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Saturday 26 November 2022

Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward


Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward:

Table of Contents

Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward: 1

Steward’s theory: 1

Arrival of Culture ecology. 2

Sources: 3

Further reading: 3




The question of how culture is formed, evolved or changed continues to remain a puzzle to the anthropologists. The answer to this question is never settled and called for increasing number of diverse answers. The question is dealt differently by different schools of thought. Hence, for the 19th century evolutionists it was similar to Darwinian evolution, for scholars like Franz Boas (Harris, 1968) it was the ‘historical determinants’ for ecological anthropologists, championed by Julian Steward (1955) it is the ‘ecological determinants’ or cultural ecology.

The cultural ecologists speak about an intimate relationship between culture and environment. For Sahlins (1969) it is cultural moulding of ecological challenges to enhance life chances, and for Steward (1955) it is a dialectic-interplay of culture and environment creating something known as ‘reciprocal-causality.’

Steward’s theory:

Steward created a theoretical perspective that was distinctive in mid-20th-century anthropology. His environmental perspective on culture was unusual, as was his synthesis of comparative, secondary data from archaeological and ethnographic research. Both were essential to his goal of understanding the causes of cultural change by charting the course of change in the past. He did share a broadly historical orientation with archaeologists and many American cultural anthropologists of his time. But he departed sharply from the cultural historicism of Franz Boas and his American students, who included Steward’s own teachers, Kroeber and Lowie.

Steward’s theoretical perspective, in contrast to theirs, was materialist, environmentally oriented, generalizing, and concerned with causality. It was also thoroughly behaviorist. His theoretical ideas were the antithesis of humanistic and relativistic trends in cultural anthropology at the time. The work of Ruth Benedict—his colleague at Columbia University and a student of Boas—perhaps best represented those prevailing trends, which Steward always rejected.

Unlike Benedict, and in keeping with behaviorist principles, Steward consistently focused on what was external and observable. He gave priority to environmental resources, primarily those most important in human subsistence, such as edible plants, animals, and water; to technology, especially the tools used in procuring food and water; and to behavior, above all, subsistence-related work. These elements constituted what he eventually termed the cultural core, a key concept in his thinking about the causes of cultural change. Another, earlier foundational concept was what he termed the patrilineal band. Steward developed this concept in an essay that he called his “first work,” a 1936 essay on types of bands (later divided into two essays and republished in Theory of Culture Change). He defined the patrilineal band as an exogamous and politically independent group of male kin who own land and defend exclusive rights to that territory. Patrilineal bands, he hypothesized, developed in arid regions and others where food resources were scattered and limited and where hunting centered on the pursuit of nonmigratory game animals. These were causal factors that limited the size of bands and kept population density low. Steward thought of this type of band as a particular cultural type, or cross-cultural type as he termed it. He argued that the patrilineal band occurred under certain ecological conditions, while different conditions produced—that is, caused— other types.

Steward drew his first evidence for the patrilineal band from published, but fragmentary, accounts of

hunter-gatherers written by explorers, missionaries, and early anthropologists. He set out to find first hand evidence through his own ethnographic fieldwork in the Great Basin in 1935 and 1936, but his search for the patrilineal band did not succeed. Steward found no evidence that hunter-gatherers in the Great Basin of western North America had formerly lived in patrilineal bands. In his 1938 ethnography, Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups, he instead documented the diversity he had found. He focused on how environmental resources and conditions in different localities varied, how people in each place had adapted culturally, and how this resulted in differences in the size and structure of local groups. The concept of cultural adaptation, which Steward sometimes termed cultural ecological adaptation, provided a conceptual framework for the monograph. Over time, it became a unifying concept in American anthropology, spanning several subfields.

Steward’s search for the patrilineal band also motivated his two subsequent efforts at fieldwork with hunter-gatherers: the failed effort in South America in 1938 and his final fieldwork with Carrier Indians in Canada in 1940. In Canada, as in the Great Basin, he found no evidence of patrilineal bands. He never succeeded in documenting this type of band structure in his own fieldwork. During a 20-year period, between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, Steward wrote and published the series of articles that he later included in the collection titled Theory of Culture Change. One of the most important was “Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations,” first published in 1949. Using secondary data from published archaeological reports, Steward argued that the earliest civilizations developed in arid and semiarid environments and shared a uniform sequence of development, including the use of irrigation in agriculture. As the telling title suggests, “Cultural Causality and Lawaddressed one of Steward’s central questions: What causes cultural change such as the independent development of civilization? A central premise came from the natural sciences. Steward believed that just as there are natural laws, discovered through scientific inquiry, so are there cultural laws that can likewise be discovered.

