Status of Grama Sabha / Ward Sabha in Kerala

K Rajasekharan Kerala Institute of Local Administration Mulagunnathukavu, Thrissur 680 581 Email rajankila@hotmail.com Ph: 0487 2200244

Abstratct The importance of Grama Sabha (GS)/Ward Sabha (WS) and its role in deepening democracy is highlighted. The historical context in which it evolved in Kerala is noted and the powers, functions and the present status of functioning are delineated. The efforts of Government of Kerala in making it a vibrant forum of democracy is described. Almost every study that explored the present functioning is enlisted. The paper arrives at a conclusion that the present state of affairs is not encouraging. There is no need to keep the Grama Sabha as an ornamental piece without any possibility of inputs from citizen to the local governance if it cannot be revitalized. Substitutes for GS need to be explored. An idea of creation of a Local Development Council which could function as the general body in every local government, with a larger representation of citizens, is suggested. As well, the need to expand the public sphere (the media, e-groups, discussions etc) and the use of referendum and initiatives as new ways of making local governance more citizen oriented as in liberal democracies is suggested.

Introduction The seventy-third and seventy-fourth Constitutional Amendments, enacted in 1993 for devolving governance down to the local governments and for widening and deepening democracy at the grassroots level, was instrumental in the emergence of Grama Sabha (GS) in each Grama Panchayat and Ward Sabha (WS) in every Municipality in Kerala. The creation of GS/WS was lauded as a solemn step to make democracy direct to the extent possible at the tier of governance remaining closest to the people. In the GSs/WSs the elected representatives and government officials need to attend and remain accountable to the voters directly.No doubt, GS/WS is a vital conceptual component of the local government which provided a constitutional platform for the local people to engage in local governance and development. GS/WS makes democracy direct in its elementary form.

GS/WS comes closer to what Jurgen Habermas considered as public sphere1 where deliberations on public issues are possible. Though they are not endowed with vast powers, the GSs in Panchayats and WSs in municipalities have great potential in making the local governance more participatory, transparent and accountable. Direct Democracy in Athens The direct democracy, which existed from 490 BC to 323 BC in the city–state of Athens - within a 640 sq mile area with a population of 60000 adult males – might be the inspiration for creating political entities such as Grama Sabha (GS) under the Indian Constitution for involving citizens in governance. There were three important political structures in the city-state of Athens: the Assembly of the Demos, the Council of 500 and the People’s Court. The public decisions were taken by the male adults (women and slaves had no membership) who participated in the Assembly that had a quorum of 6000 participants. The Council of 500 worked as the Government of Athens – the executive - with 500 citizens who were selected after intense scrutiny of their qualities and antecedents. Each member was a Councillor and could serve only twice in his lifetime. Officers for the city-state were selected by lot. With regard to formulation of legislations, the Council of 500 served as the initial forum for discussion of proposed legislation. The proposal was then read out in the Assembly – the ultimate legislative authority presided over by a group of 10 officials - and subsequently put to vote. If the voting of the assembly was unanimous, it would turn onto a law. Or else it will be put to discussion, amendment or addition and then for further decisive voting. Citizens were paid for attending the meetings and a citizen could lose the right to political participation as punishment for offences such as debt to treasury, prostitution, failing to support parents etc. People were discouraged to speak outside of one’s expertise in the Assembly on technical matters but could anyone speak on general matters relating to governance of the city. Some citizens from remote areas had to travel 50-60 miles to attend the assembly. The discussion of motions in the Assembly was opened with a question. “Who wishes to speak?” Citizens over 50 years of age were given chance to speak first. Those who engaged in discussions in a trivial manner in the assembly were discouraged by others. The meeting place for the Assembly was an open space on top of the hill. There were 40 meetings in some years. There is still a lot for us to learn from the Athenian democracy so as to make the functioning of GS better. JPC Suggested the Concept of GS

