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Gram Sabha - the most Basic and Vital unit of People’s Self-governance

The very respected Nelson Mandela, the supreme example of forgiveness and reconciliation even with the worst of enemies, once said “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. Our own Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, voiced a similar concern when he said that ‘if you want to find out what kind of development our country needs, go to the most deprived person and ask him what he needs’. The ‘lowest one’ and ‘ the most deprived person’ live in the villages of our country. That does not mean they are bereft of human values and traditional wisdom of how their economic, social, cultural, political life should be lived. They understand nature and its functioning more than anybody else. They know the geographical, climatic conditions of their village. They can foretell the ups and downs of the approaching monsoon by observing the behavior of animals and birds. They know the nature of the soil and what crop to grow and when. If a check-dam is to be constructed to improve the irrigation potentiality of the village-land, they know where exactly to construct the dam and the direction it should face. The jungle which is their home, has taught them an enormous amount of knowledge about medical and health practices for most illnesses. The respect and reverence shown to elders and women and the love and care shown towards children are things to be admired and imitated. A basic sense of equality prevailed and decisions affecting village community were taken unanimously with traditional leadership as the guide. Briefly speaking, traditional village communities are treasures to be cherished.

But unfortunately the integrity of village communities were damaged first by the feudal zamindari system which made village communities into mere pawns meant for forcible collection of taxes. Later when the capitalist class took control of the economy, overall importance was given to the small elite class which had capital in its hand, dominated the production process and made market as the sole measure of economic worth of human beings. Economic control led to the control of social and political life of the country. Panchayat system was imposed universally regardless of whether especially the indigenous Adivasi / Dalit communities had their own traditions of self-governance. It was an irremediable blow to traditional village communities from which they have not recovered.

Concerned with such a situation, several tribal Members of Parliament pressurized the govt to enact a law that would restore the pristine splendor of Gram Sabhas. A committee headed by a well known tribal MP was set up in early 1990s. Based on its recommendations, the PESA Act was passed by the parliament in 1996. Its main purpose was to empower the traditional village-communities.

The Act first defines how a Gram Sabha has to be composed. “a village shall ordinarily consist of a habitation or group of habitations or a hamlet or a group of hamlets comprising a community and managing its affairs in accordance with traditions and customs;” [4(b)]

It then stipulates that “every village shall have a Gram Sabha consisting of persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls for the Panchayat at the village level”[4(©)]

Some of the significant powers and functions assigned to the Gram Sabhas are as follows:
1. Every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution.[4(d)]
2. Approve plans, programmes and projects for social and economic development before such plans, programmes and projects are taken up for implementation by the Panchayat at village level.[4(e)i]
3. Be responsible for the identification of selection of persons as beneficiaries under the poverty alleviation and other programmes.[4(e)ii]
4. Certify the utilization of funds by the Panchayat for plans, programmes and projects.[4(f)]
5. Be consulted before making the acquisition of land in Scheduled Areas for development projects and before resettling or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects.[4(i)]
6. Plan and manage minor water bodies [4(j)]
7. Permit prospective license of mining lease and recommend grant of mining lease for minor minerals.[4(k)]
8. Recommend grant of license for exploitation of minor minerals by auction.[4(l)
9. Enforce prohibition or to regualate or restrict the sale and consumption of any intoxicant.[4(m)(i)]
10. Ownership of minor forest produce.[4(m)(ii)]
11. Prevent alienation of land and take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land.[4(m)(iii)]
12. Manage village markets.[4(m)(iv)]
13. Control money lending. [4(m)(v]
14. Control institutions and functionaries in all social sectors.[4(m)(vi)]
15. control local plans and resources including tribal sub-plans. [4(m)(vii)]

Finally, PESA Act issues a caution that no other administrative body including Panchayats may assume the powers and authority of Gram Sabhas.

The sad fact however is that although a good fifteen years have gone by since PESA Act became a law, no State in the country has implemented it to any desirable extent. Central-Indian States which have a significant indigenous Adivasi population have shown the least interest in implementing the Act. The main reason is that in all these States the non-indigenous outsiders have occupied positions of power in the ruling parties and especially the bureaucracy and they are determined to hold on to their power and to make sure that Gram Sabhas are not really empowered. Jharkhand State is a typical example where elections to Panchayats took place three years ago but power and finance have not been provided. Hence the self-assertion of some Gram Sabhas in some parts of Jharkhand by taking control of mineral resources such as sand, coal, iron-ore must be encouraged and the rest of society must stand in support and solidarity with such daring steps taken by people through their Gram Sabhas.

- Stan Swamy

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