How Gram Sabha are putting power back in the hands of the communities, one issue at a time

The trees of Saranda Forests in Jharkhand are no longer felled unsupervised. The people of the village judicially use the forest resources, such as firewood, fruits, and medicinal herbs. The forest is now protected from unprecedented exploitation. Welfare schemes announced by the governments are reaching the people it is meant to.  How is this possible? The answer lies in the powerful community governance that runs in the locality called the Gram Sabha.

Vijay Singh Lagori, the Munda, or the head of the Gram Sabha from Manoharpur, Chiria says that there has been a positive increase in awareness of rights amongst the people of the community after being introduced to the idea of Gram Sabha.

India has had a unique administration system that has been complex and nuanced at the same time. Before the arrival of the colonial powers, communities often managed resources with a sense of democratic ruling in most parts of the country, especially the forests. Tribal groups have had administrative systems that were inclusive and protected the interests of all the members of the community. It is also important to note that they protected and preserved natural resources that sustained their lives.

However, with the arrival of The Great Empire, their ways of administration, designed to be exploitative in nature and of nature, soon shifted the power dynamics of ownership of resources from community governance to more centralized authority. Seventy odd years of Independence, bureaucratic management and policies in Free India, seem to be reflective of the same colonial legacy of management, with little changes in the system. However, the existence of the Gram Sabha seems to be shifting this power back to the communities, and allowing them to exercise rights over commonly shared resources and other welfare schemes.

Before the intervention of the Gram Sabha, sand mining was rampant and the locals were not paid any compensation. People like Devilal Todu, who after his involvement in the Gram Sabha, were able to create revenue sources from the mining, and the money is being invested in the welfare of the lives of the people in the community. Another group of people was able to avail employment benefits at the construction of a check dam, which was constructed in Chaprahatti. The check dam was being built without the consultation of the locals. The members of the Gram Sabha had a sit I and demanded for information that led to the creating employment.

Lalchand Pujar recounts how he was part of the initial group that set up the Gram Sabha. “In our Gram Sabha, we follow the 30% guideline. If a 100 people gather, at least 30 of them should be women. As we started having regular meetings like this, we began to understand what the Gram Sabha is and what it can do for us. We learnt how to plan about things. We became united about many things”. Pujar says that with the help of the Gram Sabha, they have been able to get solar water pumps installed as well.

When notices from the government began to flow in asking the villagers to evict in parts of Jamtara and Turkahua, it was the mobilization of the Gram Sabha that put an end to the letters, as they reached out to the Block Development officer. In Tirla, people were able to fix an electricity issue with the help of the Gram Sabha. Our transformer caught fire. “I was at home at the time, and some people who were passing by, who saw it happening, informed us. I saw smoke rising from it. We got the line cut and then had a Gram Sabha meeting, where we decided that each of us would contact whomever we knew who could help us find a solution to this. After this meeting, we wrote a letter regarding this, went to the Electricity office, and submitted it there. The person at the office said they would get it fixed” says Santhosh Sindhu.

The women too, have begun to use the Gram Sabha as grievance addressable mechanisms. The Gram Sabha has assisted women access death certificates of their husbands. This has helped them apply for pensions and access other benefits, which would not be possible otherwise. The attendance of women at Gram Sabha meetings has gone up to fifty percent says Goreti Barla.

“We have that saying now – ‘Not the Lok Sabha, Nor Vidhan Sabha, it’s the Gram Sabha that’s the strongest!’ We used to say that phrase without knowing its true meaning, now we see how powerful the Gram Sabha is.” Says one of the women, while talking about how the Gram Sabha has made various Yojna of the Government accessible to them by creating awareness and various mechanisms to avail such benefits.

Gram Sabha has become institutions of agency to people who belong to the minorities allowing them a forum to address concerns. Since it is mandatory for Gram Panchayats to hold Gram Sabha, it becomes vital for the people to be part of the decision process and allows the communities to interact with the administration that is responsible for implementation of various policies. Mahila Sabha’s have also been integral in the working of the Gram Sabha. In Ghonsari Maharashtra, Mahila Sabha’s have been instrumental in setting up Self Help Groups, push for a ban on liquor sales in the village. In Balele Karnataka, in the southern tip of Kodagu, Gram Sabha operates once in six months, and issues related to land boundaries, water resources, electricity malfunction have been readdressed. In the past few years due to a rise in Human Animal Conflict, the Gram Sabha have been able to moderate discussions with the Forest Departments and have been able to increase compensation for loss of livelihood due to such conflicts. Kodagu has seen an increase in Grass root engagement, about Human Animal Conflicts and have been locking horns with the forest Departments. In Srinivasapura Kolar, Gram Sabha’s are held regularly to address issues such as lack of road connectivity, access to health care and even prevent child marriage.

Although the Gram Sabha has been integral, not all states or districts have an operational Gram Sabha. While quorum is a major concern, class and caste divide also have been a few cases that prevent such Sabha’s. Another key reason is that communities are unaware of a set up like the Gram Sabha.

In a time where the idea of nation building has been contested, these Gram Sabha are strong reminders of how community governance and ownership are vital for ensuring lives of people are protected and improved. Such grassroots democracy allows everyone the agency to make decisions that fit their needs. This also prevents alienation of people from the lands they belong to. Strong government policies, with the help of a stronger Gram Sabha can work hand in hand to make lives better and provide dignity of life and protect the environment.

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