Empowering the grassroots
In a unique experiment, youth in Tamil Nadu’s Kambur village has been able to reconceptualise grassroots governance through mass mobilisation
On October 2, Kambur, a village Panchayat in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu, witnessed a historic event in its Gram Sabha. More than 900 villagers reached the Gram Sabha meeting around 10.30 in the morning – staying till 4 pm. Never had the village Panchayat witnessed such a massive crowd in its past Gram Sabha meetings. Reduced to a mere ritual, organising a Gram Sabha meeting with such a huge crowd without its concomitant chaos and pandemonium is unexpected. The officials were unprepared to face the questions and demands of these many people. What made the people come to the Gram Sabha meeting on that day was a question for many.
The mobilisation was, in fact, not done by the officials but by a few dedicated and well-informed youth of that village. Without any political affiliation, the youth group had used information obtained through a software used by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, to mobilise the masses. By tapping on to the income and expenditure statement of the Panchayat, they were able to send shock waves through the community. The common people were struck by the spending details of the Panchayat and its officials. Quickly, their curiosity gathered momentum and gave way to mobilisation. As M K Gandhi used salt to mobilise people emotionally and oppose the British – the youth of Kambur village have used the expenditure statement of the Panchayat to mobilise their people against undue oppression. After seeing the statement of expenditure, people started asking, has the Panchayat really spent that money? The youth requested them to come and participate in the Gram Sabha meeting and ask the questions to the officials responsible for Panchayat administration. A few youth working in the Middle-East as labourers, used social media to contact their friends and relatives and requested them to attend the Gram Sabha meeting. They, in fact, transferred some amount of money from their earnings to the youth to mobilise people for the Gram Sabha meeting. The youth group has used this opportunity to create awareness among the people about the importance of participating in the Gram Sabha discussions.
The team led by Selvarasu is mature and can communicate with due perspective. Since they witnessed a growing crowd in the Gram Sabha with a deep sense of anger on seeing the expenditure statement, the youth group members who mobilised them took responsibility to manage the crowd. The members of the team made it very clear that only through committed and peaceful action can people achieve what they desire. The team worked hard to convince people that things could be possible only by peaceful action. With the correct leadership qualities, they were able to manage the people. Hence, they made it clear that everyone has to maintain their due conduct while participating in the meeting. Second, they suggested to members of the Gram Sabha that while participating in the meeting, no one should look at issues from the perspective of caste or political affiliation. The village Panchayat is a little republic and not a kingdom. It is for all. It is inclusive. Hence, from the perspective of the well-being of all, questions, observations have to be made in the Gram Sabha and not from the perspective of a caste or political party. Further, they emphasised unequivocally that violence has no place in the Gram Sabha meeting. As a result, the Gram Sabha members conducted themselves in due decorum and participated effectively in the meeting by raising questions and making observations on the activities of the Gram Panchayat. Members of Parliament and Legislative Assembly have a lot to learn from them. The members of the youth group have appealed to the members of Gram Sabha that while participating in the meeting and raising issues, they should not bring personalised allegations and concentrate only on objective concerns. In such a way, order has been achieved in the Gram Sabha meeting. Through their active, effective and peaceful participation, officials have been made accountable for all expenditures. It was almost a social audit conducted by the people. Through their participation, the people were able to give a sense to the officials that they are aware and there is no division in the community based on caste or political affiliation. More than that, the decency and decorum followed in the meeting drew the attention of the media. While interacting, members of the youth group informed that this was not the result of a few days' activities. The group has been working with the villagers for the past two years. They informally visited all the seven hamlets and met women groups, farmers, traditional panchayat leaders, among others. To convince all the factions and to bring them together took two years, they later shared with us. Their objective is to strengthen the village Panchayat by strengthening the Gram Sabha. Their main aim is to build social capital and, thereafter, transfer the responsibility of transforming the village to the people. To them, it is liberation from the yoke of the government. In this mobilisation process, the youth group members have involved a few women volunteers.
The representatives of different political parties have also been approached and they have been asked to participate in the different Gram Sabha meetings. An orderly exercise without emotion was able to put the officials in a tight spot. They could not face the people and could not even give a coherent reply. Glaring commissions and omissions have been noticed. The officials have committed to reply to many of the questions in the next Gram Sabha meeting. They have also committed to fulfilling all the needs put forth in the Gram Sabha meetings. Earlier, the Gram Sabha was a ritual, now it has become a vibrant village body meant for discourse and debate. It has been made a training ground for a deliberative democracy. People of the Kambur Village Panchayat have overcome the barriers of caste and political affiliation to develop a sense of community. This has been the biggest achievement of the Gram Sabha meeting. It is a model for other Panchayats to build a peoples' movement through grassroots governance.
(The author is Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. The views expressed are strictly personal)