Statute book self-governance

A well-functioning gram sabha, the Holy Grail of ‘local self-governance’ exists only on paper.


Kapil Bajaj | May 21, 2010

I and two colleagues, working for Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), a Delhi-based NGO, set ourselves on a search for a well-functioning gram sabha in late 2008.

By the standards of ‘local self-governance’, a gram sabha should meet regularly and collectively decide all issues of development and social justice in its jurisdiction, leaving the elected and unelected panchayat functionaries to merely carry out its decisions.

Gram sabha should also decide – without being dictated to from the top -- how the funds available to the gram panchayat should be spent, exercise supervision over local government functionaries and monitor project implementation. Such a gram sabha would be a model of citizens’ direct participation in the governance of their areas and a step towards realising Gandhi’s ideal of Gram Swaraj.

In reality, however, gram sabhas, which are recognised by state laws that flow from the 73rd constitutional amendment, have been little more than rubber stamps for the decisions taken by panchayat members and bureaucrats.

State Panchayati Raj laws provide for small-time functions and powers for gram sabhas, such as drawing up lists of beneficiaries of government schemes and ‘approving’ the decisions taken by elected and unelected functionaries.

Across the country, meetings of gram sabha either do not take place at all or are held as inconsequential rituals.

The three-tier system of panchayats (village, block and district) thus only pretends to be local self-government for the rural population while actually being a model of unaccountable (and largely corrupt) governance that hardly allows any citizen participation in decision-making.

The Panchayati Raj legislation of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, however, endow gram sabhas with much more powers to influence decision-making.

Our quest for an ideal gram sabha began in Palakkad district of Kerala that has shown arguably the greatest commitment among all states to decentralisation and grassroots democracy.

Kannadi Gram Panchayat, Palakkad

Declared in 2007 the first fully electrified gram panchayat of the state, Kannadi seemed to have a smart president in P. Radhakrshinan who gave us an idea of Kerala’s Panchayati Raj system.

Since Kerala has large-sized gram panchayats (GPs), with average population of 27,000, each GP is divided into 8-10 or more wards. So a gram sabha is actually a ward sabha that elects its own ward member, each of whom sits in the panchayat board. Ward members elect president and vice president from among themselves.

Kerala allows political parties to participate in elections for local governments, which means state-level political formations influence local politics.
Kerala’s GPs are richest in the country, handling annual budgets to the tune of Rs.1 crore or more, thanks to the state government’s commitment to devolve 40 percent of its Plan funds to the three-tier panchayat system.

Panchayats are also able to generate their own revenue by levying taxes and fees. Radhakrishnan told us Kannadi had its own fund of Rs.25 lakh. (In India, an important determinant of true local self-government would have to be whether it enjoys ‘untied funds’ to spend on its own projects as opposed to money tied to the flood of schemes flowing down from the central and state governments.)

The GP office was a well-equipped building where the panchayat secretary, the top government official of a village panchayat, danced to the tune of Radhakrishnan, his boss.

By this time, we had learnt some of the history of Kerala’s experiment with grassroots democracy, particularly the “big bang” effort by the LDF government in 1996 to introduce ‘people’s planning’.

The idea that panchayats and municipalities should start preparing their plans for development, which should be consolidated by the District Planning Committee (DPC) into a district plan is a part of the Constitutional agenda (74th Amendment); Kerala is one of the handful of states whose local bodies engage in their own planning that gets consolidated at DPCs.

We were told the gram sabha’s first meeting of the year is devoted to the planning process.

Radhakrishnan also said that the gram sabha (or ward sabha) was convened at least four times in a year, but extraordinary meetings could happen if it was called upon to decide the lists of beneficiaries of welfare schemes, such as Indira Awas Yojana and NREGS.

The process of selecting beneficiaries of government schemes, however, did not seem to be the exclusive domain of an open meeting of the gram sabha.

“A committee of 14-15 people, comprising representatives of political parties, ward members, union leaders, and experts, draw up the list, which is then presented to the gram sabha. The gram sabha can ask for additions and deletions, which are incorporated,” Radhakrishnan told us.

“Who decides the agenda of a gram sabha meeting?” we asked.

“The panchayat board,” he responded.

Since the start of the year in April until November 2008, only one gram sabha (or ward sabha) meeting had taken place, i.e., 14 meetings of citizen assemblies corresponding to 14 wards of the GP.

The attendance was usually 100-110 people, i.e. about 6 per cent of the average population of a ward of about 1,700.

We also learnt that attendance at gram sabha meetings across most of Kerala had been on the decline.

We met the agriculture officer of Kannadi GP, who also happened to be an official completely under the control of Radhakrishnan, making us realise that there were at least five-six public services, including agriculture, animal husbandry, schools and health centres, and its officials that the state government had made subservient to village panchayats. Imagine, for example, a University graduate, English-speaking official working under a semi-educated or barely literate panchayat president -- that would be nothing short of a great achievement of democracy.

We had begun to suspect by this time, however, that the schemes of the central and state government had been taking up a large part of the time and energy of the Panchayats, regardless of whether people needed them or not.

Eruthenpathy Panchayat, Palakkad

At Eruthenpathy too, we learned, one ordinary and one extraordinary gram sabha meetings had taken place since the start of the year. Here too, the attendance in gram sabha meetings had been declining. Many people said they went to a gram sabha meeting only if they hoped to get the benefit of some government scheme. And no one sounded as if the first gram sabha meeting had been an especially important event because it passed the local plan.

We gathered the following outline of the peoples’ planning process:

*Thirteen working groups corresponding to 13 services, such as agriculture, roads, healthcare and education, are created in the first week of April.

*Each group creates the first draft of the plan, which is presented to the gram sabha in its first meeting of the year.

*The gram sabha is then divided into 13 groups corresponding to the 13 working groups that separately discuss each of the draft plans. Then the leader of each of these discussion groups addresses the gram sabha about what their group feels about the plans. All this is recorded in minutes of the meeting.

*The group meets again to tweak the plan in line with the observations of the discussion group and the Gram Sabha.

*The panchayat board considers the plan and comes up with a ‘draft plan’.

*Day-long development seminars are held at GP level across Kerala, attended by local MLAs, working group members, two members nominated from each gram sabha, panchayat board, and members of block and district panchayats. Draft plans are considered and can be changed at this stage if needed.

*The panchayat board meets again to review the decisions taken at the development seminar. Final plan is ready.  

*Projects coming out of the final plan are sent for approval to the Block Technical Advisory Group/District Technical Advisory Group (depending upon the cost of the project), which give a technical sanction to the project; the projects then go to the District Planning Committee (DPC) for administrative sanction. The projects can be rejected by any of these bodies with reasons. The panchayat can appeal the rejection at the State-level Coordination Committee.

That process, taking about eight months, looked too complicated to be called ‘people’s planning’. Gram Sabha neither initiates the process nor finalises the plan. No wonder most people had no recollection of their engagement in this momentous event. The capacity of a gram sabha to make its own plan had also been undermined by the absence of any untied funds. Money came to panchayats either tied to a plethora of government schemes or with so many ‘guidelines’ that there was no scope for people to make their plans.

The Eruthepathy panchayat office looked like any government office, where scores of people lined up to submit applications and complaints —hardly a picture of Gram Swaraj.



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