Grama Sabhas in Kerala
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both?
- General Type of Method
- Direct democracy
- Deliberative and dialogic process
- Community development, organizing, and mobilization
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
- Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
- Types of Interaction Among Participants
- Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
- Scope of Implementation
Gram (or Grama) Sabhas are constitutionally mandated deliberative assemblies in Indian villages as part of the rural self-government system known as Panchayat Raj.
Problems and Purpose
Gram is the word used for village and sabha for assembly or meeting in several Indian languages. Gram Sabhas -- “Village Assemblies” or “Village Councils” are part of the Panchayat Raj system of local self-government. Through the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 the Indian parliament laid out provisions for the creation of local self-government institutions in villages as constitutional bodies with the aim of creating a decentralized polity. These institutions, called Panchayats, act as the third level of governance, distinct from the central (federal) and state (provincial) governments.
The Indian constitution defines Gram Sabha as “a body consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls relating to a village comprised within the area of Panchayat at the village level” and Panchayat as “an institution of self-government constituted […] for rural areas.” The purpose of the Panchayat Raj is to secure greater citizen participation in formulating and implementing plans for economic development and social justice at the level of villages. Gram Sabhas are forums where all voting citizens can deliberate and decide on these plans according to the needs of their villages.
The power and functions of the Panchayats and the Gram Sabhas in a state, according to the constitutions, are to be determined by laws enacted by the individual state legislatures. The Government of Kerala enacted the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act in 1994 to implement the constitutional mandate. The Act has been amended several times since 1994. Among these amendments the amendments made in 1999 were comprehensive and strengthened the powers and functions of the Panchayats and the Gram Sabhas in Kerala. In the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, Gram is spelled as Grama in accordance with the local pronunciation of the word.
Origins and Development
Article 40 of the Indian Constitution (adopted in 1950) directs the state to work for the organization of village panchayats and give them such powers and authority that they can function as self-government units. The full implementation of this directive occurred only in 1992 with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act. In the intervening period there were two major efforts to establish Panchayats in Indian villages. The first effort came with the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee in 1957 for setting up of a three-tiered Panchayat system – Gram Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the block level, and Zila Parishad at the district level – for greater participation of people in central government’s rural development plans. By 1959 all states passed their Panchayat Acts and by mid-1960s new Panchayat institutions, in accordance with the 1957 recommendations, were constituted all over the country. These were the first-generation Panchayat Raj institutions. The next generation of panchayats emerged from the recommendation of the Ashok Mehta Committee constituted in 1977. This Committee pointed out the importance of vibrant Gram Sabhas for establishing a decentralized democratic polity, but due to public apathy and official neglect Gram Sabhas were not functioning properly in the country. A few states made changes to their Panchayat Acts based on Ashok Mehta Committee’s recommendations. Subsequently, two further committees were constituted to study the workings of the Panchayat system – the G.V.K. Rao Committee (1985) and the L.M. Singhvi Committee (1986). These committees identified the lack of constitutional safeguard as the impediment for the proper functioning of Panchayats. This argument became the basis for the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act of 1992, that came into effect in April 1993. This led to the third generation of Panchayat Raj institutions. Each state government had to enact legislation in their respective state legislature with details on the composition, elections and the power and functions of the Panchayat institutions in accordance with the new constitutional amendment.
In the state of Kerala, the third generation of Panchayat Raj institutions were created through the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act of 1994. Kerala is the one of the 28 states (provinces) that constitute the Union of India located in the South-West of Indian subcontinent. The state was formed in 1956 by merging all predominantly Malayalam speaking regions in South India into one state. This included the Malabar district and some parts of the South Canara district of then state of Madras (Madras Presidency of British India) and the Travancore-Cochin state (formed in 1949 by combining the semi-autonomous princely states of Travancore and Cochin of the colonial period).
Each of these regions – Madras, Travancore, and Cochin – had established panchayats during the colonial period to aid local governance. In Madras, the Madras Act No. V of 1884 established a three-tier system of rural government. Later through Madras Village Panchayat Act of 1920 all men over the age of 25 were given voting rights for village panchayats and the post-independent 1950 Madras Village Panchayat Act granted more autonomy to village panchayats. In Cochin and Travancore, the respective governments there passed the Cochin Village Panchayat Act, 1914 and the Travancore Village Panchayat Act, 1925 for the formation of village panchayats. In the post-independent period, these village panchayats were governed by the 1950 Travancore-Cochin Panchayat Act. At the time of its formation in 1956 Kerala had 892 panchayats.