Arrival of Culture ecology

Steward came to call his approach cultural ecology, having used the terms ecology and ecological in print since the 1930s (e.g., “Ecological Aspects of Southwestern Society,” first published in 1937 and later reprinted in Theory of Culture Change). In the early 1950s, he finally wrote an essay on the concept and method of cultural ecology; it appeared in print as a chapter in Theory of Culture Change. There, he explicitly named and defined the cultural core, a concept implicit in his previous writings about patrilineal bands, lineage- and clan-based societies, and early civilizations. A few years later, he quietly abandoned the concept of the cultural core—which was arguably the linchpin of cultural ecology—but he never questioned the concept of the patrilineal band, despite the lack of empirical evidence to support it. This foundational concept, inspired in part by experiences at Deep Springs, held deeply personal as well as intellectual meaning for him.

In the 1950s, Steward began to be linked with Leslie White as a fellow cultural evolutionist. White’s brand of cultural evolution differed in many ways from Steward’s ideas about the causes and the course of cultural change, and Steward adopted the term multilinear evolution to distinguish his approach from what he called White’s universal evolution.

Despite its name, the basic ideas of multilinear evolution came from cultural ecology. Steward consistently focused on environmental resources, technology, and the organization of work in analyzing cultural change. To analyze change in sociopolitical structures and complexity, a topic of perennial interest to him, he developed a concept he termed levels of sociocultural integration. He included a chapter on that topic in Theory of Culture Change.

Steward always preferred the name cultural ecology for his approach, a set of ideas that he complained had been hard to “sell.” That name proved to be the one that endured, and his theoretical ideas began gaining ground after the publication of Theory of Culture Change. Steward’s environmental perspective helped stimulate a range of ecological approaches later in the 20th century, including human behavioral ecology, which has drawn adherents from biological anthropology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. Cultural ecology’s influence on three of the four subfields of American anthropology is undeniable but perhaps not widely appreciated.

Steward has become a figure of controversy among cultural anthropologists and Native scholars for his role in the Indian Claims Commission trials and the way in which he represented Great Basin Indians in his testimony and in his published writings; for his conviction that anthropology was a value-neutral science; and for his notable preoccupation with men’s labor but his near silence about women’s, despite having learned in fieldwork as early as 1935 that women had made the larger contribution to subsistence in much of the Great Basin.

Many archaeologists, among others, continue to find great heuristic value in Steward’s cultural ecology. His founding role in environmental anthropology also continues to receive favorable attention. The Julian Steward Award, launched in 2002 and given periodically by the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association, recognizes what is judged the best new book in ecological/environmental anthropology.



Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology – An Encyclopedia, Edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms 2013, Sage: Thousand Oaks, California

Dictionary of Anthropology, Edited by Thomas Barfield, New York: Blackwell, 1996


Further reading:


Neo-evolutionism: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2019/07/neo-evolutionism-with-special-emphasis.html

Branches of Social Cultural Anthropology (especially ecological anthropology): http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/branches-of-social-cultural-anthropology.html

Political Anthropology: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/political-anthropology.html




 A brief discussion on Cultural Ecology by Julian Steward (Bilingual meant for my college students)

Sunday 13 November 2022




One scholar claims that public administration has no generally accepted definition, because the scope of the subject is so great and so debatable that it is easier to explain than define. There is much disagreement about whether the study of public administration can properly be called a discipline, largely because of the debate over whether public administration is a subfield of political science or a subfield of administrative science (Kenneth 2012)[1].From the academic perspective, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the United States defines the study of public administration as "A program that prepares individuals to serve as managers in the executive arm of local, state, and federal government and that focuses on the systematic study of executive organization and management. Includes instruction in the roles, development, and principles of public administration; the management of public policy; executive-legislative relations; public budgetary processes and financial management; administrative law; public personnel management; professional ethics; and research methods.