See Jurgen Habermas (1991). The Public Sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems and through that discussions influence political action. It is a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interests and where possible to reach a common judgment.
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It was the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) which suggested inclusion of definition of GS in the Constitution under 243(b) and added a provision that endowed the State Government to enlist certain functions, but not any powers. The committee was of the view that GS cannot exercise any powers. But the Constitution, when enacted, carried a provision that endowed the GS to exercise such powers and perform such functions at the village level as being spelt out by the State laws. The nagarapalika legislation enacted later carried equivalent provisions for WS. The concept of GS – that all the registered voters in the Grama Panchayat forming into a GS - was introduced for the first time in the Constitutional Amendment bill formulated by the V P Singh government. The Narasimha Rao government adopted the idea and transformed the concept into a Constitutional provision in 1993. GS in Kerala is at the Constituency Level Kerala when enacted the conformity laws in 1994 included the provision of GS in the Kerala Panchayat Act (KPRA) and WS in the Kerala Municipalities Act (KMA). But the structure of the GS in Kerala remains different from that of other states because of the large size of the Grama Panchayat with 25,000 people and the Municipality with 50,000 people on an average. In most other states, the entire voters in a Grama Panchayat constitute a GS. Kerala declared each Grama Panchayat constituency (ward) as a village or GS area and the electors therein constitute the GS. A Grama Panchayat will have 13–23 GSs depending on the range of its population. Therefore, Kerala does not have a GS at the level of village panchayat, but only at the constituency or ward level. Similarly WSs in the Municipalities exist at the ward level, with provision for further representative structure for largely populated municipalities in the State. Powers, Functions and Responsibilities of GS The powers and functions of GS are enlisted in a combined sequence in the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act (KPRA). The items that can be considered as powers as sorted out from the act are:-

1. To formulate proposals and fixing of priority of schemes and programmes
2. To prepare final list of eligible beneficiaries with order of priority 3. To suggest the location of street lights, water taps, public wells, public sanitation units, irrigation facilities and other public utilities. 4. To monitor and assist to the beneficiary committees 5. To verify the eligibility of the beneficiaries of welfare assistance such as pension and subsidiaries 6. To know the rationale behind every Panchayat decision in regards to the GS area 7. To know the follow up on Gs decisions 8. To suggest remedial measures for deficiencies in water supply and street lighting in the Gs area.

The functions grouped from them are:1. To assist in compilation of details for plan 2. To assist implementation of development schemes 3. To provide and mobilize voluntary service 4. To promote harmony among various groups

5. To organise arts and sports festivals
6. To collect details for public works proposed 7. To support sanitation process in the village 8. To assist PTA activities 9. To assist public health activities The responsibilities of GS enlisted separately in the act are:1. Dissemination of information on development /welfare activities 2. Participating in health and literacy progrmmes 3. Collecting socio-economic data 4. Provide feedback on performance of progammes

5. Resort to moral motivation to pay taxes, loan installments, cleanliness etc
6. Mobilize local resources 7. Supervise development activities as volunteer team 8. Reporting epidemics natural calamities etc 9. GS should make reports to GP on its powers and functions In the Kerala Municipality Act, parallel functions exist for WSs. Conduct of Meetings of GS GS/WS was bound to meet at least twice a year from 1994 -1999 as per KPRA. As per the amendment made to KPRA/KMA in March 1999, the GS/WS meetings will have to be conducted once in three months since then. The place, date and time of the meeting are to be fixed by the Convener of the GS (elected member of the constituency) in consultation with the President of the Village Panchayat. The time of the meeting should fall between 8 A M and 6 PM so as to ensure gender friendliness. If the elected member is not in a position to perform the duty as the convener of GS, the president can appoint any member of the adjacent constituency as the convener. The President will preside over the meeting normally. But in his/her absence, the Vice President and in the absence of both, the Convener of the GS will preside over. The Convener, after fixing the place, date and time, should intimate the convening of the meeting to all voters in the constituency and to the members of the Block Panchayat, the District Panchayat and the Kerala Legislative Assembly pertaining to the area.

The quorum of the meeting is fixed as ten percent of the voters. But for a GS adjourned for want of quorum, attendance of fifty members will be enough to constitute the quorum. An officer nominated by the Panchayat shall assist the Convener in conducting the GS, recording the decisions in the minutes and taking follow up actions thereon. The agenda for the meeting will have to be prepared by the Secretary in consultation with the President. The key officers of the panchayat can suggest agenda items. GS can constitute subcommittees for discussion on any issue or programme and for effective implementation of the schemes for furthering its rights and responsibilities. Concomitant provisions exist for WSs in the KMA. What to report to the first GS/WS Meeting In the first meeting of every GS/WS in a year, a report by the panchayat needs to be placed before it. The report shall contain the following:-

• •
• •

Developmental programmes relating to the constituency during the previous year with the expenditure Development programmes relating to the constituency proposed to be undertaken in the year with the GS/WS area The annual statement of accounts of the previous year and The administration report of the previous year

