The gram sabha is a deliberative assembly that is required to take place in rural villages by the Indian constitution.
Problems and Purpose
The gram sabha was instituted in 1992 as a part of the 73rd amendment to the Indian constitution, which requires that 840 million people living in approximately one million villages in rural India have the opportunity to participate in deliberation about political issues. Research indicates that democratic deliberation is possible in these contexts, particularly where efforts are made to provide resources to citizens that might mitigate inequalities. Perhaps the most notable example of the use of gram sabhas is found in the Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning.
Origins and Development
India’s use of deliberative institutions dates back to at least 5BC (Sen, 2006). These institutions – such as sabhas, kathas, panchayats, and samajs – allowed both peasants and various intellectual, political, and religious elites an opportunity to engage in public debate and question the state. Indeed, “the term sabha (association) itself originally indicated a meeting in which different qualities of people and opinions were tested, rather than the scene of a pronunciamento by caste elders” (Bayly, 2006, p. 187).
The modern use of deliberative institutions can be traced back to Henry Maine, who was inspired by British accounts of indigenous systems of autonomous village governments to develop a theory of decentralized government based around villages, rather than a centralized state (Maine, 1880). Maine’s account suggested that laws might be developed from the ground-up in a way that was consistent with traditional customs. In 1882, British Viceroy Lord Ripon took up some of Maine’s suggestions, reforming local government to provide “political education” and revive India’s indigenous methods of governance (Tinker, 1968). A 1920 Act established democratically elected village councils, although these institutions varied considerably from province to province (Tinker, 1968).
Maine’s understanding of Indian village governance also shaped Mohandas Gandhi’s thinking. Gandhi saw self-reliant villages and decentralized power as the ideals to which an independent India should aspire to realize (Mantena, 2010; Rudolph, Rudolph, & Rudolph, 2006). He suggested that a loose federation of villages – the panchayat raj – would produce a system of democracy centred around local participation and cooperation. On the other hand, B.R. Ambedkar, an advocate for the rights of Dalits (formerly untouchables) and the primary architect of the Constitution, asked “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow -mindedness and communalism?” (Immerwahr, 2015, p. 86). Ultimately, Gandhi’s proposal failed to gain sufficient political support during the Constituent Assembly Debates due to concerns that illiteracy, inequality, and hierarchical social structures in rural India would prevent limit the effectiveness of citizen participation.
Village democracy did not entirely disappear from the Indian constitution, however; Article 40 stated that “the State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” This article was non-binding, but some state governments did establish formal village democracies. India’s largest stage, Uttar Pradesh, eventually developed a novel form of deliberative institution – the gaon sabha – which was convened twice a year to debate and set priorities for the village (Retzlaff, 1962; Tinker, 1968).
The growth of international interest in participatory development coincided with the release of a 1957 report that proposed decentralizing democracy into three tiers of local government. This proposal, known as Panchayati Raj, was intended to empower local development efforts (Mehta, 1957). Yet, the panchayati structure fell short of Gandhian ideals of democratic self-governance as more powerful and wealthy participants tended to undermine proposals that would have improved equality (Immerwahr, 2015, p. 92).
Parthasarathy and Rao conclude that “The modern gram sabha was pioneered by the Government of Karnataka, which passed an act in 1985 establishing democratically elected mandal panchayats (a mandal consisted of several villages), with clearly delineated functions and appropriate budgets” (Parthasarathy & Rao, 2017). The sabhas were held twice a year to develop annual plans for the village, review development programs, and determine beneficiaries (Aziz, 2000). Village councillors resented the sabhas because they provided a forum in which councillors could be held accountable through questioning. As a result, gram sabhas were undermined as meetings after 1985 were increasingly held without advance notice or held in locations that could only accommodate small numbers of participants (Crook & Manor, 1998). The shortcomings of gram sabhas in practice spurred a movement that succeeded in embedding the three-tier system of decentralization and deliberative institutions Article 40 of the Constitution.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The constitutional requirement for the decentralization of power and the gram sabhas only applies to rural India. Article 40 mandates that all Indian villages have an elected village council as the executive body and the gram sabha as a legislative body. The gram sabha meets at least twice a year and all citizens with the right to vote are members of the sabha.
The Gram Sabhas are open meetings, presided by local elected officials. They are always held on holidays, and in public buildings or open spaces. Preparations for the assemblies include publicity, and the distribution of various planning documents. Minutes are kept, and each sub-sector group presents a report of its deliberations and produces a list of “felt needs."
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
A growing body of research examines the deliberative quality of the sabha. Deliberation in sabhas is often shaped by existing hierarchies and social inequalities as elites and men often dominate discussion. Discourse often appears in a form that is distinct from early ideal theories of deliberation, featuring claims about identity, emotionally-charged rhetoric, and demands based on individual self-interest.
