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
It comprises the Jila Parishad (at district level), the Panchayat Samiti (at block level) and the Gram Panchayat (at village level).
These are written into a ‘Shilalekh’ – a piece of stone in the centre of the village, like this one 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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.