If any decision of the GS/WS taken previously could not be implemented, the members have the right to seek the reason from the President in the GS/WS meeting. As well, the GS/WS has the right to know : • the budgetary provisions, the details of plan outlay, the item wise allocation of funds and the details of the estimates, cost of materials of work executed or proposed to be executed within the GS/WS area. The GS/WS is bound to discuss the reports of the performance and other audits and suggest its views to the Grama Panchayat/Municipality. Resolution, Voting & Minutes GS/WS can pass resolutions on majority basis. However the preference is for exploring consensus. Minutes will have to be recorded by the Coordinator – an officer engaged by the Panchayat/Municipality for the purpose - and it would contain the views and the unanimous recommendations/suggestions of the

• • •

members. If matters to be considered by the Block Panchayat and District Panchayat, the Secretary of the Grama Panchayat should forward the relevant details within a week to the concerned panchayat. Role of GS/WS in Selection of Beneficiary One of the functions of GS, as per the KPRA 1994, was “rendering assistance in the implementation of developmental schemes pertaining to the village”. But the Kerala High court, as per its order OP No 18175 /1996-L dated 4-4-97, ruled that the grama panchayat was not endowed with the authority to select beneficiaries, but to approve the list of beneficiaries selected by the GS and that the power to identify beneficiaries rest with GS. Since then, the GS has become the agency for de-facto selection of beneficiaries. Later the KPRA provision was amended on 24-3-1999 endowing the GS with powers “to prepare and submit to the village Panchayat a final list of eligible beneficiaries in the order of priority relating to the beneficiary oriented schemes on the basis of the criteria fixed”. The Panchayat/Municipality can determine the criteria for eligibility and the criteria for order of priority with regard to beneficiary selection and that will be made known to GS/WS. Each one of the criterion under the priority criteria should have proportionate numerical marks for ranking as if when the marks altogether totaled would be 100.The priority list of beneficiaries approved by the GS/WS should not be tampered or changed by any other authority, selection should be based on clear norms. The minutes of the GS/WS should be transparent and kept safely. Since the area of GS and Grama Panchayat are not coterminous, the GS has powers to take decisions in terms of its limited area but not for the whole area of Grama Panchayat. The procedure for beneficiary selection is clear, The GP invites applications, scrutinizes them and prepares a draft list and that will later be placed before the GS. There would be prescribed application form for beneficiary selection. The sub-committees consisting of elected members, officials, working group members etc constituted for the purpose, will verify the applications, enquire into details and prepare the draft list. GS will meet and prioritize the list. The Chairman, Convener, Secretary and others connected with the process present there would sign in the list on the spot. Photocopies of the list will be given out, if needed. While prioritizing the beneficiary list, the ranking must be done on the basis of marks obtained for each criterion and not on the basis of GS quota from 1994 to 1999. But since 1999, a proportionate quota system for the wards is being followed. The distribution of family based benefits - houses, latrines and house wells – is considered ward-wise based on the proportion of eligible applicants in each ward. But distribution of the remaining individual beneficiary items is determined for each ward in proportion to the number of BPL in that ward.

The BPL beneficiaries come from two streams – one from the now existing formal BPL list of 1999 2 and the other is those who are under an annual income of Rs 20000/- as certified by the Revenue Departmental authorities. Only one application is entertained from a family and the family is defined as those who come under a single ration card. For five items – housing, house repair, house electrification, latrine and well – a common application form is being used. Local governments can modify the model form, provided all the contents of the model form including the broad eligibility criteria and priority criteria at the state level are included. Each local government is free to fix the last date for receiving applications, but the date should fall within the state level schedules. A Sample of Priority Criteria for Housing • • • • • • • Female headed household Family without employed in organized sector Family without earning member Number of unmarried women above 18 years Number of dependent in a family on the earning members Less-abled members Quality of house with regard to foundation, wells, floor, root etc

Sub criteria for anyone of the major criteria can also be adopted at discretion. Role of GS during Peoples Plan Campaign The GS was designed as the most prominent deliberative body in people’s planning. Special GSs/WSs were conducted at times as part of people’s planning. Identification of development needs of the people was an initial step in the decentralized planning exercise. So the felt needs, priorities and development perceptions of the people in every locality were gathered in the meetings of GS/WS. The needs articulated in the GS/WS meetings were recorded, processed, prioritized and harmonized into a development plan for the local government. The maximum participation of people, especially women and other weaker sections of the society, was ensured in the initial years of people’s planning. During the conduct of meetings, the GSs/WSs were broken into groups of 25-50, one for each development sector in addition to a cross cutting group for SC/ST development and another for women's development. The sector-wise group discussion is designed to make the participation of people in the deliberations meaningful. In some areas in the state, squads of volunteers were instructed to visit

