Empowering Gram Sabha to Harness its Development Potential

By Dr Amrit Patel and Mahendra Patel

Dr Amrit R. Patel is the Retired Deputy General Manager, Bank of Baroda, Mumbai, India while Mahendra Patel served in the Bank of India and Bank of Baroda from 1978 to 1997 in Agricultural and Rural Credit Department. They can be contacted by email at dramritpatel@yahoo.com

Empowering Gram Sabha to Harness its Development Potential

Field experiences suggest that peoples’ active involvement and meaningful participation in planning and implementation of socio-economic development programs meant for them is necessary to yield better results.

People in their village are the best to identify their development needs including infrastructure, programs and beneficiaries under Government sponsored programs. Besides, their collective decision has much significance as to how to plan and implement programs based on local resources and how much money would be required for local projects.

The central Government has initiated a number of programs to generate rural employment, alleviate rural poverty and improve standard of living from time to time which, however, could not yield expected outcomes. In this context, the 73rd Amendment and its preceding 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill, acknowledging the ground realities in rural India, seeks to reform the existing structure of Government to improve efficiency, responsiveness, and accessibility of quality public services as demanded by rural households and empowers the Gram Sabha as the constitutional body and institutional forum to take decision on programs aimed at rural livelihoods, food and nutritional security and poverty alleviation, among others.

This paper briefly highlights the multiple roles of the empowered Gram Sabha, meaning of empowerment and suggest strategic actions that need to be initiated to empower Gram Sabha to harness its development potential.

Gram Sabha in India 2014

gram sabha india 2014

A gram sabha in progress in the Indian state of Orissa.

Development Potential of Gram Sabha:  “Gram Sabha” means a village assembly consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls. All the people included in the electoral rolls of a village shall be the members of the Gram Sabha of that village”. In the context of Mahatma Gandhijee’s perception of “India lives in villages” Gram Sabha can be the bedrock of country’s democracy. It is a structure founded entirely on people’s power (Lokshakti) expressing itself in the form of village power (Gramshakti). It provides a base for the three-tier structure of the PRIs in the district, viz. Gram Panchyat, PanchayatSamiti and ZillaPanchayat.

Empowered Gram Sabha has significant development potential and can play multiple roles to transform subsistence village economy into a vibrant one facilitating village to emerge as an organized unit managing its administration and development affairs. As a powerful institutional mechanism it can keep a close vigilance on the implementation of development programs and virtually eliminate inefficiencies and misuse of development funds.

Other roles include

[i] It is an institutional forum to mobilize each and every member to participate, suggest, debate on their common problems, understand the needs and aspirations of the village community and contribute to decision-making process at village level

[ii] It can discuss and analyze the likely impact of policy initiatives of elected representatives and administrative actions of bureaucrats on the socio-economic development programs affecting rural households and can voice their concern collectively

[iii] It can be an effective forum for sharing experiences on different policies and programs, schemes, good practices and matters of common interest.

[iv]It can discuss issues and suggest programs on

(a) improving quality of life and achieving Millennium Development Goals,

(b) ensuring social security, gender justice, hygiene and nutrition

(c) sustainable development, diversification of agriculture, better crop/livestock/fish farming practices, opportunities for improving incomes, drought/flood management, soil and water conservation,

(d) infrastructure development, etc.

Gram Panchayat: The Gram Panchayat shall be the Executive Committee of the Gram Sabha. Gram Panchayat shall function under the general superintendence, control and direction of the Gram Sabha. In this context Gram Sabha

[i]  provides valuable inputs and insight to Gram Panchayat to function efficiently and simultaneously it acts as a supervisory authority in the interest of village communities by monitoring the functioning of the Gram Panchayat to make it transparent and accountable

[ii] can monitor and discuss attendance of Government functionaries, functioning of schools, dispensaries, aganwadi centers, ration shops and other local institutions [iii] can establish an active dialogue between the village people and elected representatives at the Gram Panchayat level regarding future development programs involving village community in the decision-making process and developing a supporting structure for the Gram Panchayat

[iii] helps Gram Panchayat ensure that benefits of ever increasing public spending, through plethora of Government schemes, reach intended people in full measure

[iv]can participate in planning, implementation and performance review of various schemes viz. BRGF, MGNREGA, NRHM, SSA, ICDS, IWMP, RKVY etc.

