Understanding local democracy

The democratic means for self-government in India can be difficult to fully understand, and this photo-essay breaks down the system at a grassroots level.
2020-01-03 00:00:00 India Development Review Understanding local democracy
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In India, the democratic means for self-government is accorded by the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) in rural areas, and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA Act) in tribal areas.

The democratic structure at the grassroot level  

The 73rd CAA provides for a three-tier system

It comprises the Jila Parishad (at district level), the Panchayat Samiti (at block level) and the Gram Panchayat (at village level).

democratic means for self-government in India

A Gram Panchayat in Pal Mandav village of Dovra block

The PESA Act was instituted to further decentralise power

The Act came into force in 1996, and provides assembly at the revenue village level, below that of the Gram Panchayat.

democratic means for self-government in India

A gaon sabha as per the PESA Act in Makreda village of Bichiwara block

There are 11 powers given to a Gaon Sabha, or village assembly, under the PESA Act

These are written into a ‘Shilalekh’ – a piece of stone in the centre of the village, like this one in Dedli.

democratic means for self-government in India

Shilalekh in Dedli

The 11 powers of the Gaon Sabha are a combination of powers to administer, manage revenue, and resources. These include involvement and consent of the people in the areas of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation, land restoration (in case of alienation), mining of minerals, use of intoxicants, ownership of minor forest produce, management of village markets, management of water bodies and control over money lending.

  • Despite the good intent and legally conferred powers, the implementation of the PESA Act across states is poor and in some cases non-existent

Therefore, many civil society organisations have taken the lead to improve the implementation of PESA in their respective intervention areas.

democratic means for self-government in India

Nukkad natak in Lolakpur

Nukkad nataks (street plays) are organised to create awareness about the PESA Act. This one organised by Vagad Majdur Kisaan Sanghthan was in Lolakpur village.

Related article: India @ 70: The Anxiety of Asymmetry

  • The lack of relevant data is a barrier to strengthening local democracy

To strengthen local democracy, data at grassroot-level granularity is necessary. But this is often missing.

In a country like India, where development is viewed through the narrow lens of GDP, data that analyses the performance of grassroots institutions is not a priority with policy makers. This, despite the fact that the absence of systematic data pertaining to these institutions, in fact, actually hinders their ability to take effective decisions.

Government officials at the district level and upwards work with limited data from the ground, especially from the Panchayat level. Even if the data is available, it is not of good quality. It then falls upon civil society organisations to strategise, intervene, monitor and evaluate the impact of the interventions at Panchayat level, since they are closest to the community.

  • Take the case of Dungarpur, a district in Rajasthan with difficult terrain

Bhil tribals constitute the majority of the population in Dungarpur. The villages in Dungarpur are widely scattered, and forests and hills are integral parts of the landscape.

democratic means for self-government in India

Village in Dovra

If one house is on one hill, then the next house is on the next hill. Further, one revenue village may consist of up to two to five hamlets (falla).

democratic means for self-government in India

Villages in Dovra and Bichiwara blocks of Dungarpur

  • There is also not much data available on which villages are revenue villages and which ones are forest villages, even among the department officials themselves

democratic means for self-government in India

Dedli and Malmatha – two forest villages in Bichiwara block

As a result of this lack of data and confusion, most villagers are still awaiting their rights and entitlements due to lack of data and surveys.

Although, the Government of India has ordered officials to incorporate unsurveyed villages and forest villages into revenue villages. But mere incorporation of these villages as revenue villages might still not help to get data. Also, this incorporation might be inconsistent with the measures provided by the Forest Rights Act.

  • There is a need for a grassroots-led database that will contain data that can be used for local decision making

A starting point is the  Village Development Plan (VDP). This uses village level data to plan and implement the development goals and schemes across line departments at block and district levels.

democratic means for self-government in India

A comprehensive map of Sharam village, created by a gaon sabha with support of VMKS in Bichiwara block

But more needs to be done. And the central and state governments need to prioritise data collection from the bottom to make better developmental plans.

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