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Local Government:Conflict of Interests and Issues of Legitimisation

Following the passing of the 73rd and 74th amendments, many states enacted legislation bestowing significant decision-making powers to the gram sabhas. In Maharashtra however, two parallel bodies with different legitimising sources continue to function, the gram sabha and the traditional village panchayats or collectives, which are generally dominated by upper and richer caste men. This has often led to some piquant situations.

The political processes that were set in motion by the 73rd and 74th amendments are slowly beginning to make some impact in the rural areas. Though it is too early to say what the exact impact is, some notable facts do present themselves for analysis.

In a few cases the status quo is being challenged. The sites of these conflicts are located both within the elected bodies of local governance as well as in the civil society. However, though this may be heartening, in most cases the old power structures of caste, class and patriarchy have remained unchallenged.

An analysis of these ground processes is crucial to understanding the possibilities that exist for the success of the panchayat raj as well as for women as effective political actors. The issues raised have implications for political theory as well as practice. These are what will be presented here.

There seems to be emerging a crisis, a crisis of legitimacy of the authority of gram panchayats and also that of the elected representatives in the villages. Though legitimacy to these bodies is given by constitutional law, i e, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, in practice this is not recognised as such. Bodies of the civil society like the traditional panchayats, which have no legal standing but draw their legitimacy from tradition and the community itself, are emerging as alternate sources of power and authority.

The Panchayat Raj Bill has created panchayats and the gram sabhas at the bottom of the whole structure of governance, as democratic institutions that will ensure the functioning of participatory democracy. Gram sabhas which mean village assemblies, where all the villagers participate, have been visualised as the most important deliberative bodies, that will through discussion, negotiation and deliberation arrive at consensus on issues of common concern. The most significant difference from the earlier panchayats is that the gram sabhas include the whole village and not just the elites. The only similarity that the newly formed gram sabhas have with the old panchayats is in the deliberative function. And though this is indeed a more democratic structure, the functioning of it is far from satisfactory.

The reality is that many a times the gram sabhas do not take place or if they do they are poorly attended. They are postponed at will by the sarpanch or by the elites in connivance with the gram sevak. Controversial issues that are raised in the gram sabhas are bypassed or ignored. Besides, issues of significance that affect the village as a whole are not placed on the agenda of the gram sabhas or the gram panchayats. Instead, these decisions are being taken by the traditional village collectives or panchayats.

Gram sabhas have unfortunately, not been bestowed with any significant decision-making powers. That may also be one of the reasons why people do not feel it important to attend the sabhas. The Panchayat Raj Bill only stipulates the formation of the gram sabhas and that they must be held four times in a year. The rest is left to the state governments.

In some states, like Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, the gram sabhas have been bestowed with much more significance and have some decision-making powers. The Panchayat Raj Act of Kerala 1994, for instance, has for the first time in the history of the country, given the right to the gram sabhas to demand any information from the panchayat and the decentralised planning involves participation of the village as a whole. The significant powers that have been given to the gram sabhas under the new Madhya Pradesh Gram Swarajya Act are also now known [James Manor 2001; Amitabh Behar 2001].

In Maharashtra however, this is not the case and the problems that arise as a result are some of the concerns here. What is becoming apparent in Maharashtra is that, there are two parallel bodies with different legitimising sources, one that is de jure, i e, the gram panchayat created by the Panchayat Raj Bill in 1992 and the other that is de facto, i e, traditional village panchayats.

There are two different instances that would be narrated briefly to bring forth the issues just mentioned. Both instances are from Maharashtra.

Conflicts in Decision-Making

A number of women’s organisations and other social organisations have taken up training women for better performance in local self-governments. Through these interactions have emerged some very interesting cases that throw up challenges for both theory and practice.

Traditionally, in Maharashtra like probably most other states in India, there exist village ‘collectives’ called the ‘gavki’. The gavki is constituted by the elite upper castes, the rich and undoubtedly only the patriarchs of the village, no women. Even after independence, and the formation of elected governments in the villages under the optional system of panchayat raj which most states adopted, these gavkis continued to exist and function alongside the elected gram panchayats. These were a sham in most states: elections were not held for years and the same elites continued to rule. It was the malfunctioning of these panchayat bodies that finally led to the formation of the new laws in 1992. However, after the 73rd and 74th amendments the existence and functioning of these traditional gavkis should have ceased or given way to the new bodies of local self-government. In reality this has not happened.

In a village close to Pune, the issue of a gram panchayat earning a large sum of money from the lease of land to an industry brings forth the point I wish to make. The official lease of the land through the gram panchayat would earn the panchayat a good sum of money. However, the industrialist realised that if the deal was made through this official channel, he would be the loser. The only way for the industrialist to bypass this was to approach the gavki and make a deal to pay them instead of the gram panchayat. This way, both the industrialist as well as the gavki were benefited. Panchayats have limited resources and this loss of income through the lease of land for industrial purposes is substantial for the panchayat. The panchayat is headed by a woman who is unable to oppose the bigwigs of the village.

In another instance, the gavki decided to auction the sand from the river bed and the money earned was to be a contribution to its own fund. The gram panchayat raised objection to it. A conflict has arisen and the persons who are raising the issues are the more informed active villagers, some dalits and women, associated with a local NGO who are trying to make the panchayat function more effectively. However, they do not have the strength to go against the gavki.