Empowerment: Empowerment in the literature refers to the act of bestowing power and authority on some one. Thus, empowerment of Gram Sabha refers to conferring the legal status to Gram Sabha by an Act of Parliament to perform specified role and functions to achieve the mandated objectives. This includes granting to Gram Sabha effectual decision-making power/authority and the power to influence decisions along with economic, social and political necessities.

Empowerment, by its very definition, implies an increase in the ability to exercise power. In the process of industrialization and urbanization the villages in India receive lower priority for development in terms of policy, programs, infrastructure, utility services and resource allocation. In the enthusiasm of globalization, liberalization and privatization rural households’ ownership, interest and access to natural resources, viz. land, water, forest, minerals, among others, has been jeopardized. Moreover, as the lives of households in villages and urban centers are embedded in a matrix of unequal geographical relations, a significant decrease in this inequality is necessary for an outcome of ‘empowerment’ for village households. In other words, access to information, communication and technology accompanied by improved self-confidence, skills and income may be better facilitators to enhance village household’s empowerment.

Village households, in order to be empowered to achieve their perceived goal, have now been provided an institutional forum to voice their concern in the form of village assembly by an Act of Parliament. When village households are empowered economically, socially and politically they can claim their rights and access resources, opportunities and choices. They become agents of change for economic growth, social progress and sustainable rural development and acquire qualities of leadership.To empower village households, policies and programs need to facilitate them to access formal education; science and technology; and technical and vocational training, markets, public services, social protection, decent employment opportunities and institutions, among others.

Poverty Alleviation: According to Multidimensional Poverty Index [MPI] worked out by UNDP & Oxford University, July 2010, about 645 million people [55%] in India are poor. Eight States [Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal] have 421 million MPI poor. The MPI reveals a vivid spectrum of challenges facing the poorest households. MPI considers 10 sharp indicators viz. Health [child mortality and nutrition]; Education [child enrolment and years of schooling] and Standard of living [electricity, drinking water, sanitation, cooking fuel, flooring and assets].

A global report on poverty eradication of the U.N. Secretary-General shows that economic growth is evident for the progress in China in reducing extreme poverty and raising living standards, whereas India is expected to be home to more than 300 million in poverty out of 900 million predicted to be in extreme poverty in 2015.In this context, empowered Gram Sabha as an institutional body can facilitate its members to demonstrate their collective wisdom to bring about significant transformation in their lives by minimizing incidence of poverty and accessing to facilities of health, education, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, among others.

Strategic Actions: 50 years of Panchayati Raj celebration during 2009-10 as the Year of the Gram Sabha‘ to highlight the significance of the Gram Sabha in self-governance provided opportunity for introspection and revisiting Constitution, Laws, Policies, Programs etc. It reemphasized the need to strengthen the Gram Sabha to ensure transparent and accountable functioning of the Gram Panchayat. During the decade, Gram Sabhas in thousands of villages have witnessed significant positive and encouraging developments because of efforts of the Governments, NIRD, SIRDs, NGOs etc. However, shortcomings and deficiencies revealed by surveys and the World Bank study in the implementation of provisions of the 73rd Amendment need to be remedied successfully by addressing following critical areas to members for empowering Gram Sabha. A Strategic Action Plan needs to be formulated to strengthen institutional infrastructure deploying adequate financial and human resources that can ensure that by end of 2020 all GS and all members are adequately trained to perform their role and responsibilities effectively.

