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Freedom at midnight, greeted with euphoria by millions of our countrymen 50 years ago, was but a stepping stone to the march of the nation from strength to strength. Over the decades since Independence, India has emerged as a prominent third world power. As a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and a very active member of the Commonwealth, India has played a key role in upholding human rights and the rights of all formerly oppressed nations.

Champion of All Freedom Struggles

One of the first among all oppressed nations to attain freedom from colonial rule, India has consistently been a champion of all freedom struggles throughout the world against colonial rule and racial oppression. The most notable of the more recent examples was the overthrow of the apartheid regime leading to establishment of democracy with racial equality in South Africa in April 94. Earlier, April 80 had witnessed the overthrow of Ian Smith's White minority regime leading to a democratic Zimbabwe with racial equality.

India's determined support at all international fora including the U.N. was indeed a great morale booster to the fight for justice and equality in South Africa and Zimbabwe as to the emergence of all nascent nations through freedom struggles. The 60s and early 70s have witnessed India's sustained support to Vietnam's liberation struggle against the American occupation forces, with 1971 featuring India's dramatic role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

Upholding Human Rights

It goes without saying that India as champion of human rights and human values throughout the world, has spared no efforts in upholding human rights and human dignity at home, ensuring the civil and political rights of all its citizens alike. India, worlds largest democracy, has marched from strength to strength on to its Golden Jubilee.

Our democracy has weathered crisis after crisis over the decades and continues to flourish in the face of the stiffest of challenges. Men may come and men may go, parties may come and parties may go, but our sovereign democratic republic goes on for ever. The years since Independence have witnessed periods of political stability as well as political instability, at both the Centre and the States. Yet there has been a remarkable continuity of policy, with scrupulous adherence to the principle of separation of powers among the legislature, executive and judiciary.

Durability of Democracy

Our democratic system based on the one man one vote principle has carried on triumphantly. Many other countries near and far have witnessed the overthrow of established authority through revolts or military coups in the face of discontent or instability. What is the key to this steadfast durability of our democracy? The answer clearly lies in the inherent safety valve by way of the ample scope for lawful dissent afforded by our democratic constitution to all citizens alike without fear or favour. The one man one vote principle of universal adult franchise has stood the test of time.

The delineation of constituencies on population basis has ensured a balanced local and regional representation of the electorate in Parliament and likewise a balanced local representation in every State/UT Assembly. This democratic system operating under our secular constitution has been absolutely free from any discrimination on gender or denominational considerations.

There have thus been ample safeguards in our system to ensure its stability and durability. It is also interesting to note that India is the world's largest democracy with respect to not only the size of the electorate but also the percentage voter turnout. In this regard, India is far ahead of so many Western developed countries. Surely, the enthusiasm of our electorate even in remote areas has been a pillar of strength and sustenance to the system.

To further strengthen our Parliamentary democracy towards its more effective operation the Election Commission has recently taken vigorous steps towards curbing malpractices like impersonation and booth capturing. The introduction of voters' photo identity cards on a mandatory basis in a phased manner has been indeed a landmark step in this direction. The strict enforcement of the model code of conduct for elections has been yet another milestone. The latest amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1951 gives a further boost to enforcing curbs on election expenditure by individuals besides ensuring contest by serious candidates alone.

Grassroots Level Democracy

A significant feature of our democracy with its quasi federal structure is the emphasis on local self-government with the Gram Panchayat as the self governing unit. India still lives in its villages; hence a strong, stable and self reliant local self government is absolutely essential for grassroots level democracy. With this in view, the attempt since Independence has been to strengthen the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) like the Gram Panchayats and Zilla Parishads.

The first systematic study in this regard was done by the Balwantrai Mehta Committee as far back as 1957. This was followed by the Ashok Mehta committee in 1978 and the G.V.K. Rao Committee in 1985.

The attempt over the decades was towards an all party national level consensus on this matter. With this in view, a Parliamentary Committee was set up, and through intensive efforts the much awaited national consensus was evolved in 1992. Finally the Constitution 72nd Amendment Bill was passed by Parliament in December 92. Following its ratification by the State Assemblies, the Constitution 73rd Amendment Act (on Panchayati Raj) was brought into force on April 24, 1993. This was indeed a milestone in the evolution of a strong and effective local self-government to promote rural development and sustain democracy at the grassroots level.

The Constitution 73rd Amendment Act 1992 provides for a three tier Panchyat system in the States and Union Territories, with a Gram Panchayat, Intermediate Panchayat and Zilla Parishad. The Intermediate Panchayat is known by different names in different States; its existence is optional in States with population within 20 lakh. Anyway under the provisions of this Act Panchayat elections are mandatory at all levels every five years. On supersession of any Panchayat body fresh elections must be held within six months of the date of dissolution.

With an eye on womenOs welfare and upliftment special emphasis is laid on womenOs empowerment. Hence, the Act provides for reservation of one third of the total seats for women in Panchayat bodies at every level. At the same time the reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in any Panchayat body at any level is proportional to their percentage in the population of the respective Panchayat area. These reservations apply to the chairpersons' posts as well.

The strengthening of PRIs throughout the country is proving conducive to grassroots level development through empowerment of rural folk including women and weaker sections. The requisite development funds have now been placed directly at the PRIsO disposal by the respective States/UTs. The PRIs have been empowered to formulate and implement schemes for economic development and social justice. Under this Act, the States/UTs have now enacted appropriate legislation for constituting their respective State Election Commissions as also their State Finance Commissions every five years.

Thus, the pace has now been set for national power and progress through the strengthening of the very foundation of power and progress at the grassroots level. As masters of their own destiny, our people are now in a position to lead the march of the nation past its Golden Jubilee and into a bright future of the 21st century. As we celebrate our Golden Jubilee, looking ahead into the 21st century India can hold her head high and proudly assert herself in this great wide world.

Source: Press Information Bureau , Government of India