Democratic decentralisation depends on a vibrant ‘gram sabha’

Decentralisation is a strategy to empower citizens to control their own destinies. At its core, decentralisation signals that citizen collectives can come together to make decisions of allocation and expenditure of public resources. ‘Democratic decentralisation’ as practised in India is where this power is devolved to elected local governments – this was the spirit of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India in 1993-94.

This form of decentralisation sought to break away from the conventional planning processes that did not involve citizens. Bringing about reforms in such a context required a ‘big bang’ – of the kind attempted in Kerala, where, in 1996, instead of waiting to gradually create and upgrade the administrative capacity of the local government officials and elected representatives, the state government decided to devolve untied funds. The assumption was that these funds would trigger a wave of local accountability. The devolution was accompanied by a state-wide people’s campaign to mobilise masses to participate in local governance.

In the democratic decentralisation system, Gram Sabhas were envisaged as key platforms for popular participation. A quorum was defined for convening a meeting, and they had to develop bye-laws that specified the number of times they were to meet in a year. Gram Sabhas were responsible for catalysing local planning by conducting ‘needs assessment’ exercises, and devising plans for development projects that would be aggregated at the Panchayat-level. When further aggregated, and rationalised at the district-level, these would become official inputs into the state government’s annual budgeting process.

The above highlights the importance of the Gram Sabha as a pivotal institution in local planning. However, 25 years since the landmark constitutional amendments, the state of Gram Sabhas are quite different in reality. With low participation, and often hijacked by small but influential interests, Gram Sabhas have by and large struggled to stay relevant.

The dip in popular participation in Gram Sabhas has significant implications for the future of democratic decentralisation in India. It is therefore important to take urgent steps to revive the humble Gram Sabha.

  • There is a widely shared perception that Gram Sabhas are only for discussions on benefiting from individually-targeted government schemes, and the planning process is seen merely as an exercise in identifying beneficiaries for government schemes. This needs to be countered by running a widespread awareness campaign where the development agenda of local governments, and the role of Gram Sabhas is clarified.
  • There is a significant imbalance of power relations between local government officials and Gram Sabha members. Government officials are supposed to attend key Gram Sabhas, and communicate how projects and schemes under their jurisdiction are relevant to communities. Active participation of these officials, and a clear demonstration that Gram Sabha decisions cannot be simply overruled by the local bureaucracy would be an important factor in restoring trust. For instance, administrative sanctions of scheme implementation should not take place without authorisation at the Gram Sabha.
  • There is a perception of rampant corruption by local leaders, and elected representatives. The quantum of funds that flow through local governments, and the reports of misuse of funds adds to this suspicion, or at least strengthens the perception that local governments are unable to ensure clean effective spending. Local accountability should be the central theme that binds every Gram Sabha. An active state government, acting as a watchdog, complements the role of popular participation, ensuring pressure from both above and below on local governments and government officials operating at the grassroots.
  • In most parts of the country, self-help groups have taken strong roots. In Kerala, the Kudumbashree model has demonstrated how these groups can interact with local governments, strengthening as a result, the spirit of local governance.
  • Finally, when it comes to Gram Sabhas, one size does not fit all – not all Gram Sabhas care about service delivery issues; there might be ones whose primary concerns are the quality of tertiary health, or educational institutes, or job creation through enterprise development in their regions.

The functioning of Gram Sabhas are affected by the manner in which agendas are framed for public meetings and the levels of involvement of the critical actors such as elected representatives, government officials and subject experts. It is also evident that there is very little scrutiny of the local governments from the state government. This calls for an active role from the state government in reforming the organisation and the conduct of Gram Sabhas in particular and of local governments in general, to improve popular participation. This then would form the basis for state governments and civil society to hold Gram Sabhas and local government accountable for the delivery of public services.

In the techno-managerial framework of developmentalism, local governments have become contractors who just implement schemes designed and funded by those above them. In this process, Gram Sabhas have lost their ability to function as vibrant spaces for popular participation, as well as the ability to function as effective agencies to hold government functionaries to account. It is this space that Gram Sabhas need to regain, if the goals of democratic decentralisation are to be realised.

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This post first appeared on Livemint

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