Awareness: The 73rd Amendment Bill and PESA for the first time in the history of India through legislation confers the right to its adult rural population to be the member of the Gram Sabha, elect and/or get elected in Gram Panchayat, member of any of the committees of Gram Sabha or Gram Panchayat, among others. Thus now the right has been conferred to him/her. It is, however, most significant for him/her to get registered as voter to become member of the Gram Sabha, exercise this right, voice concern and seize opportunity to make his/her life [and of future generations] decent in rural areas.

For Government it is not enough to confer right to rural adult citizen but create enabling environment that can inspire, motivate and encourage him/her to exercise the right for the purpose for which it has been conferred. Historically and through socio-economic and political realities adults particularly in rural areas since centuries have not understood the meaning and the concept of the right and latent potential of exercising this right. It is, therefore, most urgent for the Government and other stakeholders to initiate a time bound action plan and draw a Road Map so that by end of 2020 all adult rural citizens not only get registered as voters to become members of Gram Sabha, but also exercise their rights and achieve the envisaged objective of the 73rd Amendment to India’s constitution.

For this purpose, aggressive awareness campaign by all available means, viz. print and electronic media and systematic result-oriented dialogues with small groups of rural adults in each village as frequently as possible can be held that can help them to clearly and unambiguously understand the meaning, utility, effectiveness and dynamics of the concepts of Gram Sabha [GS] and its members as enshrined in the 73rd Amendment and convince them to get registered as voters and exercise their rights for the purpose for which the right has been conferred, viz.

Membership of GS, composition of GS, meetings of GS, date and time of meeting, member’s presence and effective participation, method of taking decisions, proceedings of the meeting, standing committees and procedures, complaints against GS, GS Accounts, Gram Panchyat, Committee for Resource planning and management of natural resources, agriculture, land, water, prevention and land alienation, restoration of alienated land, consultation before land acquisition, etc.

Members of GS should be made fully aware of that Gram Sabha is empowered by conferring

[i]  mandatory powers of prior approval of plans and projects for economic development, to identify and select beneficiaries under poverty alleviation and other programs and to issue Certificate of Utilization of program funds by the Panchayat

[ii] powers to be consulted in land acquisition for ‘public purpose’ and consequent displacement and rehabilitation of the affected people and

[iii]  recommendatory powers for grant of prospective license, mining lease for minor minerals and grant of concessions for exploration of minor minerals by auction.

Exposure Visits: Each district/State should have a list of successful GSs which have been making significant progress and can become role-model for weak GSs. While efforts for capacity building of members and GSs can continue, members of weak GSs should be exposed through study tours to the working of successful GSs where members can share their experiences and learn best practices. Demonstrate the actual operations of GS and GP in the village followed by documentary film or puppet show before rural populations to better understand the key role of GS and GP and member’s rights and responsibilities.

Training for capacity building: A large number of elected representatives need training to perform their functions since most of them are illiterate and know little about their roles and responsibilities, programs, procedures and systems. In fact, elected representatives need to be trained within three months of their election in their functional domain.

Capacity building training is critical to empower Gram Sabha and Gram Panchayat to enable them to function efficiently as institutions of local self-government. As the PRIs have both developmental and regulatory responsibilities their capacity to perform these functions has to be developed. Capacity building training is a sine qua non for

[i] elected representatives to upgrade their knowledge and skills to better perform their responsibilities

[ii] reorienting officials to become more effective technical advisors and facilitating program implementer’s to conceptualize new ideas emerging from elected representatives and

[iii] improving the functioning of Gram Sabha as an important institution of local decision-making.

Programs on management of natural resources, agriculture, land, water, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, among others, are funded by the Government to continuously improve the productivity, production, income and protect environment for which technical personnel are deployed by the Government. Members of GSs need to be trained in particular to demand timely and quality services from the technical staff to make programs yield expected results. For crop production programs, they should demand required quantity and quality of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, diesel, electricity, fuel, farm equipment etc. on time and reasonably priced, along with technical services and veterinary services for animal health care. Selected members can be trained for undertaking watershed projects to mitigate drought and adopt drip and sprinklers for efficient use of irrigation.

