In my previous article, I have tried to create a background about the ideological perspective and ethos of public participation in governance.
As seen in the article, participation is essential for various reasons, such as fixing accountability, realising popular sovereignty, ensuring inclusive governance and to empower the citizens. It refers to the exercising of power and its equitable sharing among all stakeholders.
In India, inequality exists at multiple levels, be it rich and poor, rural and urban or the gender gap. Hence for ensuring inclusive growth, it is of prime importance that decisions are made after considering the opinions of all sections of society. The vulnerable sections of society which include the tribals, women, poor and others are often left out of the process of decision making due to their poor bargaining capacity. Thus grass root level participation is crucial to enable them to influence governance.
In rural areas, power centres reside with the males, the dominant castes and the wealthy lot. However a great leap in rural inclusiveness has come with decentralisation. The landmark 73rd amendment to the constitution gave a constitutional status to the age-old panchayat system in India. It has made it mandatory for every village to constitute a gram sabha consisting of all adults in the village. It has thus laid down the foundation of direct participation and self-governance at the bottom-most rung of the polity. The gram sabha has also been granted the powers of conducting social audits, approving and disapproving large projects in tribal areas, monitoring the work done under different government schemes, apart from merely electing the gram panchayat.
There are some limitations to the efficacy of participation through the gram sabha. There is a relatively lesser participation of women, different castes, religions, and tribals. Those attending the sabhas are not always given a fair chance to speak and air their grievances. Also, the gram sabhas are themselves not held frequently. A large number of illiterate and less aware populations are clueless about the powers granted to them. Efforts are now being taken on the war footing, not just by the government, but also the NGOs, to make gram sabhas more effective. Women are being encouraged to attend it in large numbers. Exclusive women sabhas are also being conducted to help them communicate their grievances among themselves and then put up a united front to get better bargaining capacity. Initiatives of prohibition, watershed management have been taken up by gram sabhas, thanks to the leadership taken by women.
Gram sabhas are becoming platforms to effectively exercise social accountability. The audit of rural work is conducted by the gram sabhas. The lacunae in MGNREGA, PDS material movement are monitored by them. This model has borne fruit in many places such as in Chattisgarh. Another great example is that of the tribal gram sabha in Odisha disapproving a project by the aluminum giant in Niyamgiri hills.
There is, however, no such arrangement in the urban setup. The urban people are expected to stay in touch with their elected representatives at local levels. The Delhi initiative of Jan Bhagidari was interesting. The urban area was divided into circles and regional committees were formed. These citizen committees deliberated on different issues and conveyed them to the elected representatives. Thus direct participation modes in urban areas are existent where specific efforts for the same are taken with specific regional models. Urban citizens, despite such a situation, influence the government decisions to a great extent. They are mostly the taxpayers and the vocal enough to present their opinions through the media. The print media and now the social media get instantly flooded with opinions criticising or praising the governments with utmost aggression. But again the limitation of this indirect participation is that it comes and influences only the literate population and the internet users. The large chunk of urban poor, senior citizens and migrants are excluded from this kind of participation.
Thus direct participation is one of the simplest means of sharing the political powers and empowering the people. It ensures inclusion and interdependence of various power centres establishing a system of checks and balances. Apart from this type, there do exist other media of influencing and participating in governance. The newest form is the technological mode. In the next article, I shall try to put light on the various aspects of the role of ICT in enabling participation along with its limitations and strengths.