Friday, 21 February 2014

Functioning of Gram Sabhas in India

Photo Credit: Anand District Panchayat
As the foundation of the Panchayati Raj system in India, the Gram Sabhas were envisaged as important institution for deliberation and participation in the decision-making process by the people of rural India. To popularise its role in planning local development initiatives, the central government had declared 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 as Gram Sabha years. However, over the years it has become clear that the Gram Sabhas have failed to include local community voices in their functioning or to even represent them effectively in their decision making. No doubt, if Gram Sabhas functioned in the true spirit of the Constitution, rural India would have a vibrant, transparent and accountable local government to address its immediate needs. Therefore, it is essential to reflect on how effective is the functioning of Gram Sabhas and account for the waning public faith and participation in them.

My field experiences from across Indian villages show that Gram Sabhas are not functioning in accordance with the spirit of the 73rd Amendment Act, 1992. More often than not, their functioning is controlled by the Sarpanch and Secretary and the vested interests they represent rather than the concerns of the common people. Under the law, it is mandatory to give prior notice to members to attend the Gram Sabha meetings. But this procedure is not followed by many Gram Panchayats. In fact, this is a tool in the hands of the dominant who directly or indirectly control the Panchayats and use it to deliberately exclude the common people from participatory political processes and in the process augment their political, economic and social power. It is observed that the meeting dates are fixed by the Central/State governments either to prepare a beneficiary list for various schemes or to disseminate information on new schemes. Those whose names are not in the list do not attend these meetings. In several instances meetings  are fixed during the peak  agricultural  season and as peasant and agricultural labour households cannot afford to lose out on the agricultural wage employment, they tend to forgo Gram Sabha meetings instead.  Meetings are fixed on a popular festival day, making it inconvenient for many to attend.  In Rajasthan, one secretary is generally incharge of three to four Gram Panchayats and it may well be the case that the meetings of all the Panchayats are scheduled for the same day which would make it very difficult for the secretary to be present in all meetings. When this has happened, Gram Sabha meetings have had to be cancelled and rescheduled. But it has been seen that even then the Secretary was not present. Disillusioned, people lose interest in these meetings. It is a common practice that the Sarpanch takes the signature of the people on a blank paper on proceeding details even before the Gram Sabha meeting has been held.  In many Gram Sabhas, candidates who lost the Panchayat election or those from the opposing camp, actively disrupt the meetings. They are often drunk when they come to the meetings and use unpleasant language to abuse the Sarpanch. It is difficult for women to attend these meetings. A common experience of people is that the Sarpanch, once elected, becomes distant from the very people who elected him and moves closer to the Gram Panchayat Secretary and block level officials. He   never makes public the details of the panchayat operations, funds received from the block office etc. 
The traditional land-owning dominant castes are still strong in many villages. These rural elites dominate the discussion on Gram Sabha meetings. The marginalied and landless agricultural labourers who are dependent on dominant castes for wage employment do not oppose them in Gram Sabha meetings. Moreover, low public participation in Gram Sabhas is also due to lack of popular awareness, lack of publicity, interference of local leaders, corruption, conflict among members and the uncooperative attitude of bureaucrats.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) states that, “the Gram Sabhas have been, by and large, given a peripheral role in the Panchayat Acts. Consequently, common people do not find interest in attending its meetings” (B P C Bose and M V S Koteswar: 2004:154). To make Gram Sabha meetings successful, the venue and time may  be so decided that it is to the convenience of the majority.
The emphasis has to be not so much on the number of participants as on the quality of participation. Public faith can be restored only if the Gram Sabha decisions are substantively and efficiently implemented by the higher tier of Panchayats and respective State Governments. The report by Mani Shankar Aiyar also recommended “Genuine PR should be based on participative democracy by not concentrating power on a few representatives and putting in place the ultimate accountability to the people through the Gram Sabha”(Towards Holistic Panchayati Raj: 2013:551).
The decisions of the Gram Sabhas are not binding on higher tiers of Panchayats. Gram Sabhas are spending most of their time in disposing and discussing the agendas of Central/State governments. There is a need to strengthening functions of Gram Sabhas so that they may discuss local issues affecting their day to day life and make local governance more participatory, transparent and people friendly. Gram Sabhas may be given approving and sanctioning powers as well as monitoring functions to allow Panchayats to become vibrant and dynamic institutions. There is need to amend State Acts and make Gram Sabha recommendations binding on Panchayats at higher level.
Ramesh Nayak

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