Therefore, Public administration houses the implementation of government policy and an academic discipline that studies this implementation and that prepares civil servants for this work.As a field of inquiry with a diverse scope its fundamental goal... is to advance management and policies so that government can function (Rabin, Hildreth, and Miller 1989). Some of the various definitions which have been offered for the term are: the management of public programs (Denhardt 2009), the translation of politics into the reality that citizens see every day (Donald and Fessler 2009) and the study of government decision making, the analysis of the policies themselves, the various inputs that have produced them, and the inputs necessary to produce alternative policies ( McKinney and Howard 1998)

Brief history:

In the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson is considered the father of public administration. He first formally recognized public administration in an 1887 article entitledThe Study of Administration. The future president wrote that it is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy (Wilson1887).

He advocated four concepts:

·         Separation of politics and administration

·         Comparative analysis of political and private organizations

·         Improving efficiency with business-like practices and attitudes toward daily operations

·         Improving the effectiveness of public service through management and by training civil servants, merit-based assessment

Frederick Taylor, another prominent scholar in the field of administration and management also published a book entitled ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ (1911). He believed that scientific analysis would lead to the discovery of the ‘one best way’ to do things and /or carrying out an operation. This, according to him could help save cost and time. Taylor’s technique was later introduced to private industrialists, and later into the various government organizations (Jeong, 2007).

Taylor's approach is often referred to as Taylor's Principles, and/or Taylorism. Taylor's scientific management consisted of main four principles (Frederick W. Taylor, 1911):

·         Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.

·         Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.

·         Provide ‘Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker's discrete task’ (Montgomery 1997: 250).

·         Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

In 1980s and 1990s there was a rise of New Public Management (NPM), was proposed by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in their book Reinventing Government. The new model advocated the use of private sector-style models, organizational ideas and values to improve the efficiency and service-orientation of the public sector.

NPM's rise seems to belinked with four other administrative 'megatrends', namely:

(i)            attempts to slow down or reverse govemment growth in terms of overt public spending and staffing (Dunsire and Hood 1989);

(ii)           the shift toward privatization and quasi-privatization and away from core govemment institutions, with renewed emphasis on 'subsidiarity' in service provision (cf. Hood and Schuppert 1988; Dunleavy 1989).

(iii)          the development of automation, particularly in information technology, in the production and distribution of public services;

(iv)         the development of a more intemational agenda, increasingly focused on general issues of public management, policy design, decision styles and intergovernmental cooperation, on top of the older tradition of individual country specialisms in public administration.

(Hood 1990b)

In late 1990s and 2000sJanet and Robert Denhardt(2000) proposed a new public service model in response to the dominance of NPM.successor to NPM is digital era governance, focusing on themes of reintegrating government responsibilities, needs-based holism (executing duties in cursive ways), and digitalization (exploiting the transformational capabilities of modern IT and digital storage).

Anthropology and public administration:

The major field to which anthropologists have contributed directly is that of the administration of dependent peoples, either in a colonial context or in a situation such as that of the North American Indians. Anthropologists have been widely used as resources of expert knowledge about the workings of cultures and societies and have been hired to provide the information and analysis which government officials have used to form policy and design procedures for its implementation. The post of “Government Anthropologist” was a standard one in the British colonies; the French established research centres which sponsored fieldwork with applied implicationsl governments in Canada and the United States have had anthropologists on staff or as consultants; and in at least one instance, that of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, anthropologists were assigned direct administrative responsibility for the implementation of policies based upon their own cultural analysis.

In post war scenario the role of anthropologists in public administration is increasingly becoming prominent and inevitable. As the differences between administration and politics is apparent and more scientific tools are being used for policy making there is a rising demand of anthropologists to gather baseline data on populations to be governed and administered. The catchy phrases like “Needs Assessment”, “impact assessments” which are expected to deliver inputs in policy implications, failures and felt changes are increasingly becoming fields for anthropologists. As scholars like Fenno (1990) argues for the needs of gathering anthropological knowledge on politicians’ lifeworlds and their modes of decision making newer avenues for anthropologists are opening. Today anthropologists are playing different roles in public administrations these roles range from doing research for betterment of public service delivery to actually catering public services to the people.