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The valid BPL list is that of 1999 in Kerala

households so as to build awareness on the potential of peoples planning and the need for involving in it. Preparatory meetings of stakeholders were held before GS/WS. Around one lakh resource persons at the local level were mobilized, trained and engaged to act as facilitators in the discussion groups. Nearly 2.5 million persons participated in these GS/WS conventions in the initial phase of People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) in 1997. About 27 per cent of the participants were women. One key achievement of the People's Plan Campaign, as its manager’s claim, has been “the dispelling of general skepticism towards the conduct of GS”. It was generally feared that – because of the evenly distributed settlement pattern, absence of strong tradition of village assembly and large size of an average GS/WS in the State - the effective functioning of them as instruments of participatory planning would be not possible. But the widespread enthusiasm and organizational strategy of the first phase of the Campaign, proved the viability of the GS/WS in practice, according to the political managers of the Peoples Planning. But this was the story during the campaign phase. Once the euphoria was over the GS/WS meetings become a mere ritual where almost no one from the middle and upper classes cares to attend. Poor Attendance in GS The participation of people in the GSs now is far from satisfactory. The number of GSs being regularly held and the people being attended in them without compulsion are decreasing alarmingly. The importance and enthusiasm to attend GS has gradually declined after the initial euphoria. The participants of most of the GSs/WSs in the state are benefit-seekers as per every study. GSs/WSs have become a mere ornamental piece in most of the panchayats. Data3 collected by the Kerala State Planning Board from all the Grama Panchayats for the first two years of the campaign showed that the percentage of participation in the annual GS was 10.3 % in 1996 and 10.6 % in 1997. The participation in the special GSs for planning, as per another sample study undertaken by the Kerala State Planning Board, indicated 7.6 % attendance in 1996, 7.8% in 19997 and 4.7% in 1998. The review showed that the extent of participation varied widely not only between districts but also within districts. In some Grama Panchayats more than one thousand persons participated in GSs, whereas in some others, the minimal quorum of 50 could not be set, the study indicated. The inter panchayat differences was not amenable for explanation in terms of political affiliation of the Panchayats. However, the determining factor seems to be the commitment of the elected representatives.

See Planning Commission (2008) : Kerala Development Report. New Delhi, Planning Commission, P 449
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Dr E M Thomas in his study4 showed that the percentage participation of members in GSs was as follows:Table No 1: Percentage of GS Attendance Grama Panchayat Alur Melur Natika Porathusserry Percentage in 1996 5.6 6.42 7.94 4.58 Percentage in 2000 4.62 5.07 11.56 5.38

The report of the Planning Commission (GoI)5 found that GS had emerged as a prominent body of need articulation in the villages during the 9th Five Year Plan as evident from the facts that; • • • • About 66% of the project beneficiaries who had demanded the project benefit did so through GSs; About 82% of the project beneficiaries felt that their projects were taken up based on GS demands; About 92% of the Knowledgeable Persons opined that GSs could articulate key sectoral problems ‘effectively’ (63%) or ‘somewhat effectively’ (29%). Scrutiny of records by PEO revealed that most of the approved projects emanated from the needs articulated at GSs. Discussions and diagnostic analysis, as per the study, revealed that the institution of GS ensured people’s participation in need articulation, prioritization of projects and accommodating the needs of the vulnerable sections. The weaknesses noted in the study are as follows:• Productive sector projects did not at all develop into a comprehensive plan and agricultural project planning was not focused, not outcome-oriented, and not information-based.

See E M Thomas : The Institution of Grama Sabha and the Creation of Social Capital in Kerala In T M Joseph : Local Governance in India : Ideas, challenges and strategies New Delhi, Concept, 2007 P 305
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See Government of India (2009) Decentralised Planning Experience in Kerala New

Delhi, Planning Commission,2009

GS could not fully assimilate its envisaged role in plan formulation mainly because of overwhelming pursuit of individual benefits by GS participants confirmed by 88.3% of the selected knowledgeable persons.

