The early period of the British rule did not much touch upon the structure of the existing local government system. It was through the permanent settlement that a new type of local governance in English model more or less was introduced replacing the traditional institutions. Pargana system was abolished, so was the panchayet system. The new civil and criminal justice and its adalat system became the basis of the local government. ZAMINDARs and other landholders were made the natural leaders of the society.
The zamindari institution, however, lost its potency in the later part of the nineteenth century. The end of EAST INDIA COMPANY rule in 1858 and parliamentary commitment to take the people of the country in partnership in phases led to many reforms leading to increasing participation of people in the local governance. Thus, government passed the Bengal Chowkidari Act of 1870. The Act tried to revive the traditional Panchayet System. It authorised the District MAGISTRATE to appoint a panchayet at the village level consisting of five members. The primary function of the panchayet was to appoint village watch-men called chowkidars for the maintenance of law and order. The panchayet could also assess and collect taxes from the villagers to pay the salaries of the chowkidars.
The most direct mode of western self governance was attempted by Viceroy LORD RIPON (1880-1884). His administration resolved in 1882 to introduce local self-governing institutions in phases. In implementing the resolution, the Bengal Council passed the Local Self-Government Act, 1885 under which a three-tier system of local government for rural areas was provided:
(i) a District Board in each district,
(ii) a Local Board in a sub-division of a district,
(iii) a Union Committee for a group of villages.
The District Board was made the centre-piece in the local government system and entrusted with extensive powers and responsibilities. A Local Board acted as an agent of the District Board and could exercise only those powers delegated to it by the District Board. The Local Board acted as a supervising body of Union Committees and could delegate any responsibility to Union Committees which were designed to administer, on an average, an area of twelve square miles in the villages. Union Committees, consisting of not less than five or more than nine members, were to be elected from among the residents of the UNION.
The Act of 1919 initiated the second major attempt to create a network of self-government bodies in rural Bengal. The Act replaced existing Chowkidari, Panchayet and Union Committees by a new body called the Union Board. The Union Board was composed of not less than six but not more than nine members of whom two-thirds were elected and one-third nominated. Nominated members were chosen by the District Magistrate. Elected members were chosen from union residents who attained 21 years of age and had paid at least a rupee of land tax and at least another rupee as tax assessed by the new Board. After the election, the members elected a president and a vice-president from among themselves. The president was the chief executive of the Board. He could be removed from office by a no-confidence resolution passed by two-thirds of the members of the Board. Nominated members of the Union Board were to be chosen by the District Magistrate.
Primary functions of the Union Board were: (a) supervision of chowkidars, (b) maintenance of sanitation and public health, (c) maintenance of roads, bridges and waterways, (d) establishment and upkeep of schools and dispensaries at its discretion and (e) supply of information as and when needed by the District Board. The supervision and control over the Union Board was exercised by the CIRCLE OFFICER who served as a link between the District Board and the thana administration.