By Family Empowerment Programme
When Mr Modi was being bestowed upon the award for the clean India programme, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a video was playing in the background. A quote from India’s founding father flashed on the screen saying, “Sanitation is more important than political independence”. Though Gandhi did hold sanitation as a central principle for his idea of a self-sufficient society, however, what he meant by sanitation was much broader than a superficial attempt to clean our cities, forced construction of dysfunctional toilets in the villages and half-hearted attempts to actually clean country’s vital rivers. The danger here is that Gandhi has come to offer to everybody what they would like to understand them to mean.
To quote Gandhi, on his dream of a self-sufficient village, “Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic, or panchayat having full powers.” To reinstate this dream, Gram Sabahs were incepted by the 72nd and 73rd amendment in 1992 and 1993 respectively and were envisioned to be vibrant bodies for people to come together to make decisions of allocation and expenditure of public resources. This dream came closest to Gandhi’s dream of Swaraj (self-rule) as it saw people exercising their agency in their political life. Ironically, contrary to this dream, gram sabhas have become another instrument to push down the central agenda of constructing dysfunctional toilets and prohibiting the use of plastic.
Much has been written about the harassment, violence and intimidation that went into declaring India Open Defecation Free, however, this article aims to highlight a deeper issue at hand. The article describes how the village institutions have become just another tool in the hands of the government to provide handouts to people and push the central agenda, in doing this they are destroying the very soul of these bodies. It goes on to draw the experiences of a federation of 12000 women’s right-based groups, called Ujala Sangathan, operating in the Adivasi, Aravalli region of Southern Rajasthan that has been able to fight their way in and make a small opening in the corrupt and top-down scheme of affairs.
Gram Sabhas being reduced to pet agendas of Plastic Ban and Swachh Bharat In a Gram Sabha in Lohagarh panchayat of Dhariyawad block, Pratapgarh district, 150 members from the panchayat had come to discuss their everyday ordeals related to lack of water supply, inaccessible roads, dysfunctional schools and Aanganwadis. The Sachiv (panchayat secretary)- after dismissing a majority of these demands as falling outside the rule book- joined his hands and peacefully urged everyone to construct toilets in their houses. When Sajju bai stood up and asked, “there is no water, what should we do after constructing these toilets”? Sachiv snapped at her saying, “I cannot get water to wash your behinds”.
In Tirol panchayat of Gogunda block, when Kishan Lal along with few other members reached the Gram Panchayat on 2nd October to attend the Gram Sabha, they were greeted by two panchayat officials. These people had to come on their own, without receiving any information from the panchayat. Before anything was discussed, the gram sachiv hustled them into signing the register and urged them to leave. When asked to read the details of the register, Sachiv reluctantly read, “The discussion has been around the ban on plastic. People were made aware of how plastic is leading to an increase in pollution and turning into a hazard for our villages”. This was followed by everyone taking a pledge to not use plastic from then on. While, what happened in Tirol and Lohagarh, is an example of the regular gram sabha, these platforms are only being utilized to publicly shame people for asking legitimate questions and putting up their demands.
A regular Gram Sabha meeting’s trajectory looks something like this- dates of the meeting not disclosed, the agenda of the meeting not discussed, signatures obtained either discreetly or forcefully. Moreover, the agenda for these meetings remain pre-decided, which often echoes the centre’s baseless agenda. In this case, the agenda was ‘ban on single-use plastic’, a few months ago, it was ‘toilet construction.’ Gram Sabhas were made to break away from the conventional meetings that did not involve citizens, instead to be the downfall of such a situation is pushing of universalized schemes that neither aligns with people’s needs nor fulfils them. These are often accompanied by numerous varied eligibility criterion, leaving both the panchayat administration and the citizens in perpetual confusion of managing hundreds of schemes, accessing their benefits and manoeuvring the corruption.
Citizens’ attempts to participate and collaborate are mostly met with uncertainty Gajendra, a social worker in Bokhada panchayat (Gogunda block, Udaipur district) exclaims, “before the Gram Sabha, I went to the Sarpanch’s house, to the panchayat office, and even phoned the Sachiv to ask about the date of the gram sabha.” The panchayat officials kept delaying the date and his enquiry was met with uncertainty every time he tried. It was only the night before the gram sabha, Gajendra was told that the meeting will happen in the morning at 8. He rushed to the meeting in the morning with a group of 50 people. “We could have brought more people, if only we were informed a bit earlier,” he said. These 50 people, however, were able to push for their demands related to water, employment and ration.
Gajendra (second from right) is attending the gram sabha in Bokhada panchayat, with members from his panchayat. Citizens in Bokhada were making demands on a better functioning of the public schemes, fair payment of NREGA wages, providing water supply for the tribal hamlet as well as preparing women as hand pump mistri.
The most common argument given by panchayat officials is that the people in the village do not come for the meetings even if we call them. However, these stories provide evidence which suggests that whenever citizen’s group has proactively tried to participate in a dialogue with the panchayat, they have met with nothing but defeat. People were either not informed about the gram sabhas or were informed very late. Those who were finally able to make it to the meetings were either faced contempt, abused, were shouted at or simply challenged for being illiterate.