The occurrence of such instances are found more in villages where reserved seats for the post of sarpanch prevail. This means that in most cases it is either a woman or a dalit sarpanch who is in power. Both these have never been a part of the traditional gavkis.

Besides this, other means or procedures that have been prescribed by law are used or rather misused to dislodge duely elected representatives. Procedures like no-confidence motions are being utilised to systematically undermine the power of women or dalit sarpanchs. Thus, reservations which intended to empower both these marginalised sections in local governance are being made ineffective by the established powers in the rural areas.

The gavkis’ decision-making powers have extended to issues like public construction works, sale of lands, fund raising for different causes mostly religious ones like fairs, festivals, etc. In some cases they even distribute the funds collected as loans to villagers with interest. The interest is then shared amongst the members of the gavki.

In this context, I would like to refer to what Shirin Rai (2000) suggests in her paper presented at a conference on Women and Panchayat Raj in Delhi 2000. A case for deliberative democracy with procedural mechanisms as a means to ensure democratic functioning is put forward. She argues that panchayats have historically been deliberative bodies though she admits that they have been elite bodies. Further, she says the 73rd and 73th amendments have opened up a process of democratising these deliberative bodies. Though one is in agreement with her, especially with reservations having been introduced for the marginalised sections, i e, women and dalits, the reality is that these legal provisions are not proving to be a guarantee for their empowerment. The social hierarchies and inequalities that exist in the society, deter the marginalised from even voicing their differences and becoming a part of the deliberative process that Rai hopes ultimately, will empower the disadvantaged citizens and bring about democratic functioning.

Imperatives for Change

Without really changing the social hierarchies and inequalities that exist in the civil society, is it possible to hope that these gavkis with their deliberative processes for collective decision-making will function to empower the marginalised? This is precisely what B R Ambedkar was afraid of when he voiced his strong opinion against the panchayat raj. Speaking at the constituent assembly on the draft Constitution, he strongly criticised those who romanticise the villages as republics and argue that the village model should have been followed in the draft Constitution. According to him a village is nothing but “...a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism. I am glad that the draft Constitution discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit” [Ambedkar 1995].

The creation of panchayati bodies and all the rules and regulations and procedures for their functioning alone will not really solve the problem. The complexity of the social reality must be taken into consideration to be able to understand why this situation prevails.

Though the panchayat raj has been established under the new law for over a decade, peoples’ identification with it is non-existent or weak. In fact, alienation from the political process seems to prevail and that is why even reservations has not helped to make the marginalised more vocal. This then creates the right conditions for the domination of traditional powers of the upper castes and classes.

The other factor is that of economic dependency. For those who work on the fields or run small shops or are service providers, opposing the gavki is unthinkable. They would be digging their own graves by opposing the upper caste and rich farmers on whose fields they work and earn their daily wages. Besides, personal loans are also made available by the same people, those who constitute the gavki. Thus, opposing the gavki could mean starvation as a result of boycott by the rich peasants and others.

The process of individuation which would bring about what Ambedkar really visualised, the individual as the unit of the democratic system – one man one vote, is still incomplete. Instead identification with the community is still strong in most rural communities and therefore, the gavki’s decisions are not opposed.

There are some villages where only a single caste exists. In such cases the conflicts are resolved much more easily. In one such village a woman from the mahila mandal proudly states that no conflict ever reaches the police thana. The gavki resolves everything. In such villages, which are homogeneous, conflicts between the gram panchayat and the gavki are less frequent, for the powerful in the gram panchayats are also the powerful in the gavki.

At the core of this crisis, is the issue of the establishment of the rule of law. The panchayats are in some sense still external to the village communities. As long as they were powerless, i e, prior to the panchayat raj bill they were not seen as being of any significance. The hold over these bodies even then was with the upper castes and classes [Malaviya 1969]. Once these bodies got some powers and made a space for the marginalised sections to have a say in the village matters, then the panchayats and gram sabhas became sites of conflict. The only way to bypass them and those whose interests the new laws sought to protect, was to fall back on the traditional authority of the gavki.

Thus, this new situation demands a serious consideration. What we must recognise is that the 73rd and the 74th amendments to the Constitution have really opened up a new ‘legitimate space’ where the marginalised groups of people can legitimately have a say in the decision-making; a ‘space’ for them to say what they think is ‘good’ or in their interest.

How these conflicting interests will be resolved will be determined to a large extent on the specificity of each case, its history, the caste, class composition, the presence of political groups, parties or movements. In some cases there will probably be open confrontation, some times negotiation, dialogue and deliberation. Strategies will have to be worked out according to the strengths and weaknesses of the two conflicting groups. Fortunately, there are instances of conflict resolution between the gram panchayats and the village communities through the mediation of social action groups, NGOs. These are heartening. The only difficulty is that they are few in number.

Ambedkar, B R (1995): Writings and Speeches, Vol 13, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, p 62.
Behar, Amitabh (2001): ‘Gram Swaraj: Experiment in Direct Democracy’, EPW, March 10.
Malaviya, H D (1969): ‘Panchayats and Village Conflicts’ in A R Desai (ed), Rural Sociology in India, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai.
Manor, James (2001): ‘Madhya Pradesh Experiments with Direct Democracy’, EPW, March 3.
Rai, Shirin (2000): ‘Looking to the Future: Panchayats, Women’s Representation and Deliberative Politics’, paper presented at the conference on Women and Panchayat Raj Institutions, April 8-27.

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