Rural Women giving shape to the democratic structure of local government in Assam

By Dr. Rousy K. Barua

With the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments almost over 25 years ago, Panchayats and Municipalities across India were mandated to be established as Local Governments. The ultimate objective was to decentralize power and induce participatory democracy in order to build a society wherein, the governed people are not just passive voters, but active decision-makers and stakeholders in local self-governance. Gram Sabha (Gaon Xabha), which was a pivot of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in the new dispensation, was entrusted with micro planning, identification and prioritization of beneficiaries for various schemes, social audits, and decision regarding public properties and any other functions that is attached with the power of panchayat. It envisaged being an authorized body to take transparent decisions on implementation of all matters relating to the development of a village. The Assam Panchayat Raj Act of 1994 also provided an option to conduct Gaon Sabha four times a year with a list of matters and recommendations coming from the community and stakeholders to discuss and address.

However, at the operational level, PRIs including that of Assam appear to have been saddled with a variety of problems. Very little and actual progress has been made in this direction. Local governments seem to remain hamstrung and ineffective; mere agents to do the bidding of higher level governments. 

But, amidst the dark clouds of impediments with regard to structural pattern, organic linkages between community and PRIs, functioning of Gram Sabha, bureaucratic control over local bodies etc., a new ray of hope for many gone astray is perceptible with the catalysing participation of women under Assam State Rural Livelihoods Mission (ASRLM) in Panchayats of Assam; ensuring access to entitlements such as work under MGNREGS Program; expanding access to services such as availability of inputs and technical services from the Government Line Departments (Agriculture & Veterinary, Sericulture) ; and convergence with other key government initiatives under mission mode such as Swachch Bharat Mission and making  others such as ICDS, Health PHCs more effective, efficient and accountable.

Previous couple of years’ data revealed that the participation in Gaon Xabha was even less than the quorum and the women participation were almost equal to nil. However, since last year a sea change has been observed both in the women’s active participation in Gram Sabha and in the attitude of the Gram Panchayat PRIs, from a lukewarm/disinterested response in the beginning to now active involvement and support. Gram Panchayats and CBOs (SHGs and their federations; Village Level Federation or VO & Cluster Level Federations or CLF) promoted under ASRLM share common goals of poverty alleviation and empowerment of local communities. This was quite evident in recently held Gram Sabhas on 2ndOctober 2019 across Assam. The strategy of institutionalizing the role of CBOs in participatory processes coupled with their capacity building on local governance initiatives made a positive impact on the efficiency of service delivery by local Panchayats.

We never used to go to Gram Sabha before. Then we understood the importance of GS after the orientation and we decided to go. One major problem in our village was lack of street lights. Our village border with forest, so at night, we couldn’t go outside because there was no light and an incident happened where an elephant attacked a women who was walking in the village at night. So in our VO we decided to demand for street lights in GS. We submitted the demand and we talked about that in GS. Panchayat accepted our demand in GS and now we got 8 street lights in our panchayat” – Minati Kishan, SHG member , Sewali SHG, Balijuri GP.

Preparatory meetings with Panchayat representatives, VIO representatives and other main people from the community like teachers / village heads etc were a major step. The objective behind these meetings was to discuss regarding the conduct of Gaon Sabha, the date, venue and also to get an understating on the agendas. In these meetings, VOs took up the responsibility of mobilising the community on Gaon Xabha. VOs also negotiated about including their agendas into Gaon Xabha in these preparatory meetings. After the preparatory meetings, VOs conducted street plays, recited self composed poems, sticking posters, conducted rallies, cleaned their village etc. By the time, SHGs were ready with their demands and after prioritizing them, VO consolidated the demands from each SHG and prepared a list of beneficiaries. On 2ndOctober, 2019 thousands of SHG members throng to Gaon Xabhas. Women were not just silent spectators, but active participants in Gaon sabha by raising their demands. The demands were submitted in Gaon Xabha and most of which are already accepted by the panchayat obe incorporated into each Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP). Interestingly, in areas of Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council and NC Hills Autonomous District Council also, the District Council, VCDC/VDC and the CBO came together hands- in- hands for the betterment of their villages.

Now, with the progress made during last year with approximately 65%-70% of incorporation of CBO demands into GPDPs, it would be important and ambitious enough to foresee the outcome this time with 2 more Gram Sabhas in the line. No wonder, these women have with their limited capacities have given life to this structure, through the practice of a robust democratic culture.

Disclaimer: The author is the State Project Manager, Assam State Rural Livlihoods Mission.