The first elected government of Kerala under E.M.S. Namboodiripad introduced the Kerala Panchayat Bill of 1958 in the legislative assembly for the purposes of administrative reforms. Since the central government dismissed the Namboodiripad government in 1959 this Bill lapsed. The subsequent government, considering the Balwant Rai Committee recommendations, enacted the Kerala Panchayat Act of 1960, seeking to increase the financial scope and functional area of the Panchayats. The new Act led to the formation of 922 village Panchayats in 1964. Despite the widening of its functions by law the village Panchayats continued to perform its traditional civic roles.  Between 1964 and the passage of the Seventy-Third Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 there were other efforts taken by different governments in Kerala to strengthen the Panchayat system. The constitutional amendment of 1992 provided fresh impetus to the idea of decentralized democracy in India. In Kerala, the state government enacted the new Kerala Panchayat Raj Act in 1994 for the implementation of the constitutional provisions. Elections were held in 1995 and new Panchayats were constituted to operate as constitutional bodies and as the third tier of governance.
Kerala went one step ahead of the constitutional mandate when in 1996 the Left Democratic Front government launched a participatory planning initiative called the People’s Plan Campaign and decided to provide 35 to 40 percent plan funds to local governments. Through this campaign the village panchayats and the urban municipalities prepared their own plans based on the felt needs of their people. There were five phases of this campaign. The first phase consisted of identifying local needs and problems through Grama Sabha meetings. The second stage entailed of “Development Seminars” at the panchayat level with representatives from the Grama Sabhas, local officials, and invited experts from the locality or from outside. The focus of this phase was to find integrated solutions to the needs and problems identified in the Grama Sabhas. The third phase constituted several “Task Forces” consisting of officials, activists, and experts to come up with specific solutions or schemes based on the broad solutions arrived in the development seminars. The fourth phase involved creation of the plan document by the panchayat based on schemes prepared by the task forces. The fifth phase consisted of integration of local plans (panchayat level) and the creation of plans for higher tiers of local self-government (that is, block panchayats and district panchayats).  Concurrently a committee (called the Committee on Decentralization of Powers) headed by S.B. Sen recommended certain institutional reforms to strengthen the Panchayats including the role of Grama Sabhas in the functioning of the Panchayats. These recommendations led to several amendments to the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act in 1999. Thirty-five other State Acts were also amended, and a series of rules and procedures were evolved to facilitate the smooth functioning of the provisions of the amended Panchayat Raj Act.  This institutionalized the new system that emerged as a result of the People’s Plan Campaign. 
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The organization of Panchayats and Gram Sabhas in Indian villages is mandated by the Indian constitution since 1993. The Kerala Panchayat Raj Act of 1994, which has been amended several times since 1994, lays out the details of the precise composition, elections and powers and functions of the Panchayats in Kerala. The 1999 amendment provided a detailed list of the powers and functions of the Grama Sabha.
Since the panchayats in Kerala are large in terms of population (averaging more than 20,000), compared to panchayats in rest of India, each electoral ward (constituency) of the panchayats has its own Grama Sabha. Grama Sabhas are required to meet at least once in three months. Prior to the 1999 amendments to the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, the frequency of Grama Sabha meetings was two meetings in a year.
The panchayat member of the ward is the convenor of these meetings. As the convenor, the ward member has the responsibility to provide adequate notice and to advertise the meetings. The ward member should also invite the elected members of the Block and District Panchayats as well as the Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Member of the Parliament to these meetings.
An official from the Panchayat acts as a coordinator to assist the convenor (the ward member) in convening and conducting the meeting. In addition, the Panchayat appoints facilitators for the general preparations for the meeting, for making presentations and for leading small group discussions.
The meetings are to be presided either by the Panchayat president or the vice-president and in their absence by the Panchayat member of that ward. Apart from the mandated meetings of the Grama Sabha, a special meeting of the Grama Sabha can also be convened with a written request and an agenda for the meeting from at least ten per cent of the members of the Sabha. Such special meeting can be only called once within the period between two general meetings. As of 2015, there are 941 Grama Panchayats with a total of 4982 Grama Sabhas in Kerala. 
According to the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, all those who are included in the electoral roll of a ward are considered members of the Grama Sabha of that ward. The quorum for the Sabha meetings is ten percent of the membership. However, if a meeting is postponed due to lack of quorum then the second meeting can be held with fifty members in attendance.