Presence of alternative, effective avenues of demand articulation; 34% of the selected individual project beneficiaries placed their demand for project assistance outside the GS, through GP members/leaders and officials.

About 36% of the selected heads of households never attended any GS since 1997-98, this ratio ranged between 74% and 16% among the sample GPs.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India as per its annual audit 6 studied the conduct of decentralized planning in the year 2004-05 in Thrissur District which revealed that out of 2455 meetings, 1565 (64 per cent) were held without the prescribed minimum attendance of ten per cent. The thin participation of people in GS/WS for planning showed the non-representative character of decentralized planning. Even though it was mandatory to maintain attendance register properly with details such as name, address with house number, record of discussions of breakout groups, recommendations and photographs of the meetings of GS/WS, out of 2455 meetings held, attendance was not recorded in 210, incomplete addresses were recorded in 1375, photographs were not maintained in 2118 and the attendance shown in 327 photographs7 were fewer than that were recorded in the registers. As well, out of 1321 GSs/WSs held, prioritization of projects was not done in 454, during the period 2000-05, which denotes a mismatch between the development projects and the inputs from the people. A close look at the consistency between the needs arose in the GSs and the contents reflected in the development seminars, as per the development reports, showed that many of them were left unimplemented. That indicated the fruitlessness of those painstaking deliberations. Similarly, out of 1386 GSs/WSs held for selection of beneficiaries for beneficiary oriented schemes during the period 2000-01 to 2004-05, 1196 GSS/WSs finalized priority list of beneficiaries. One Hundred and Ninety GSs/WSs in 15 local governments out of 28 failed to finalize the priority list of beneficiaries resulting in rendering benefit to persons not authorized by GSs/WSs. The Committee8 headed by Dr M A Ommen set up to evaluate and submit suggestions for decentralized planning and development in Kerala in 2009 pointed out the declining role of the GSs/WSs. Some of the GS records the committee examined were allegedly manipulated to hike the number of attendance.
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See the CAG Audit Report on Local Governance in Kerala 2004-5

The report indicates that a look at the photographs taken and filed as an evidence for the conduct of GS showed less attendance than recorded in the 327 meetings out of the total 2455 meetings observed for analysis.
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Government of Kerala (2009): Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development. Thiruvananthapuram, Government of Kerala
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Educated youth, middle class and Upper class shied away from such meetings. In such a situation GS cannot become a forum that critically look at the budget, audit and planning, the report cautions us. The reports points out that, the attendance of 80 WSs of the Corporation of Thiruvananthapuram was 24410 in 1996-97 and 23181 in 2006-07 showing a decline. The Committee studied the GS/ WS meetings of a sample of local governments and found the following details with regard to the meetings. Table No 2: Grama Sabha / Ward Sabha Meetings 1997-98 No Meetings 4 Grama Panchayt Koothttukulam 3 Grama Pancahyat Karimkunnam 2 Grama Panchayat Koothuparamba 4 Municipality Kalamasserry 4 Municipality 233 4 325 2 349 78 4 116 2 172 181 2 100 3 127 250 4 660 4 505 ofMembers Present 208 2001-2002 No of Meetings 4 Members Present 137 2006-2007 No of Meetings 4 Members Present 133

Name of Local Government Ayyankunnu

The above table shows that no local government except Ayyakunnu under study followed the statutory requirement of four meetings per year. Karimkulam fell short of target in all the years. The report suspects the possibility of fudging even in these figures. A study9 conducted by Sahayi, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) pointed out that the attendance in GSs/WSs was low particularly in urbanized areas where the expected participants were usually busy with engagements. Majority of those who turned up at ward committee (equivalent to WS) meetings in municipal bodies were political workers. The elite stayed away. The study by Sahayi showed that even members of local bodies were unaware of the significance of GS/WS and pointed out that the Government had not taken steps needed to educate the people properly about the importance of GS/WS
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See A study conducted by Sahayi – a Non-Governmental Organization, Thiruvanathapuram

