Dr. Aureliano Fernandes, Associate Prof and Consultant
The level of democratic governance which is an important aspect of the political system, makes a significant difference from the perspective of the people, governed by that system. The difference is that it belongs to the nature of democratic governments to take care of the many, to serve their interests in the endless struggle for survival in the world of scarcity, whereas it belongs to the nature of autocratic systems to serve the interests of a few. [Vanhanen 1997].
The enormous literature generated on panchayati raj has variously labeled the Gram sabha as the gateway to grassroots democracy [Jain 1997], base of panchayati raj [Datta 1994], one of the most important three basic institutions of new direct democracy at the village level [Narayanasamy 1998], a mechanism to bridge the gap between civil society and state (or its instrumentality, the panchayat) [Jaamdar 1995] etc. Some State Panchayat Legislations, such as the Goa Panchayati Raj Act , preface the enactment of the two-tier panchayati raj system in the state, with a statement of intent - greater participation of the people and more effective implementation of rural develop-ment programmes. Deductively, this participation should get reflected in the gram sabha - the community of electors on the electoral roll for a panchayat. If the level of participation is high it is axiomatic to assume that the level of democratic governance is high. Because power, when shared by the many through active participation, deliberation, decision making and implementation tends to be used or at least attempted to be used for the advantage of the many. Unfortunately, studies conducted in most states record thin attendance making gram sabha meetings a legal formality. Meetings called were mostly without prior or adequate notice.
Despite special efforts, very few panchayats convened the minimum prescribed number of meetings. In most places, only a formality was observed; proxy meetings, at times, were convened and proceedings were written even without the knowledge of those who attended. Meetings arranged, either proved to be abortive or unsuccessful because of thin attendance. The participation of women was nominal [Jain 1997:559-60].
In Dasai and Rururai panchayats of Madhya Pradesh and Challapalli panchayat in Andhra Pradesh, sarpanchs and panchayat officials confessed that the names of people who visited panchayat office were noted in the register, instead of people who actually attended the meetings [Rao 1998:723--24]. Hence, although the gram sabha conceptually envisions a democracy which empowers, enlightens and engages citizens in the process of self-government, most gram sabhas lie somewhere in the twilight zone between the rule of the few and the rule of the many. Popular governance through gram sabha has, therefore, reached a "crisis" [Kohli 1991 :22]. This crisis however does not imply an imminent breakdown but a decisive moment or turning point.( Kohli's usage implies that political matters are in a bad shape, probably are getting worse and are not likely to go this way. This does not mean that it is impossible for things to continue as they are; but if they do, the costs will be great. )
IRONY OF POWER TO THE PEOPLE
It is indeed an irony of grassroot democracy that local government has to emerge through state-centric intervention from the top. The gram sabha which should possess the natural and moral prerogative to determine communitarian activity and its own mode and pace of development is now sought to be created and legitimized through the regularities in the process of institutional democ-racy.
CONCEPTUAL LIMITATIONS in defining the role of the Gram Sabha: Some limitations regarding the inadequacy of the role of the gram sabha arise due to failure of adequate conceptualization of the Gram Sabha in the 73rd Constitutional Amendment...