In Lohagarh, during a Mahila sabha (a mandatory meeting that takes place with women, before the gram sabhas), when Kanka bai stood up after mustering all her courage, to say that her hamlet does not have a hand pump, Sachiv asked her if she knew the distance between her hamlet and the one that has a hand pump. Kanka bai hesitatingly replied, “it takes us one hour to get there, but I don’t know the distance”. Sachiv snapped at her saying, “I am asking about the distance”, this made Kanka sit down, feeling ashamed, in front of 150 people.
Women’s Collective brought forward some positive results
Few members of the Ujala Sangathan, a local women’s collective that functions in six Adivasi blocks of Aravali (Southern Rajasthan), had decided to actively participate in the gram sabhas this time. To keep the women’s issue alive and bring it to the fore, many samooh women had also called for a Mahila sabha beforehand. Bhuri bai says, “it is usually men who go to these panchayat meetings. They only talk about issues that concern them, such as road. But if women go to these meetings, we will present issues that affect the majority of the families”.
In the last one month, almost 14 Mahila sabhas took place in almost 15 panchayats, most of these panchayats had a presence of Ujala Sangathan. Their presence had led to a discussion which went beyond what popularly translates as Vikas (development) in the village; providing for physical infrastructures of roads, schools and hospitals. Instead, they brought the focus back to the functioning of these institutions which often eludes village level discussions, parameters which could be said to associate more closely with the principles of the Human Development Index.
Ujala Sangathan members from Salumbar and Dhariyawad block, discussing issues in a Mahila meeting, before the Gram sabha. Bhuri bai (on the extreme right), later in the Gram sabha raises the issue of domestic violence in her village.
Bhagli bai in Myala panchayat, during one of the Mahila sabhas, talked eloquently about the dysfunctional schools in her village. She asked the Sachiv, “we have one teacher over 150 students in the government school in our village, how do you expect all the children to receive proper education then?” Invoking other women to speak up, she said, “our kids are served milk without the sugar and only one chapatti during the mid-day meal”. She calmly asked the Sachiv to enquire if the government is sending only this much quantity of the food to the village, and if that was not the case, she demanded that every child should be fed properly. Bhuri bai in Budel panchayat was able to include the agenda to shut down the liquor shops in their village as it was the major cause for domestic violence in most families. Similarly, Malki Bai in Malpur raised the issue of irregular NREGA payments and the corruption that scheme is smeared with. Another important demand was about timely vaccinations of children and pregnant women.
To sum up their demands, the Ujala Sangathan women went for wholesome demand making, asking for a better quality of life, where their families are well-fed, have access to education and have a safe and peaceful environment to live. Some of these demands required a new policy formulation but the majority of them were just asking for improved implementation of the existing schemes.
Ujala Sangathan members along with women from the village, present their demands on a chart paper in front of Sarpanch and Sachiv, Khajuri panchayat, Salumbar block, Udaipur district
Redefining Citizenship and bringing the power back to people
Ujala Sangathan women came together around nine years ago, so as to create a platform and a support system for women, in the high migration areas of Southern Rajasthan. This group, which comprises of 12000 women now, and functions in six blocks of the state, went through a collective journey of demanding their rights from the village heads, and fight the corruption in these village institutions. They also created a space for themselves within their households which often remained seeped into patriarchy and for whom the limelight used to move with the male migrant moving to the city.
The collective act of Ujala Sangathan has proved that their status of citizenship is not something that is bestowed upon them by the state, but something that they practice themselves. This could only become possible for a Sangathan of Adivasi women- who could only be heard murmuring in whispers when talking in front of a public official- by creating a space for them to organize, plan, protest, express dissent, and to hold their representatives accountable.
However, as described in the stories in this article, such acts of dissent on part of the citizens are only met with anger and contempt, making them lose faith in their power of political participation. Gandhi’s idea of self-rule (Swaraj), seem to be a practical way out of the administrative mess that we have created, which the Ujala Sangathan has seem to achieve only minutely. If a process like this is practised where citizens are trusted and encouraged to participate, each and every member can become a responsible citizen, collaborators in the process of self-governance, having their own vision of development, Piplantri’s story (a gram panchayat in Rajsamand district) is a successful example of that.
In not doing so, we incur a higher risk of losing massive amounts of money in implementing schemes that don’t resonate with people. Gram Sabhas can be used as a potent tool to contextualize schemes like Swachh Bharat and modify them as per people’s needs. This would help the country save a lot of money and gain respect in the international arena.
(This article is an outcome of collective efforts and experiences of the Women’s Empowerment Team at Aajeevika Bureau, a public service organization working with migrant families in Southern Rajasthan. This team comprises of 20 brave and fiery people who closely work with the members of Ujala Sangathan, and has been instrumental in bringing a substantial change in the lives of these women, and in return, have let that process change their own lives. The article has been written by Drishti Agarwal, and she solely remains responsible for any error in this piece).