even after many years since it came into force. The majority among the public were not even aware of how many times a GS should meet in a year. The attendance of young men and women, students and teachers etc was found to be low. The participation of the officials had also been poor. Some ward members, as per the report, preferred to invite only those who were close to them, to the meetings. A good number of people, the study team talked to, had never attended GS. Many of those who attended a meeting or two admitted that they had gone there for getting some benefits. Anand Inbanathan10 in his Working Paper indicates that the GS in Kerala functioned in a manner that was less than participatory with most GSs hardly meeting the quorum requirement of 10 per cent of the members and that it was usually people from the poorer sections particularly those below the poverty line who attended them. Those in the middle and upper classes, did not attend GS turning it into “institutions that are linked to beneficiary selection” with the indication that “only those in lower economic condition would stand to benefit from attending the grama sabha”. A survey11 conducted by Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) recently in Kannur district as part of its preparation of district human development index, indicated that all the panchayats fulfilled the statutory requirement of convening four GSs in 2008-2009 but some wards in the Grama Panchayats violated the statutory requirement in regard to the quorum of ten percent. The attendance ranged from 10.15 to 12.10 per cent in the meetings clearly showing that GS/WS no longer holds any popularity in the district. Shri R Krishna Kumar12 pointed out that very few panchayats - from the very beginning of the campaign except on the first few occasions - convened GSs without compulsion even though they were required to do so by law. People soon lost interest and failed to take these crucial bodies seriously as the constitutional significance of the GS/WS in the local governance system was understood and appreciated poorly not only by the people but also by the stakeholders of local governance. Majority of the elected functionaries had not convened the GSs/WSs once in three months as stipulated by the acts and the members were liable for disqualification for their lapses. Every report indicated that the GS/WS did not have the minimum requisite quorum in most of the cases. People were asked to mark the attendance even after the meeting to give legitimacy to the meetings which was a publicly known secret. There were news reports in The Hindu daily which indicated that about 90 per cent of the panchayats in the State were facing the threat of dissolution owing to the failure of the members to convene GS in time.
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Anand Inbanathan (2009): Local Governance, Patronage and Accountability in Karnataka and Kerala State Planning Board : District Human Development Report, Kannur, 2010 R Krishna Kumar: The Other Half. The Frontline 27 (22) 5th November 2010

Kerala Working Paper 224. Bangalore The Institute for Social and Economic Change
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Who Participates and What for The GS was conceived to be a forum for need identification in the beginning. Its meetings were more active during the ninth plan but had not acquired their potential later. The representative base of the GS gradually eroded particularly among socially and economically better off sections. Every study shows that a majority of participants in GS/WS meetings, in most of the cases, were those who apply for subsidy or personal benefits under various schemes or members of the Kudumbashree units. The upper and middle class people are generally reluctant to participate in the meetings which indirectly helped in the degree of articulation of the disadvantaged sections of women & BPL in GS. The heads of Grama Panchayats, Municipalities and Corporations did not make any effort to involve everyone in the planning process due to fear of being questioned when nurturing vested interests. Nobody in power wants the citizen know about the nuances of GS/WS. The vast powers vested in the people who participate in it or about the exciting provisions in the Kerala Panchayat Raj and Kerala Municipality Acts which provide the institutional structures for the progress of elementary form of direct democracy. Some critics think that the proponents of the PPC, the local politicians and the all-knowing bureaucracy destroyed the decentralization experiment by torpedoing the GS/. Now, the theory and practice of GS/WS - the most crucial structure of direct democracy - is set wide apart. Defeating GS/WS: The Practical Ways GS/WS meetings take place without required quorum, and later signatures are taken from the people at their homes. The names given by GS/WS as beneficiaries are often tampered by local governments or the bureaucracy at the local government office. GS/WS gets abruptly cancelled when there is a tussle or conflict that cannot be controlled. Women are often not encouraged to speak in the meetings. GS meetings are held almost clandestinely without publicity so as to minimize the attendance to take decisions in favour of those in power in the panchayat. Once the GS is adjourned, the adjourned GS can be conducted without much publicity. Placing the annual report, audit reports etc in the GS/WS are not properly done by the local governments barring a few local governments. Forwarding of suggestions on works/activities originated from GS so as to take up by the Block and District panchayats are not generally done. The provision that the GS resolutions adopted by it in a meeting to be read out clearly at the meeting and then the GP President would sign the recorded resolutions is not being followed at all. Getting the copies of GS resolutions is a right of any GS member, but not put to practice. Government Prescriptions for GS Strengthening The State Government has been issuing instructions to local bodies in the State occasionally stating the due importance of GS and suggesting to conduct it regularly. The Panchayat deputy directors in the districts had been directed to monitor the conduct of GSs. The Government in a detailed circular pointed out the need to strengthen GS as enlisted below:-

