Revitalising gram sabha as an assembly of villagers

[ Nyatum Doke ]

While I was participating in a gram sabha meeting in Ranglua village in Lawnu circle of Longding district on 10 June, I was astonished to see the spirit of the villagers towards protection of the catchment areas. In the meeting, the people of Ranglua and Rusa unanimously resolved to protect the catchment areas of Rakhaw, Watak and Zennu streams, which are the main sources of water supply to Linglam Rusa, Tiru Rusa, Ranglua and TanglamRusa villages. The resolution showcases the actual power of and the positive role that a gram sabha plays, which is often ignored and not valued.

A gram sabha consists of all eligible voters in a village, and its function is similar to that of the legislative assembly. Elected panchayat members are accountable to this body. However, gram sabha is seldom given the importance that it deserves.

During my childhood, I used to see a person coming on a bicycle with a register to get the signatures of my parents for gram sabha attendance. At that time, I did not understand the nuances, but as I see now, that was the way to ensure the quorum for the meeting and decision-making.

Then, when I was posted in Upper Subansiri district as PMRDF, I learnt from experience that some villages conducted gram sabha meetings just for the sake of it. In order to showcase the importance of the gram sabhas, the then deputy commissioner of Upper Subansiri, Komkar Dulom, initiated a ‘mega gram sabha’ meeting on the MGNREGA at Sikarijo village.

Recently, when I was an in-charge circle officer, during one of the GPDP gram sabha meetings, as the attendance was low, I asked, “Where are the people? We should involve them.”

To this, someone replied, “Sir, unlog ko kuch pata nehi hai (they don’t know anything), so their input would not be of much use.” I sarcastically replied, “But it seems the same people have elected you.”

The intentions of these anecdotes are not to stir any controversy or to paint a negative picture of our system. Also, the purpose of the write-up is not to give details and nuances of the how and what of a gram sabha meeting. The idea is to highlight the inherent issue related to gram sabha meetings. With the coming of the NITI Aayog, the government is basically focusing on the bottom-up approach instead of the ‘top-down model’ that was followed earlier, guided by the principle of ‘subsidiary’. Therefore, it is pertinent that the development plans come from the grassroots. Also, the need is amplified by the government’s focus on the people’s plan campaign.

So much importance is given to the gram sabha by the government, but why is there lethargy or lackadaisical attitude in our places? The general problems may be many; however, I will focus on the specific issues. Our Arunachal is peculiar in nature and we are “feast loving” tribes; and then, for our people, ‘scheme and development’ are usually understood as ‘free money’.

When people are invited to the meeting, at the end, it becomes a picnic with breakfast, lunch, and snacks in between. People will think that the leaders have funds; the leaders will think that the officers have funds, and so on. Then, even if there is no fund, they will arrange it because it’s a matter of prestige for us.

To add, we Arunachalis, especially the villagers, won’t have a feast without a sumptuous non-veg item added to eat. In one of my anecdotes above in Upper Subansiri, we ended up sacrificing a goat and a few chickens for the gram sabha feast. In this scenario, conducting a gram sabha meeting becomes difficult. Moreover, since the households in the hilly areas are usually located far away from one another, sometimes information dissemination and transportation become difficult. Then, for a villager, ensuring daily bread for their family becomes more important than a meeting where he/she thinks that his/her voice won’t make any difference.

Whatever it may be, it is important that we work towards making these institutions proper, and revitalise the gram sabhas as an assembly of the village. And if we want to make the gram sabha meetings meaningful and sustainable, one solution is that we need to adopt the approach of ‘mini-maxi’, which is ‘minimising expenditure, and maximising outcome’. These can be done only if the people of the villages understand the purpose of the gram sabha properly. A vibrant grassroots development and their participation in the decision-making process will not only strengthen the ethos of democratic polity but also lead to socioeconomic and sustainable development. (The writer is DIPRO, Longding.)