26September2018

Andaman Chronicle

The Daily Diary of the Islands

Gram Sabha’s in Fool’s paradise


Thinking about the idea of grass root democracy in Andaman & Nicobar Islands one has to go back by looking at its evolution and genesis in free India. What better than to look at it as to what our father of nation thought about it. One of the Blogs called Applied Gandhi: Gandhi and political decentralization makes good read and inspired me to delve into it’s history and where we stand now.

Gandhi's Idea of Gram Swaraj

“My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every village’s first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children. Then if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding ganja, tobacco, opium and the like. The village will maintain a village theatre, school and public hall. It will have its own waterworks, ensuring clean water supply. This can be done through controlled wells or tanks. Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course. As far as possible every activity will be conducted on the cooperative basis. There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. Non-violence with its technique of Satyagraha and non-cooperation will be the sanction of the village community. There will be a compulsory service of village guards who will be selected by rotation from the register maintained by the village. The government of the village will be conducted by a Panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. These will have all the authority and jurisdiction required. Since there will be no system of punishments in the accepted sense, this Panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office. Any village can become such a republic today without much interference even from the present Government whose sole effective connection with the villages is the exaction of the village revenue. I have not examined here the question of relations with the neighbouring villages and the centre if any. My purpose is to present an outline of village government. Here there is perfect democracy based upon individual freedom. The individual is the architect of his own government. The law of non-violence rules him and his government. He and his village are able to defy the might of a world. For the law governing every villager is that he will suffer death in the defence of his and his village’s honour.”
 
SEVAGRAM, July 18, 1942 Harijan, 26-7-1942
 
These ideas might have sounded utopian at the time of Indian independence. Gandhi himself said that these are utopian and went on to say “Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness.”
 
The drafting committee of the constituent assembly consisted of people who were well versed with the working of constitutions of other democracies but they gave little importance to this idea of political decentralization. However, the constituent assembly consisted of people elected by masses and they contested the non-inclusion of the concept of ‘Gram Swaraj’ in the draft constitution. As a result, it was included in Directive Principles of State policy, article 40 of the constitution which states “the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self- government”. Understandably, centralization was given prominence by the then establishment in the wake of partition and demands for statehood by numerous groups. No doubt India at that point of time needed a strong center and though the constitution has guaranteed many federal features, it termed India as a ‘Union of states’ rather than a federation.
Nehru being a democrat had nothing against the idea of self-government at the grassroot level. He went on centralized planning but at the same time he created a Ministry of Community Development, Panchayati Raj and Cooperation. The initial emphasis was on community development programmes without much success. Later Balwant Rai Mehta committee, appointed by the government concluded that: “Development cannot progress without responsibility and power. Community development can be real only when the community understands its problems, realizes its responsibilities, exercises necessary powers through its chosen representatives and maintains a constant and intelligent vigilance on local administration”. The creation of elected local bodies and formulation of plans at district level was proposed. After Nehru, the centralization tendencies began to take stage and Indira Gandhi’s government merged the ministry of community development, Panchayat Raj and cooperation with Ministry of Food and Agriculture. It was only in second half of 1980s there was growing awareness that ‘top to bottom’ approach was ineffective in delivering the government schemes to the real beneficiaries. In 1992, through 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, Panchayat Raj Institutions and Urban Local Bodies were given constitutional status. In the period that followed, though states were reluctant to devolve powers to local bodies, the PRIs have made a mark in functioning at the grass root level ushering in participative democracy. 
 
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Panchayats)(preparation of electoral rolls and conduct of elections) Rule, 1995, was notified on 23 March 1995. By notification dated 28 March 1995, the Administrator of Andaman and Nicobar Islands specified the revenue villages constituting the Gram Sabhas. Sixty-seven such Gram Sabhas were formed and each Gram Sabha was to have a Gram Panchayat. Election for 692 seats in 67-Gram Panchayats, 67 seats in seven Panchayat Samitis and 30 seats in the Zilla Parishads in the Union Territory were held on 10 September 1995 and the Panchayat Institutions were constituted as provided for in article 243 B of the constitution.
 
A lot need to be done and we are nowhere in the reach of Gandhian Utopia of Gram Swaraj in our islands. The importance of self-sufficient villages with local administrative structure, planning and catering to the local needs is being realized today with the prevalence of rural distress. The department of Rural Development & Local self Government would take the honour of being the most docile and characterless wing of the A&N Administration by a mile. Dedicated full time Panchayat Secretaries is a dream which has not materialized in more than a decade and a half let alone more than half a century after independence. The ones posted by chance are still not aware as to who controls them and where their accountability lies. The Citizen’s charter is the only place on the internet which say’s anything about the A&N Islands PRI’s. The list of pradhan’s and co. there is still one of the previous pradhans and not the incumbent. Seeing the scene at the majority of the gram sabha’s this decentralization is nothing but a mockery of democracy. Administrator issues orders instructing his officers big or small to make sure they attend the Gram Sabha’s but sadly it’s never heeded to. If the departments accidentally oblige they depute watchmen or labourers to represent them. The villagers (vigilant ones) keep complaining where officers are, the Gram sabha proceedings accidentally do reach the powerful and the mighty sahibs at the Secretariat but only to be treated as trash. In the decade and a half no officer was ever called for an explanation by our tourist rulers for bunking gram sabha’s.
 
Conducting a gram sabha is the last thing a PRI wants who incidentally either are contractors or traders or thugs or their proxy turned politician in most of the cases. No rules or regulation would prevent him /her have their way. The scene at the gram sabha’s which invariably gets adjourned due to want of quorum is one of total pandemonium or chaos on one hand or one-man show on the other hand. Self interest takes prudence over community development. There are laid down rules and time frame for conducting a gram sabha but it is seldom heeded to and the guilty brought to book.
 
Govt. of India has made it mandatory for almost all plans and schemes concerning the village community to come through Gram sabha’s approval. Things do get approved on paper and seldom achieve the desired target. The tourist rulers will come and go as there’s no better place for them than Fool’s paradise for vacation and merry making. We the people need to come out of our slumber and stop living in Fool’s paradise.