An organizing committee at the ward level is constituted, prior to the meeting, for distribution of the notice of meeting to all households in the ward and for campaign to ensure good participation in the meeting. The ward member and the Panchayat has the responsibility to provide adequate notice (at least seven days before the meeting) to the members about the Sabha meetings. Apart from distribution of the notice to every house in the ward, pamphlets are distributed, and posters posted in public spaces. The signature of one member of the household is taken as acknowledgement of the receipt of notice. The Panchayat use the services of Neighborhood Groups (such as that of the Kudumbashree Mission), other self-help groups, and community-based organizations as well as local sports and cultural clubs to publicize Grama Sabha meetings.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Concurrent to the 1996 People’s Plan Campaign the Kerala government had appointed a Committee on Decentralization of Power headed by S.B Sen. This Committee took into account the experiences of the People’s Plan Campaign and recommended that the powers and functions of the Grama Sabha should be laid out in the Panchayat Raj Act in Kerala. Thus, the 1999 Amendment to the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act provided a detailed list of the powers, functions, and rights of the Grama Sabhas.
Grama Sabhas are to formulate development plans, fix priority for the development and social welfare programmes, prepare beneficiary list for the welfare programmes, where necessary mobilize resources for the development plans and to monitor the implementation of development and welfare plans in a village. The Sabhas have a right to know the rationale of every decision taken by the Panchayat.
Public deliberation is the key feature of Grama Sabhas as forum for the direct participation of people in matters of local governance and development. A typical Grama Sabha meeting in Kerala starts with an inaugural or plenary session with felicitation speech(es) and explanation of the purpose and the structure of the meeting followed by presentations on agenda items by the facilitators of the meeting. The other activities that form part of a Grama Sabha meeting is general discussion on issues related to the ward or sometimes individual problems faced by members. Members can also ask questions to the elected members and officials present in the meeting. At times, the Grama Sabha is divided into groups for focused discussion on various aspects. The minutes of the group discussion is brought back to the closing plenary session. In this session the members collectively take the final decisions and pass different resolutions.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Grama Sabhas as constitutional bodies got their due recognition in Kerala only after the People’s Plan Campaign of 1996. T.M. Thomas Isaac, who was in charge of the campaign during his tenure as Member of the Kerala State Planning Board and has written extensively on the campaign, notes:
One of the greatest achievements of the People’s Campaign has been in dispelling the general attitude of scepticism towards gram sabhas. It was previously considered impossible to have effective functioning of these bodies as instruments of participatory local government for practical reasons. […] through adopting a group discussion format and with careful preparations, the gram sabhas functioned successfully. The success of gram sabhas varied from panchayat to panchayat. But it can be definitely said that the gram sabhas have become an essential feature of Kerala’s political landscape. 
Over 2.5 million people with an average of 180 persons per Grama Sabha participated in the initial round (August-September 1996) of Grama Sabhas organized under the Campaign.  Although the numbers declined in the subsequent round, the campaign established the Grama Sabhas as important component of local planning and governance. 
Grama Sabhas became sites of selection of beneficiaries of development and welfare schemes as a result of the People’s Plan Campaign. The aim was to reduce nepotism and the practice of using beneficiary schemes for patronage by local leaders.  This change was made a legal requirement with the amendments to the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act in 1999 specifying the powers and functions of the Grama Sabha. The newly inserted Article 3A of the Act which specified the powers, function and rights of the Grama Sabha had these two clauses among others: “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;” and “to verify the eligibility of persons getting various kinds of welfare assistance from the Government such as pensions and subsidies.” Analysts note that preparation and verification of the beneficiary list by the Grama Sabhas has reduced the possibility of ineligible persons benefitting from welfare schemes. 
Reports prepared by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration provide specific outcomes of some of the Grama Sabhas operating in Kerala. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Grama Sabhas are forums for the participation of people in managing the affairs of their villages. Attendance in the Sabhas could be the simplest measure to gauge people’s participation and enthusiasm for these meetings. Low attendance has been a problem since the beginning. The attendance level improved during the People’s Plan Campaign of 1996. As noted above, over 2.5 million people across Kerala participated in Grama Sabhas during initial rounds, but this accounted for only around 10 per cent of the voting population in Kerala.  It is reported that the enthusiasm for Grama Sabha meetings has declined since then and that quorum for the meetings in many panchayats are often contrived. A 2004 report in the national news magazine Frontline states: “The fear about the future of the decentralisation experiment in Kerala are coming true. People are staying away from the gram and ward sabhas in the invigorated panchayats, municipalities and corporations in the State and, as a result, the most exciting programme to empower citizens is seemingly running in trouble. In the majority of local bodies, attendance registers are being fudged regularly to fake the quorum at gram/ward sabha meetings.”  A government-appointed committee to evaluate decentralization also notes this allegation of manipulating attendance registers and that “in many wards the minimum of 50 (this is the quorum in case in the first meeting you do not get the statutory minimum of 10%) was the rule than the exception.”  One reason cited by the committee for the decline in participation has been that Grama Sabhas have turned into “forums of beneficiaries.”  Since most of the beneficiaries are the poor, “the educated youth, middle class and upper class shied away from such meetings.”  Among the poor “beneficiaries,” too, participation declines when the benefits they seek do not materialize.  With low attendance in Grama Sabhas there is a danger of the return of nepotism and a patronage system in beneficiary selection.