• • • • • •

Widespread publicity to meeting Fixed dates in advance Minutes to be made in a bound book, reading it in the GS & closing it The President , Secretary and Members formally sign the minutes Minutes book to be kept by the Secretary while coordinator keeps a copy The attendance of GS should have name, address, age and SC/ST/Women/ official categorization

As well, the Coordination Committee on Decentralization – a high power committee to facilitate speedy policy making on decentralization in the State - constituted by the Government of Kerala requested all Heads of the Departments to instruct their subordinate officers to attend the GS. But the situation has not been very encouraging even after such initiatives. In an attempt to monitor and vitalize the functioning of GS/WS, Mr Paloli Muhammed Kutty, the former Minister for Local self Governments, had offered to attend some meetings in different parts of the State. Reduction of GS Meetings Suggested The Committee of Government of Kerala chaired by M A Oommen suggested that, “Minimum of four GS meetings in a year is an extremely arduous task. In Kerala with an average of 15-20 wards per GP and much more for a Municipality or Municipal Corporation to convene such a huge number of meetings (on average 60-80 per GP) and requiring the officials to participate in all such meetings in a year is practically difficult. We recommend that GS meetings may be reduced to two and the quorum be reduced to 5 per cent. Every effort has to be made to make the GS meeting serious and productive. All the officials must be present and the participants should be informed of the actions taken on the responses and resolutions of the previous meetings. “ It further added that, “Important events of the village Panchayat area (e.g. out-migration, in-migration, festivals, cultural activities, school/sports achievements etc) must be reported in the meetings. Law and order, tax issues, health problems etc. must invariably find a place in the agenda. Prominent NGOs and Neighborhood Groups, Youth Organisations, Mahila Samajams, religious leaders of the locality, trade union leaders, key party persons and even the ‘press’ may be specially invited to the meeting. Need identification should not be made a random exercise. It should be within a framework and part of an approach. Great care should be taken in choosing the time and place of the meeting. Grama Sabha meetings shall be held only on holidays. Attendance Register at the Grama Sabha meeting should be recognized as an official document. The security of the community must be entrusted to the GS/WS. Also the security of public properties, roads, canals, etc. must also be made the responsibility of Grama/ward Sabha”.

As well, the committee pointed out that the GS can perform the task of minimizing the social evils such as use of liquor, practice of dowry etc. The rural regions are facing with chronic drought and consequent acute shortage of food, starvation and compulsion of migration. So preparing Panchayats and GS with sufficient capability and awareness to deal with such natural disasters is important in a context where management skills of local people can reduce the gravity of such disasters. The report wanted to explore effective devices whereby maximum people could be informed, made aware and motivated for the proper implementation of common decisions of GS. What to do When GS is Declining Devolution can easily be done on paper, but to put it to practice is a formidable task. The Panchayats had in the initial years given wide publicity to GS meetings to attract mass participation by distributing notices and putting up posters in public places. But many have either discontinued the practice or are doing it only as a ritual. But there are people's representatives who believe that it is not difficult to ensure better participation of the people in the GSs since the rural people in Kerala are more conscious of their social responsibilities. It may be true in some places, but not in many other places like urbanized areas. Though GS/WS is the most important forum for social audit, the follow up actions on the findings of social audit are not done in many cases leaving the process a mockery. If nothing occurs after a social audit, one cannot expect that the people will attend GS and go through the same ritual again later. Though the GS/WS legally enjoys enormous powers in selection of beneficiaries, finalization of projects, utilization of funds, evaluation of member’s performance etc come within its ambit, the scenario, as described above, is not encouraging and GS/WS has become almost defunct without leaving any hope for its revival in the State. Every effort made to vitalize the GS/WS failed. No short cuts lie in store for making GSs in Kerala effective. No doubt, the failure to hold GSs/WSs would defeat the basic purpose of the 73rd and 74th Amendment of the Constitution. But there is need to think beyond the box and to to evolve alternate means to bring in accountability, development dialogue and transparency in local governments when GS/WS fails. How to Deal with GS Failure? GS fails when people understand that it is being run with little democracy. When GS do not perform and its members cannot be accommodated into a town hall, its legitimacy as a forum for direct democracy erodes. If we maintain GS as an ornamental piece, despite its poor performance and no input from ordinary citizens into public affairs, is worse than dispensing with it. So there is a need to find other ways to engage citizens in local governance though GS/WS is a good concept.

