Like the whole of India, in Orissa also the village Panchayats has been the oldest units of local government.
Village Panchayat—the body of five local leading persons was the ruling organ of the village and it had the responsibility to settle local disputes as well as to secure welfare of the people of the village.
During the ancient and medieval periods these local panchayats (Village Panchayat for villages and Ganas Panchayats for other areas worked well for serving their objectives. During the Muslim period these panchayats continued to work smoothly although some of their powers were given to the Kotwals.
During the British period, the Village Panchayat suffered a big loss due to the introduction of Zamindari and Ryotwari systems. However, in 1882 Lord Ripon tried to revitalise the local self-government by retransferring some of its traditional power and role to Panchayats.
The Resolution of 1882 was passed for this purpose and under it an attempt was made to revive the system, of local government in India. The Decentralisation Commission 1907, the Montague Declaration of 1917, the Resolution of 1918, the Government of India Act 1919 and Government of India Act 1935 made attempts towards some empowerment of local self-government in India.
As part of the progress of Indian National Liberation Movement, the people of India agreed to reconstruct the Village Panchayats. Gandhiji’s advocacy of Constructive Programme as part of the non-cooperation movement against the British rule, created a new awareness in favour of local self-government. Consequently, the resolve to strengthen the panchayats was made by the people of India during the course of struggle for freedom from British Imperialism.
Naturally, when India successfully gained her independence, the leaders of modern India lost no time in implementing the decision to revive and strengthen the Panchayat System. Art 40 of the Constitutional of India gave a directive to the State for effectively organising Village Panchayats at the village level and for providing them with adequate powers and resources.
Within the first decade of Independence, the Government of India decided to stream-line the working of village Panchayats by creating a meaningful and healthy system of local self government. Balwant Rai Mehta Committee was constituted in 1956,which in its report published in 1957, advocated a strong case for democratic decentralisation. For this purpose the democratisation of the Community Development Programme by the active and continuous involvement of the rural people through their panchayats was held to be the need of the hour.
Balwant Rai Mehta Committee recommended the creation of a three tier Panchayati Raj system with Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block or Taluk or middle level and Zilla Parishad at the district level. The Government accepted the recommendations of the BR Mehta Committee and the states of India Union passed enabling Acts for implementing the new system of Panchayati Raj.
Orissa had taken the lead when in 1949 when a committee—the Chaudhry Committee, named after its chairman Nabakrushan Chaudhry, ex-chief minister of Orissa, was set up for suggesting land revenue administration reforms on the basis of the principle of decentralisation of authority. This committee suggested the abolition of Zamindari system. The Government of Orissa was in the process of implementing some of the recommendations made by this Chaudhry Committee when the B.R. Mehta Committee report was published, and accepted for adoption. It lost no time in implementing the report of BR Mehta Committee.
In 1959, the Orissa Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad Act was passed by the Orissa Legislative Assembly. This Act came into force on 26th January 1961. This Act along with the amendments made in 1962, 1965. 1968, 1987, 1991, and 1994 continues to lay down the structure and powers of Panchayati Raj institutions in Orissa.
The Orissa Grama Panchayat Act was amended in the year 1994 for incorporating the provisions of 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India. Earlier, in 1993 the Zilla Parishad Act 1991 had been amended for a similar exercise. The contemporary system of Rural Local Self Government in Orissa rests upon all these Acts and the Amendments made in these.