THE Union Government, especially the Ministry for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj deserve all credit for declaring 2009-2010 the year of the Gram Sabha – the village assembly comprising all adult citizens of the village. There could not have been a better choice in the ministry’s list of priorities.
The 73rd amendment to the Constitution aimed at strengthening local self-government and decentralisation in rural areas. To fulfill these objectives, elected panchayats are now in place all over the country barring a few exceptions like Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. There are indications that in these two states, panchayat elections will take place in the near future. In Jammu and Kashmir, elections for panchayats are likely to be held at the end of this year or early next year. In Jharkhand the state government has been guilty of ignoring its constitutional obligations of holding panchayat elections. But after recent civil society initiatives which asked for early panchayat elections, it appears these elections will be held soon after a new government is sworn in after the Assembly elections.
As far as the constitutional obligation of creating panchayats throughout the country is concerned, except a few problems here and there, this duty has been fulfilled within a reasonable time-frame. However, the real test of meaningful rural self-government is to ensure the active participation of the entire village community, to take democracy to every house or hut in every village. It is here that our rural decentralisation and local self-government falters. The reason for this is that we did not pay attention to strengthening the gram sabha.
The end result is that in many villages the elected head, known as the pradhan or sarpanch, in collusion with an official usually the panchayat secretary has much more power than is healthy for rural democracy. In villages where there is a weak pradhan, who could be a proxy for powerful persons in the village, other people control him in collusion with the panchayat secretary. In this scenario, certain officials call the shots.
In villages where the pradhan is from a feudal or influential background, he easily becomes the most powerful person around and frequently behaves in an autocratic way. In such situations, it is quite likely that a substantial share of development funds will be cornered and shared by a few powerful persons. Villagers have a right to ask, how do they benefit from this type of decentralisation or local self-government? This was not the panchayati raj they wanted. Neither is this the vision of those who initiated panchayati raj.
The missing link has been the active participation of the entire village community, particularly the weaker sections. There is legal provision in panchayati raj for regular meetings of the village community or the gram sabha to discuss all important issues. The gram sabha is supposed to play an important role in preparing village plans and deciding development priorities in the village. But in most villages this active and important role of the gram sabha has not been fulfilled in reality. In many villages, gram sabha meetings have been reduced to a mere formality. The pradhan gets together a few people whom he knows and passes that off as a gram sabha meeting.
In areas designated as scheduled areas where the tribal population is significant, there are even stronger provisions for the important role of the gram sabha. This has been specially provided by legislation on Panchayats as Extended to Scheduled Areas, known commonly as PESA legislation. This is an important law and a source of strength for Indian democracy.
PESA provisions make it very clear that India’s democracy is committed to protecting its vulnerable groups particularly tribals. In particular PESA legislation is very important for protecting the land and livelihoods of tribals. To achieve this and other important aims of protecting the tribal community PESA assigns a very important role to the gram sabha. Unfortunately, some state governments have been trying to dilute PESA. They have not honoured the letter and spirit of PESA laws. In the process, the threat of land alienation and displacement for tribals has increased. It can be stated with confidence that if the letter and spirit of PESA is honoured, then chances of injustice to tribal communities can be reduced significantly.
Moreover, the strengthening of gram sabhas is needed not just for scheduled areas but for all areas. Some voluntary organisations have been working actively for strengthening gram sabhas. As a result of their efforts and the initiative taken by some honest pradhans and other villagers, some successful examples of the active and purposeful functioning of gram sabhas are already available. These have helped to break the myth that it is not possible to hold meaningful discussions in a large gathering of villagers.
To the extent that some practical problems actually exist the simultaneous strengthening of ward sabhas can help solve these problems. As the population of a ward is much smaller than an entire village, it will be possible to hold more detailed discussions at ward sabha meetings. Once many issues have been sorted out at ward sabha level, it will become much easier to hold gram sabha meetings. Solutions to practical problems are possible and the gram sabha can certainly play a very important role in strengthening grassroots democracy.
The government is to be congratulated for recognising the unrealised potential of the gram sabha. One only hopes that this initiative will be much more than a symbolic gesture and adequate support will be given to actual work to strengthen the gram sabha.
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