Develop the Concept of Public Sphere Locally Public sphere13 is a metaphysical public space where people discuss issues, exchange ideas and reach agreement about matters of public interest. Media, web, tea shops, talk back radio, public discussion forums, cyber groups etc are public sphere. If public sphere is functional, ordinary citizens can put across and distribute ideas about how local government work. It is in fact the responsibility of local power holders to ensure citizens opinion and to obtain core agreements while taking public decisions. Citizen’s agreements on facts can be easily reduced by exchanges between them. Logical reason giving, on issues of difference, may lead to settlements in some cases. But differences in attitudes with regard to importance or value of things cannot be solved easily. The differences in citizen’s perspectives can be easily understood and narrowed, if there is recognition of their real needs and wants. Create a Development Council in each Local Government GS can be made a vibrant body only if it corresponds to the entire local government area. That is practically impossible in Kerala due to the large size of around 25000 people in each Grama panchayat. So we need to create a representative body – say a Local Development Council (LDC) - of around 100 public spirited stakeholders of local governance to deliberate and decide the policy issues on governance more thoroughly and deeply. The LDC suggested above may be created by law. Local government should rely on the deliberations and decisions of the LDC as a reflection of wider public responses in evolving policies. The success of the system relies on the ability of the local government to mobilize the right people to the LDC as members. Redesign GS to be a Forum for Referendum The ward based GS can be retained as the people’s assembly for validation or referendum on crucial or impervious decisions to be made by the local government or its sub-structures. The referendum, a voting by the entire electorate when asked to accept or reject a particular proposal, is a tool for political decision making. It is a form of direct democracy. Referendum can be on items like:• Issuing new guidelines Selling local government properties Choosing important public works Approving annual accounts Imposing taxes

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13

See Jurgen Habermas (1991)

The referendum is decisive and consultation can be done in a non-binding nature. But a minimum turn out is needed to validate the result. This may result in adoption of a new policy, amendment of a regulation or recall of an elected official. Referendum can be used to reach consensus on a single issue. If the referendum fails, the issue should be rolled back. The UK, Switzerland and many liberal democracies use referendum to elicit people’s views on many issues. Local referenda on location of controversial infrastructural facilities are done in Poland. Bigger municipalities in Switzerland have a local parliament where citizens have the possibility of initiating referendum against projects and decisions of the Parliament or the executive. Smaller municipalities have a local assembly which is held two/four times a year where citizens are entitled to vote. If two percent of the electorate request, a referendum at the federal level is held in Switzerland. Kerala GS/WS can be made more vibrant with such a role. Ordinary citizen may prefer referendum but political elites do not. Political elites exercise more power in a representative system. In a democracy, the government derives its authority due to the assent it gets from the people. A decision approved by a referendum is higher in legal hierarchy than a decision taken by a representative body. As well, citizens initiative where citizens should have legal right to collect signatures to seek action on proposals or referendum on public issues is another mode of political action where members of the public has the right to submit proposal on issues that may affect them. In short, there is no point in keeping the GS/WS ineffective as being done now. There is a need to evolve a system of referendum or initiative on local issues. As well, the local public sphere needs to be strengthened to improve citizen’s participation in governance. . References

1. Anand Inbanathan (2009): Local Governance, Patronage and Accountability in Karnataka and
Kerala Working Paper 224. Bangalore The Institute for Social and Economic Change

2. Charvak (2000): From Decentralization of Planning to People’Planning : Experience of the
Indian States of West Bengal and Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, KRPLLD

3. Chathukulam, Jos and John, MS (2002) : Five Years if Participatory Panning in Kerala : Rhetoric
and Reality. Economic and Political Weekly, 7 December 2002

4. Government of India (2005): CAG Report on Local Governments in Kerala 2005

5. Government of India (2009) Decentralised Planning Experience in Kerala New Delhi, Planning Commission 6. Government of Kerala (2009) : Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development. Thiruvananthapuram, Government of Kerala

7. Habermas, Jurgen : The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere : An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MIT Press

8. Kerala State Planning Board (2010) : District Human Development Report, Kannur 9. Kerala State Planning Board : Economic Review ( Various Years) 10. Issac, Thomas and Franke, Richard (2000): Local Democracy and Local Development-The
Peoples Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala. New Delhi, Left Word,

11. Krishna Kumar, R (2010): The Other Half. The Frontline 27 (22) 5th November 2010 12. Mohan Kumar, S (2002): From Peoples Plan to Plan sans People. Economic and Political
Weekly, 20 April, 2002

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