Following is a list of positions anthropologists occupy in and around the domain of Public Administration:

1.    Policy research.

2.    Programme evaluator and designer

3.    Needs assessor

4.    Impact assessor

5.    Planner

6.    Advocator

7.    Advisor

8.    Consultant

To make anthropological knowledge and methodology more effective there are several new methods for doing policy analysis which helps in betterment of public administration. Methods like Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), principally advocated by Robert Chambers, where local people are asked to make active participation for quick understanding of problems and possibilities are highly practiced. The use of Ethnographic sensitivity in understanding the local needs have become an art of doing anthropology. Other methods like Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) are also increasingly used.

Participatory ethnography in organizations to assess the organizational effectiveness for betterment of the service delivery system with further suggestions, coupling of participation and change management have make the discipline of public administration more rich.

[1]Kernaghan, Kenneth. "Public administration" in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Available online at:http://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0006540




Decentralisation is the process of dispersing decision-making governance closer to the people and/or citizen. It includes the dispersal of administration or governance in sectors or areas like engineering, management science, political science, political economy, sociology and economics. Decentralization is also possible in the dispersal of population and employment. Law, science and technological advancements lead to highly decentralized human endeavours. "While frequently left undefined (Pollitt, 2005), decentralization has also been assigned many different meanings (Reichard & Borgonovi, 2007), varying across countries (Steffensen & Trollegaard, 2000; Pollitt, 2005), languages (Ouedraogo, 2003), general contexts (Conyers, 1984), fields of research, and specific scholars and studies." (Dubois and Fattore 2009).


A central theme in decentralization is the difference between a hierarchy, based on:

  • authority: two players in an unequal-power relationship; and
  • an interface: a lateral relationship between two players of roughly equal power.


Meaning and context:

The term decentralisation is aided with different and slippery meaning which changes according to the context in which it is being used. Finding the appropriate size of political states or other decision-making units, determining their optimal relationship to social capital and to infrastructural capital is a major focus of Anthropology. In management science there are studies of the ideal size of corporations, and some in anthropology and sociology study the ideal size of villages. The most relevant uses with which anthropology is directly related include the following:

Ø  Decentralised governance: Decentralization—the transfer of authority and responsibility for public functions from the central government to subordinate or quasi-independent government organizations and/or the private sector (Sundaram 1994). It is a complex and multifaceted concept. It embraces a variety of concepts. Different types of decentralization show different characteristics, policy implications, and conditions for success. Typologies of decentralization have flourished (Dubois & Fattore 2009). For example, political, administrative, fiscal, and market decentralization are the types of decentralization.

Ø  Political decentralisation: Political decentralization aims to give citizens or their elected representatives more power in public decision-making. It is often associated with pluralistic politics and representative government, but it can also support democratization by giving citizens, or their representatives, more influence in the formulation and implementation of policies. Advocates of political decentralization assume that decisions made with greater participation will be better informed and more relevant to diverse interests in society than those made only by national political authorities.

Ø  Administrative decentralisation: Administrative decentralization seeks to redistribute authority, responsibility and financial resources for providing public services among different levels of governance. It is the transfer of responsibility for the planning, financing and management of public functions from the central government or regional governments and its agencies to local governments, semi-autonomous public authorities or corporations, or area-wide, regional or functional authorities. The three major forms of administrative decentralization -- deconcentration, delegation, and devolution -- each have different characteristics.

Ø  Fiscal Decentralisation:  Dispersal of financial responsibility is a core component of decentralisation. If local governments and private organizations are to carry out decentralized functions effectively, they must have an adequate level of revenues – either raised locally or transferred from the central government– as well as the authority to make decisions about expenditures. Fiscal decentralization can take many forms, including

§  self-financing or cost recovery through user charges,

§  co-financing or co-production arrangements through which the users participate in providing services and infrastructure through monetary or labor contributions;

§  expansion of local revenues through property or sales taxes, or indirect charges;

§  intergovernmental transfers that shift general revenues from taxes collected by the central government to local governments for general or specific uses; and

§  authorization of municipal borrowing and the mobilization of either national or local government resources through loan guarantees.

