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A sarpanch or pradhan is a decision-maker, elected by the village-level constitutional body of local self-government called the Gram Sabha (village government) in India. The sarpanch, together with other elected panchayat members (referred to as commissioners or a panch), constitute the gram panchayat. The sarpanch is the focal point of contact between government officers and the village community and retains power for five years.
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Sar, meaning head, and panch meaning five, gives the meaning head of the five decision makers of the gram panchyat of the village.
In the state of West Bengal, a Sarpanch is termed as Panchayat Pradhan (Pradhan means Head) and his deputy as Upa-Pradhan.
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Although panchayats have been in existence in India since antiquity, in post-Independence India, most of the rural development and community development projects have been sought to be executed through panchayats. India's federal structure of governance means that different states have different laws governing the powers of the gram panchayats and sarpanches.
In many states, elections were not held for decades and instead of elected sarpanches, the gram panchayats were run by bureaucratically appointed administrators. With the passage of 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1992, a number of safeguards have been built in, including those pertaining to regular elections. However, even the constitutionally mandated devolution of the functions of 29 core subjects remains a distant dream in most states of India. "Power to the people" remains more of a rhetorical slogan than an actual practice.
Article 243D of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment requires one-third of seats in panchayats and one-third of panchayat chairperson positions be reserved for women, across all three levels of the panchayati raj system.:24 This amendment followed various state-level legislative reforms in which reservations were set for panchayat positions to be held by women.:32