journal of Public Administraton, Vol VI, No. 3, July-September, 1961. p. 293.

[30] Harijan27 February 1937, quoted in Mahatma Gandhi’s Message to the Indian Youth, ( Bangalore, The Gandhi Study Circle, National College, 1969), p. 36.

[31] J.B. Kripalani’s letter to the Editor, The Tribune (Chandigarh), 2 October, 1976, p. 4.

[32] Shriman Narayan Agarwal, Gandhian Constitution for Free India,(Allahabad, Kitabistan, 1946) for further details.

[33] Collected Works, Vol VI, pp. 96-97.

[34] Harijan,28 July, 1946, Vol X, p. 236

[35] M.L. Sharma, Gandhi and Democratic Decentralization in India, (New Delhi, Deep and Deep Publications, 1996), pp.56-61.

[36] Collected Works, March 1966, Vol XIX, p. 431.

[37] Collected Works, May 1967, Vol XXV, p. 478.

[38] M.L. Sharma, op. cit, p. 61.

[39] Mahatma Gandhi’s Message to the Indian Youth, op cit., p. 52.

[40] Ibid., pp 53-54.

[41] James W. Fesler, Approaches to Understanding Decentralization, in Duane lockwood, (ed), Governing the States and Localities, (London, The Macmillan Co, 1969), p. 3.

[42] Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, (London, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1968), Vol  II, P. 880.

[43] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ‘Introduction’, in S. Radhakrishnan, (ed), Mahatma Gandhi: 100 Years, (New Delhi, Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1968), p. 1.

[44] Ibid,.

[45] M.K. Gandhi, Village Swaraj, (Navjivan Trust, Ahmedabad, 1962), p.71.

[46] Ibid., p. xvi

[47] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, (London, Blond Briggs, 1975), p. 148.