§  In many developing countries local governments or administrative units possess the legal authority to impose taxes, but the tax base is so weak and the dependence on central government subsidies so ingrained that no attempt is made to exercise that authority.




The panchayat raj is a South Asian political system mainly in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. "Panchayat" literally means assembly (yat) of five (panch) wise and respected elders chosen and accepted by the village community. Traditionally, these assemblies settled disputes between individuals and villages. Modern Indian government has decentralised several administrative functions to the village level, empowering elected gram panchayats.

Panchayat Raj (Rule of Village Committee) system is a three-tier system in the state with elected bodies at the Village, Taluk and District levels. It ensures greater participation of people and more effective implementation of rural development programmes. There will be a Grama Panchayat for a village or group of villages, a Taluk/ block level and the Zilla Panchayat at the district level (Mullick & Raaj 2007).



British period:

Although, traditional village administration in India has an important stake in the Panchayat system based principally on Kin and contractual system of authority. British rulers never prioritised Panchayat (Matthew 2000).

From 1870 that Viceroy Lord Mayo's Resolution gave the needed impetus to the development of local institutions. It was a landmark in the evolution of colonial policy towards local government. The real benchmarking of the government policy on decentralisation can, however, be attributed to Lord Ripon who, in his famous resolution on local self-government on May 18, 1882, recognised the twin considerations of local government: (i) administrative efficiency and (ii) political education.

The Royal Commission on Decentralisation (1907) under the chairmanship of C.E.H. Hobhouse recognised the importance of panchayats at the village level. The commission recommended that "it is most desirable, alike in the interests of decentralisation and in order to associate the people with the local tasks of administration, that an attempt should be made to constitute and develop village panchayats for the administration of local village affairs".

But, the Montague-Chemsford reforms (1919) brought local self-government as a provincial transferred subject, under the domain of Indian ministers in the provinces. Due to organisational and fiscal constraints, the reform was unable to make panchayat institutions truly democratic and vibrant.

The Indian National Congress from the 1920s to 1947, emphasized the issue of all-India Swaraj, and organized movements for Independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. The task of preparing any sort of blueprint for the local level was neglected as a result. There was no consensus among the top leaders regarding the status and role to be assigned to the institution of rural local self-government; rather there were divergent views on the subject (World Bank 2000).


Post colonial India:

The First Five Year Plan failed to bring about active participation and involvement of the people in the Plan processes, which included Plan formulation implementation and monitoring. The Second Five Year Plan attempted to cover the entire countryside with National Extensive Service Blocks through the institutions of Block Development Officers, Assistant Development Officers, Village Level Workers, in addition to nominated representatives of village panchayats of that area and some other popular organisations like co-operative societies.


In 1957, Balwantrai Mehta Committee studied the Community Development Projects and the National Extension Service and assessed the extent to which the movement had succeeded in utilising local initiatives and in creating institutions to ensure continuity in the process of improving economic and social conditions in rural areas. The Committee held that community development would only be deep and enduring when the community was involved in the planning, decision-making and implementation process (Government of India 1957, Kashyap 1989).

The suggestions were for as follows  :-

  • an early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of necessary resources, power and authority,
  • that the basic unit of democratic decentralisation was at the block/ samiti level since the area of jurisdiction of the local body should neither be too large nor too small. The block was large enough for efficiency and economy of administration, and small enough for sustaining a sense of involvement in the citizens,
  • such body must not be constrained by too much control by the government or government agencies,
  • the body must be constituted for five years by indirect elections from the village panchayats,
  • its functions should cover the development of agriculture in all its aspects, the promotion of local industries and others
  • services such as drinking water, road building, etc., and
  • the higher level body, Zilla Parishad, would play an advisory role.