The Grama Sabhas’ transformation into “beneficiary forums” also affects the quality of debate and discussions in the Sabhas. Isaac and Ranke note that the quality of the deliberations had improved during the People’s Plan Campaign of 1996. They also concede that in many Panchayats the Grama Sabha meetings “lapsed into mere listing of local demands” while its objective was “to collectively analyze the reasons for the problems and talk about what people could do to help themselves.”  However, Issac and Ranke note that both the attendance and quality of deliberation improved over time during the campaign. In a recent interview concerning the launch of another round of People’s Campaign by his government, Isaac, now Kerala’s Minister of Finance, deplored the low quality of deliberations in the Grama Sabhas and attributes it to the non-participation of the educated in these meetings. “The problem with grama sabhas in Kerala is that educated people do not come there. That means the quality of deliberations in gram[a] sabhas is very low.” One suggested solution is to tackle low attendance and to improve the quality of deliberation by holding small neighborhood meetings prior to the Grama Sabha. Such Neighborhood meetings were formed in some panchayats during the People’s Plan Campaign. 
 For this view and a historical account of Panchayat related reforms in Kerala see “Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development, March 2009, Government of Kerala,” 18–20, accessed July 20, 2018, http://www.panchayatgyan.gov.in/documents/30336/0/15+Goverment+of+kerala.pdf/27058cb3-4156-44e1-bdbd-73ffdf9228cd.
 For details on this five stage process of People’s Plan Campaign and analysis see T. M. Thomas Isaac and K. N. Harilal, “Planning for Empowerment: People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala,” Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 1/2 (1997): 53–58; Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, “Power to the Malayalee People,” Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 48 (1997): 3061–68; T. M. Thomas Isaac, “Campaign for Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala,” Social Scientist 29, no. 9/10 (2001): 8–47; Rashmi Sharma, “Kerala’s Decentralisation: Idea in Practice,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 36 (2003): 3832–50; M. S. John and Jos Chathukulam, “Building Social Capital through State Initiative: Participatory Planning in Kerala,” Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 20 (2002): 1939–48; Jos Chathukulam and M. S. John, “Five Years of Participatory Planning in Kerala: Rhetoric and Reality,” Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 49 (2002): 4917–26. For a book length description of the processes of the campaign see T. M. Thomas Isaac and Richard W. Franke, Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
 “A People’s Movement,” accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1712/17121140.htm.
 Isaac and Franke, Local Democracy and Development, 19–20.
 “Gramasabha Portal,” accessed July 20, 2018, https://gramasabha.lsgkerala.gov.in/pages/Login.aspx.
 Isaac, “Campaign for Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala,” 36.
 Isaac, 36.
 See Isaac and Franke, Local Democracy and Development, 42–58 for a detailed description and analysis of the role and functioning of Grama Sabhas during the Peoples’ Plan Campaign.
 Isaac, “Campaign for Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala,” 30.
 Chathukulam and John, “Five Years of Participatory Planning in Kerala,” 4924; P. Heller, K.N. Harilal, and S. Chaudhuri, “Building Local Democracy: Evaluating the Impact of Decentralization in Kerala, India,” World Development 35, no. 4 (2007): 638, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2006.07.001.
 “Local Development Models: Pulamanthol Grama Panchayat.Pdf,” accessed July 24, 2018, http://dspace.kila.ac.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/74/1/Local%20Development%20Models-Pulamanthole%20Gp.pdf; “Local Development Model: Adat Grama Panchayat.Pdf,” accessed July 24, 2018, http://dspace.kila.ac.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/77/1/Local%20Development%20Model%20Adat%20GP.pdf. For some case studies of the local planning during the People’s Plan Campaign and the involvement of Grama Sabhas in the process see Chapter 10 of Isaac and Franke, Local Democracy and Development, 145–59.
 Isaac and Franke, Local Democracy and Development, 184.
 “Derailing Decentralisation,” accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2016/stories/20030815003904000.htm.
 “Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development, March 2009, Government of Kerala,” 53.
 “Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development, March 2009, Government of Kerala,” 53.
 “Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development, March 2009, Government of Kerala,” 53.
 “Derailing Decentralisation.”
 Isaac, “Campaign for Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala,” 57.
 “Towards Decentralisation,” Frontline, accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.frontline.in/the-nation/towards-decentralisation/article9541142.ece.
 Isaac and Franke, Local Democracy and Development, 185. Institutionalization of such Neighbourhood meetings after considerable debate was recommended in the “Report of the Committee for Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development, March 2009, Government of Kerala,” 53.
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