Livelihoods | VOL. 14, ISSUE 87, November-December 2014 |
The author is Founder Director, Women Studies, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org
The financial year 2009-2010 was declared the ‘year of the gram sabha’ to help focus on this vital subject. But, the concept is yet to become meaningful. Attendance remains poor and quora are lacking. Marginalized communities are particularly handicapped as attending meetings involves covering long distances.
Gram sabha, the assembly of all voters residing in a village, is the basic unit of Indian democracy. It is a forum, a constitutional entity, to ensure direct democracy through meaningful mass participation. The financial year 2009-2010 was declared the ‘year of the gram sabha’ for the first time, which helped focus on this vital subject. However, the concept is yet to become meaningful.
As per the various state Panchayat Acts, the gram sabha has to perform various activities—examine the annual statement of accounts and audit report of the panchayat, discuss the preceding year’s report of the panchayat’s administration; review ongoing work and new programmes planned for the year; consider proposals for fresh taxation or for enhancement of existing taxes; select schemes, beneficiaries and locations of projects to be undertaken; mobilise voluntary labour and contributions in cash and kind for community welfare programmes; render assistance in the implementation of development schemes and services in villages; undertake programmes for adult education and family welfare within the village; promote unity and harmony among all sections of society; seek clarifications from the sarpanch (head) and members of the gram panchayat about any particular activity, scheme, income and expenditure; look up the last audit note and replies made thereto, consider the budget prepared by the gram panchayat and future development programmes for the gram sabha area; scrutinise existing schemes and all panchayat activities; maintain a complete register of all development work undertaken by the gram panchayat and by any other government department; scrutinise the completed works, and seek clarifications from the sarpanch and gram panchayat on panchayat activity, income expenditure, schemes and other matters. Thus, the gram sabha is an institution that can ensure transparency in the working of the panchayat. Although the states largely continue to falter grievously in this respect, a landmark recommendation shows the way forward.
On 4 July 1996, the Kerala Government constituted a Committee on Decentralisation with Dr Satya Brata Sen as its Chairman. Its recommendations on gram sabha stated that (a) the gram sabha should meet as frequently as possible, at any rate, not less than once in three months, (b) there should be written invitations to every household to ensure a 10 per cent quorum, (c) every member should be given a copy of the government order detailing the rights and responsibilities of the gram sabha with a covering letter by the gram panchayat president. Detailing the rights, the Sen Committee stated that the gram sabha has the right to know the action plan of the schemes for the next three months; the detailed estimates of the proposed works; the detailed item-wise accounts of every expenditure incurred within the gram sabha area; the rationale of every decision of the panchayat concerning that area; the services the officials will render and the work they are to execute in the succeeding three months; and, priorities for preparation of the five-year and annual plans. The gram sabha should also have committees to oversee the functioning of the gram panchayat, apart from powers to approve plans, budgets, list of beneficiaries, sites and accounts of the panchayat. Under the provisions of the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, failure to convene the gram sabha would necessitate penal action, including loss of membership of the convenor in case of two consecutive instances of non-compliance. It may be stated here that the relationship between the gram sabha and the panchayat is dialectical in nature. The panchayat can however, be effective only if the gram sabha meets regularly with the maximum participation of people. The convenor of the gram sabha needs to maintain a record of decisions taken at each meeting and this must be made available in the panchayat office for reference and copying.
Social audit by the gram sabha, where non-panchayat members can be authorised to look into the panchayat accounts and record their signatures following scrutiny done, is another landmark inclusion. The word `audit’ (latin) in essence means `to hear’ where ancient Roman emperors employed auditors to obtain feedback about their kingdoms. The auditors visited public places to listen to citizens’ opinions about administrative matters, incidence of tax and integrity of local officials. The modern day audit has moved beyond this ancient concept and is an independent evaluation of activities and programmes being implemented by an organisation.
Government auditing in India has primarily been expenditure oriented—but social audit is more comprehensive. Pioneered in 1972 by the British scholar Charles Medawar the concept of social audit began with the application of the idea to medicine policy, drug safety issues and on matters of corporate, governmental and professional accountability. According to Medawar, the concept of social audit is rooted in the principle that in democracy decision makers should account for the use of their power; and use their power with the consent and understanding of all concerned. Thus, social audit is an independent evaluation of the performance of an organisation and examines the extent to which it has met its social obligation.
Social audit uses a perspective wherein an administrative system is evaluated based on what it has achieved for the vast majority of people in whose name and for whose because it has been promoted and legitimised. It seeks to understand the internal dynamics of a system from the viewpoint of the common man who is not essentially a part of the state machinery or the ruling class. It involves sensitising target groups about the benefits of any programme and identifying gaps in its implementation; scrutiny of the organisational structure and policy evolution for the people keeping in mind their interests, priorities and perceptions; and making the system open and accountable to the people. Access to information is the key to social audit.
Today the panchayat provides the best fora to implement social audit, and the gram sabha is the best social audit unit in our democratic structure. Since public spirited citizens and their collectivity forms the key to social audit, members of the gram sabha, all sections of the representative bodies—gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad and their representatives can raise issues of social concern and public interest. Retired persons, teachers or others with impeccable integrity, could constitute a monthly social audit forum or a social audit committee wherein problems may be identified and solutions suggested. Based on these deliberations, monthly action reports can be prepared highlighting the action to be taken by respective departments. This can go a long way in creating an understanding that one cannot cheat the gram sabha.
Examining the working of the gram sabha in various states many instances where social audit used a healthy democratic, humane approach to overcome developmental problems came to light. In fact the gram sabha successfully used social audit for the good of the village, preventing misuse of resources and corruption in the Indoor Gram Panchayat, Mundgod Taluk, Uttar Kannada District in Karnataka. The people questioned the secretary on the purchase of cement for the construction of a drain, demanding bills for the same. It became evident that there had been some misappropriation of funds. On enquiry, it was found that though cement bags were purchased, some were resold. In the same gram sabha, in a separate instance, the secretary was asked to read out the list of beneficiaries selected under different schemes. Stalling at first, when the secretary finally consented to read out the list of beneficiaries, it was found that of the 25 tube lights allotted under the Bhagya Jyoti Scheme, 23 had been allotted to schedules castes, while only two were provided to scheduled tribe families. Thus the gram sabha can be more effective and empowered if the sarpanch, the panchas, the block development officer (BDO) and the gram sachiv are willing to share power with the rest of the village community. On the other hand, however, the villagers around Alwar in Rajasthan have never attended a single gram sabha meeting. The ones that were reportedly held constituted of invitees, a handful of persons who would never dissent.
We have to go a long way to go to make a substantial difference with social audit becoming part of the gram sabha. Attendance in most sabhas is poor and in most cases quora are often lacking. Women and members of the depressed classes are particularly handicapped as attending meetings involves covering long distances. Even where it meets, the gram sabha almost exclusively devotes its time to examining lists of beneficiaries and discussing matters relating to projects and contracts. Our Constitution makes no provisions about the functions and powers of the gram sabha, leaving the matter to state legislatures (Art 243A). So far, most state enactments have side-lined the gram sabha, rather than letting it be in the centre-stage of the panchayat system. The gram sabha’s jurisdiction needs to be enlarged to cover aspects like revenue, regulatory functions and village policing. The social character of the gram sabha itself needs to change. Special measures must be taken to invest in people, educating them to enhance their capabilities, especially focussing on those sections that have remained socially excluded so far.