One of the prime areas of concern in this long debate on panchayati raj institutions was fiscal decentralisation. The K. Santhanam Committee was appointed to look solely at the issue of PRI finance, in 1963. The fiscal capacity of PRIs tends to be limited, as rich resources of revenue are pre-empted by higher levels of government, and issue is still debated today. The Committee was asked to determine issues related to sanctioning of grants to PRIs by the state government, evolving mutual financial relations between the three tiers of PRIs, gifts and donation, handing over revenue in full or part to PRIs. The Committee recommended the following: -

  • panchayats should have special powers to levy special tax on land revenues and home taxes, etc.,
  • people should not be burdened with too many demands (taxes),
  • all grants and subventions at the state level should be mobilised and sent in a consolidated form to various PRIs,
  • a Panchayat Raj Finance Corporation should be set up to look into the financial resource of PRIs at all levels, provide loans and financial assistance to these grassroots level governments and also provide non-financial requirements of villages (Rai 2001).

During 1977, Ashok Mehta committee was formed to assess the functioning and weakness of existing panchayat system.

The Committee had to evolve an effective decentralised system of development for PRIs. They made the following recommendations: -

the district is a viable administrative unit for which planning, co-ordination and resource allocation are feasible and technical expertise available,

  • PRIs as a two-tier system, with Mandal Panchayat at the base and Zilla Parishad at the top,
  • the PRIs are capable of planning for themselves with the resources available to them,
  • district planning should take care of the urban-rural continuum,
  • representation of SCs and STs in the election to PRIs on the basis of their population,
  • four-year term of PRIs,
  • participation of political parties in elections,
  • any financial devolution should be committed to accepting that much of the developmental functions at the district level would be played by the panchayats.

Later on G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985) and L.M.Singhvi Committee (1986) strongly suggested for strengthening of Panchayat system.




The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act


The idea that produced the 73rd Amendment (Indian Constitution 1992) was not a response to pressure from the grassroots, but to an increasing recognition that the institutional initiatives of the preceding decade had not delivered, that the extent of rural poverty was still much too large and thus the existing structure of government needed to be reformed. It is interesting to note that this idea evolved from the Centre and the state governments. It was a political drive to see PRIs as a solution to the governmental crises that India was experiencing. The Constitutional (73rd Amendment) Act, passed in 1992 by the Narasimha Rao government, came into force on April 24, 1993. It was meant to provide constitutional sanction to establish "democracy at the grassroots level as it is at the state level or national level". Its main features are as follows:

  • The Gram Sabha or village assembly as a deliberative body to decentralised governance has been envisaged as the foundation of the Panchayati Raj System.
  • A uniform three-tier structure of panchayats at village (Gram Panchayat — GP), intermediate or block (Panchayat Samiti — PS) and district (Zilla Parishad — ZP) levels.
  • All the seats in a panchayat at every level are to be filled by elections from respective territorial constituencies.
  • Not less than one-third of the total seats for membership as well as office of chairpersons of each tier have to be reserved for women.
  • Reservation for weaker castes and tribes (SCs and STs) have to be provided at all levels in proportion to their population in the panchayats.
  • To supervise, direct and control the regular and smooth elections to panchayats, a State Election Commission has to be constituted in every State and UT.
  • The Act has ensured constitution of a State Finance Commission in every State/UT, for every five years, to suggest measures to strengthen finances of PRIs.
  • To promote bottom-up-planning, the District Planning Committee fDPC} in every district has been accorded constitutional status.
  • An indicative list of 29 items has been given in Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution. Panchayats are expected to play an effective role in planning and implementation of works related to these 29 items.


Present scenario


At present, there are about 3 million elected representatives at all levels of the panchayat one-third of which are women. These members represent more than 2.4 lakh Gram Panchayats, about 6,000 intermediate level tiers and more than 500 district panchayats . Spread over the length and breadth of the country, the new panchayats cover about 96 per cent of India's more than 5.8 lakh villages and nearly 99.6 per cent of rural population. This is the largest experiment in decentralisation of governance in the history of humanity.

The Constitution visualises panchayats as institutions of self-governance. However, giving due consideration to the federal structure of our polity, most of the financial powers and authorities to be endowed on panchayats have been left at the discretion of concerned state legislatures. Consequently, the powers and functions vested in PRIs vary from state to state. These provisions combine representative and direct democracy into a synergy and are expected to result in an extension and deepening of democracy in India. Hence, panchayats have journeyed from an institution within the culture of India to attain constitutional status.

Figure 1 Present structure of Panchayat system in India (Panchayat and Rural Development West Bengal 2010)