Rao and Sanyal (2009) find that gram sabhas provide opportunities for the poor to say things that they might be unable to say in other contexts. This is because political elites are less likely to retaliate against citizens who speak up publicly in deliberative forums due to the electoral costs they might face in response. Many of the sensitive issues raised in gram sabhas have to do with demands for social inclusion, although these may shift to other matters of public concern once literacy rates increase sufficiently to reduce inequalities of inclusion (Sanyal, Rao, & Majumdar, 2009).
The quality of deliberation in sabhas – particularly in regard to holding elected officials accountable – may also be hampered by limited access to information (Chattopadhyay & Bhattacharjee, 2015). An analysis of transcripts from deliberations in West Bengal reveals that villagers attempt to use media reports to demand further information, but their requests are often ignored (Chattopadhyay & Bhattacharjee, 2015). Demands for individual entitlements have also been charged with limiting the ability of the sabha to reach reasonable group decisions.
However, Ban, Jha, and Rao’s (2012) analysis of transcripts suggests that discussion in gram sabhas is similar to those observed in other well-functioning democracies. Rather than cheap talk or elite domination, deliberation largely meets common democratic standards.
This is not to say there are no challenges to the quality of deliberation. For one, where there is less caste heterogeneity, elite domination is more likely (Ban et al., 2012). Additionally, participation appears to be gendered as women appear less likely to attend meetings of the gram sabha (Ban & Rao, 2008; Chattopadhyay & Duflo, 2004), to take part in community resource management (Agarwal, 2001), or run for local office. Quotas, or ‘reservations’ in the Indian context, are intended to prevent domination of the gram sabha and preserve its capacity to check privileged groups.
Reservations do not appear to increase the number of female citizens who attend or speak at these meetings. However, when the president of a gram sabha is a woman, it is more likely that women will be able to effectively set the agenda (Parthasarathy, Rao, & Palaniswamy, 2017a). An alternative strategy to address gendered inequalities can be found in self-help groups (SHGs), which appear to contribute to improving the oral competency for female speakers (Sanyal, Rao, & Prabhakar, 2015). While these groups primarily focus on providing rural women with credit, there is optimism that they can also generate social capital that might motivate political activity from the bottom-up. Many SHGs were limited in their capacity to build networks that moved beyond the local context and failed to include the poorest women. The Pudhu Vaazhvu Project (PVP) was designed to explicitly address these problems by creating a federation of SHGs specifically to reduce poverty. These projects appear to have succeeded in improving womens’ participation, doubling the number of female attendees at the gram sabha and increases both the number of female citizens who speak and the amount of time for which they hold the floor (Parthasarathy, Rao, & Palaniswamy, 2017b).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
There is a substantial body of scholarship examining the gram sabha’s use in Tamil Nadu and, Karnataka. Evidence drawn from thousands of households over hundreds of villages in various Indian states finds that the quality of governance improves when gram sabhas are held as scheduled (Besley, Pande, & Rao, 2005; Crook & Manor, 1998). For instance, policies that provide access to Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards that provide public benefits are substantially better targeted to citizens in need when gram sabhas are held. This is because gram sabhas are charged with ratifying the BPL lists, which provides citizens with the opportunity to deliberate about definitions of poverty and create opportunities for the poor to increase their capacity to challenge the government (Rao & Sanyal, 2009).
Considerable attention has also been given to the use of the gram sabha in Kerala, India’s most literate state. Prior to the codification of the requirement to hold gram sabhas in the Constitution, Kerala had already developed a program of participatory democracy – the Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning – that accorded a key role to the gram sabha. Deliberation here is divided between various groups and committees based on resources, rather than organized as an open deliberation. The gram sabhas are accompanied by working committees and ‘development seminars’ that seek to raise awareness and educate citizens about their rights and capacities to participate in processes of deliberation.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The example of the gram sabha provides a valuable corrective to theories of deliberative democracy that focus on rational argumentation and its preconditions. Instead, Sanyal et al. (2015) suggest that gram sabhas serve as valuable examples of “oral democracy,” in which the equal right to participate in talk-centric institutions is seen as a way of deepening democracy. This highlights the importance of oral competency, the “capability of speaking in public in civic settings in a manner that is effective in eliciting a response, generating a discussion, and reaching a decision” (Sanyal, Rao, & Prabhakar, 2015, p. 4). Such a view emphasizes the value of institutions and forms of citizen participation that perhaps do not meet the idealized requirements of deliberative democrats, but still empower citizens against otherwise powerful elites.
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Panchayat Act Chapter II: Constitution of Gram and Gram Sabha http://www.panchayat.gov.in/documents/10198/350801/Sikkim%20PR%20Act%20Chapter%20II.pdf
Lead image: "UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet attends a gram sabha (local council) meeting with elected women representatives and grassroots women during a three-day visit to India from 3 to 5 October 2012." UN Women/Flickr https://goo.gl/RBCdgK