Capacity building training cannot be a onetime training. It has to be developed based on regular Capacity Assessment studies. This training necessitates commitment of adequate and timely funding and other resources.

Monitoring and Review:  Monitoring system must be strengthened at Block level to monitor Gram Sabha-wise progress in respect of number of members enrolled, meetings held, number of members attending meetings, committees formed, meetings held, among others. By year-end while number of members enrolled and attending meeting should favorably achieve the targets, other aspects of GS must show significant progress.

Evaluation: Evaluation studies of selected GS must focus on effectiveness of functioning of GS, member’s empowerment measured in terms of his/her participation in discussion, decision-making process.

Information System: Web-based comprehensive information system must be in place to reflect the current status of GS vis-à-vis targeted.

Government Programs: Creating awareness among members of GSs to

[i] demand and put pressure for satisfactory working of public institutions and responding to peoples’ needs and aspirations, viz. schools, hospitals/dispensaries, post-offices, financial institutions, public distribution system etc. particularly absence of staff and unavailability of medicines and timely attending patients/customers

[ii] commit that children of 6-14 years of age exercise their right to education and they are not engaged in manual labor

[iii] demand mandated and quality services from the staff under all Government programs

[iv] demand adequate budget provision for creating and maintenance of basic necessities viz. drinking water, sanitation, road connectivity etc.

ICT: Although all the District and Intermediate Panchayats are connected with computers, only around 20% Gram Panchayats have computing facility and expertise. In some States, Village Panchayats do not have computing facility and expertise at all.

Role of States: The Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj organized seven Round Table conferences with State Minister of Panchayati Raj during 2004 around the country for evolving a national consensus on pressing issues that State Governments need to resolve expeditiously in order to empower Gram Sabha viz.

[i] State Acts should spell out the powers of Gram Sabhas and procedures for efficient functioning of these bodies

[ii] Excessive control by bureaucracy has to be done away with

[iii] State should clearly articulate the role of Gram Sabha in their Policy/Program/Scheme

[iv] role and responsibilities of Sarpanch, Panch and Secretary should be clearly defined

[v] Sarpanch and Panch should represent the voice of people and not be rendered as mere functionaries of the administration

[vi] Secretary, while being accountable to the Gram Sabha through Gram Panchayat, should be duly protected from local pressures

[vii] PRIs should be provided with adequate manpower, mentoring and guidance. The States should, therefore, strengthen the administrative and enforcement capacity of Panchayats through proper staffing including; outsourcing, frequent training programs comprising well-structured modules (possibly with the help of ICAI)simple guidelines, etc.

[viii] State Government may itself devolve powers in various issues like ownership of Minor Forest Produce, control of money lending and prevention of alienation of tribal lands. It should be made absolutely clear that mandatory powers of the Gram Sabha are absolutely binding and that Government shall never overrule decisions of GS. State legislations should give certain powers to GS and not to intermediate and higher level Panchayats where there is choice under PESA.

Road map: A road map, showing commitment to fulfilling the provisions of the 73rd Amendment by the end of 2020, needs to be drawn incorporating components, among others, viz. [i] Block-wise and year-wise commitment of enrolling all rural adults as voters to become members of GS [ii] instilling in all of them the faith and confidence about their membership in GS to make their life decent [iii] formation of committees of GS and GP[iv] making GSs functioning through appointment of the Secretary, ensuring at least 50% members’ attendance, conducting mandated meetings of GSs, GP and committees including Standing Committee, recording proceedings of meetings, among others,

Conclusion: Effective coordination among departments and between the Union and State Governments should create facilitating environment that can sustain members’ faith and confidence in the GS and that GS presents immense opportunities to its members to elect and/or get elected in the responsible committee to participate actively, voice views and take decision,  transform the village economy. GS and members can collectively make functioning of GP transparent and accountable to villagers. There is need to sensitize media, political parties, legislatures, civil society institutions and citizens to accept and promote the Gram Sabha and Gram Panchayat as an essential grassroots level of local government and for inclusive and participatory development.

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