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Direct democracy at village level: Obstacles and possibilities

Indian perspective with reference to the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand

Presentation made at the “The 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy” Summit at San Francisco, USA in July 2010.

By Suresh Nautiyal

INDIA has been romantically popularised as the largest democracy on earth as if democracy is the ultimate and the most perfect system of governance! I have no great idea of any other better form of governance; however we certainly can improve on the given system by moving towards the direct democracy i.e. empowering people to take their own decisions collectively and unanimously. It certainly is not about taking decisions individually. In our context, when we talk about the concept of direct democracy we in Gandhi’s words mean gram swaraj or self governance by the village people. The concept of gram swaraj paved way for the panchayati raj system and a law was enacted in 1993 in India that made constitutional provision to have a three-tier panchayat system, thus empowering people and lessening burden on the bureaucracy. However, this dream has hardly taken off and most parts of the country have not tasted the fruits of the real panchayati raj system.

My party, UKPP – Uttarakhand Parivartan Party, India’s first Green party with its base in the Central Himalaya state of Uttarakhand, thinks beyond the concept of the gram swaraj. Our philosophy is that as the concept of the gram swaraj has never been implemented in its letter and spirit, we need to go little beyond and think about having as many republics in the state or in the country as many as villages we have!

Turning my state into thousands of republics or India into millions of republics does not mean we are disintegrating and going out of the ambit of India as a nation-state. It also does not mean thinking out of the box and rejecting the prevailing system altogether like what the Maoists back home are trying to do. It is about empowering each village system and its people. My question is: if each individual can have a republic or monarchy in herself or himself without causing any inconvenience to any person, why cannot we have millions of republics governed by direct democracy principles?

I fairly understand that no political system of system of governance is perfect, but certainly we can talk here about a system that is fair to everybody – to the deliverer and to the receiver!

Before coming to the idea of the village government, I must make it clear that it is different from the gram swaraj concept. The gram swaraj concept is purely holistic, however the concept of the village government is quite direct and participatory with all ingredients of responsibility and accountability.

Also, the three-tier system of the panchayats (gram, khetra and janpad or at the levels of village, bloc and district) bestowed upon the citizens through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India, had a noble intention of empowering the villages; however, the system could not empower the village panchayats or through them the villagers as these bodies have not been empowered to make and implement policies, programmes and design campaigns according to their needs. Neither these bodies were empowered to punish those responsible or failing to implement properly the policies, programmes or the campaigns. So, the panchayat system proved to be no better than the corrupt Executive. The corruption at the levels of political leadership and judiciary has only aggravated further the situation. The system has in fact converted our village assembly representatives into petty pawns solely dependent upon the benevolence and kindness of the mediocre bureaucracy.


Misnomer of development

It has been propagated that the development meant creating huge infrastructure like construction of big dams, huge networks of telephone communication, large network of roads and transportation system, construction of large-scale factories, etc. The smallness in any of these sectors was seen as anti-development. This defeated the very idea of democracy at the grassroots level i.e. at the level of village. Also, concentration of the power centres has negatively impacted the grassroots democracy.

Each village with a Sabha or assembly and revenue rights

In Uttarakhand, if a village has not much population, it does not have an elected gram sabha or village assembly. Such villages are clubbed together and allowed to have a common gram sabha for all these villages. For example, a cluster of four villages, including my own, has a common gram sabha. The problem is that every time the elections are held for this assembly, people from the largest village get elected to the key posts. I have not seen a person from my village getting elected to the post of gram pradhan or village head in last 40 years only because in a democracy only a headcount matters!

Our idea is that irrespective of population concentration, each and every village must have its own gram sabha or assembly with all rights of a revenue village. If the village does not have this status, the money released from the government schemes does not reach to such villages and no development programmes are taken in these villages.

Once we have elected assemblies in all villages, we can think about utilising the government funds coming under different schemes, programmes and campaigns with a commitment towards social equity, judiciousness, proportionality and accountability!

The elected village assemblies will unanimously decide to take up certain programmes or reject any proposals, which the assembly does not think well in the interests of the village community. No government agency, no government officials, no elected representatives to the higher bodies such as kshetra panchayat (bloc assembly) or jila panchayat (district assembly) or state assembly or Parliament of the country shall have any right to interfere or intervene I the functioning of the village assembly.

The village republic is about absolute democratisation and decentralisation of the establishment! Thus, each village must have its own government and the village assembly must have rights to recall any member not discharging her or his responsibilities with a sense of accountability.


Responsibility & Accountability

The village assembly shall remain first and foremost responsible and accountable towards the village community; however, the village assembly shall provide to the district magistrate, the top official in a district with administrative powers, details of the fund utilisation every three months. The idea is to maintain impartiality, transparency and accountability. In a nutshell, the government agencies or the government officials shall function as keepers only and not as managers or manipulators.


Jurisdiction of the village assembly

Jurisdiction of a village assembly shall encompass the whole area within its boundaries. No scheme, no programme and no campaign shall be launched or allowed to take place I the village without the unanimous decision of the assembly.


Necessary political affirmation

We are of the view that we very urgently need a political intervention that is inspired by the values of village sovereignty, progressiveness, social equity and togetherness, diversity and commonality in all spheres of life, harmony, peace, non-violence, stability, secularism, socio-economic and politico-cultural independence, and respect for human rights, etc. Without this affirmation, we do not think to move forward from the stale democracy we have – a democracy that is governed and overloaded by money and muscle. In our democracy, no poor person with any significant political affiliation can think of representing people at any level on her or his own merits! This is how the largest democracy on Earth works!


*Basically an activist journalist, Suresh Nautiyal is a member of the Political Affairs Committee and Convener of the National & International Affairs of the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UKPP), the first Green party in India registered with the Election Commission of India and Full member of the Asia Pacific Greens Federation, Global Greens.

07/01/2010 – 00:00


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