We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, September 28, 2008

INDIA: Referendum in Maharashtra

Two articles about a recent referendum in Maharashtra state, India. - Editor


Wednesday , September 24 , 2008


India is a democracy of a specific kind. It is an indirect democracy. The other form of democracy, the direct kind, in which every citizen participates directly in all decision-making, was known to exist in ancient Athens, but most modern variants of it — like in Switzerland — have been abandoned. In India, it has had a revival in the Raigad district of Maharashtra where a referendum has taken place on the special economic zone proposed by Reliance Industries. The referendum covers 22 villages whose inhabitants have grave reservations about parting with their land despite the compensation being offered. This referendum is an exercise in direct democracy, since all the people who stand to lose their land because of the project are being asked to vote. There is no other issue save this, and unlike in an election the people are not voting for a person or a party, but saying aye or nay on just one given issue. The experiment is unique, and it marks a radical departure from the principles of indirect democracy.

The experiment induces a degree of scepticism. For one thing, an extension of this experiment could lead to a complete stoppage of all industrialization projects. All industrial units need a certain amount of land, and this land can only come from people who own and use the land. Some degree of disaffection is embedded and inevitable in the process. But if this disaffection is always to be reckoned with through direct democracy, the overall consequences for the community and the economy may not be beneficial. Any democracy has inherent within it the contradiction between the individual and the collective. The collective is allowed to prevail in a democracy, but in an indirect democracy it does so through elected bodies and not through referendums. If the logic of referendums is accepted, the question could be asked about the use of this instrument only in the case of land disputes. It should be used logically for all issues. This would, of course, lead to a complete collapse of governance. When the Maharashtra government decided to conduct a referendum on the SEZ, it actually took the soft option. As the elected chief minister of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Deshmukh has to decide if his government is in favour of industrialization or not. If it is, he needs to put in place the necessary conditions for industries to begin and flourish instead of abdicating responsibility.


22 villages ‘vote’ in SEZ referendum

Rahi Gaikwad

Pen (Raigad district): In a first referendum of sorts, 22 villages in Pen taluka of Raigad district in Maharashtra cast their ‘vote’ in connection with Reliance Group’s Mumbai Special Economic Zone (MSEZ). They gave their opinion in writing on three parameters — have objections, no objection and others. They could give their point of view or demand.

Forty-five villages are part of the SEZ. Of these, 22, which fall in the Hetawane dam area, do not wish to be part of the SEZ.

They have waged a three-year battle, comprising 40 andolans, culminating in this referendum. The government had sent notifications for land acquisition under Section 4(1) and 6 of the Land Acquisition Act (and not for the SEZ).

Section 6 allows for acquisition for a public interest project. “On August 6, we got a letter from the government asking us to seek the opinion of the people. We waited until now only for the Ganesh festival to get over. The farmers can state their opinion, whatever it may be,” said land acquisition officer Sameer Kurtkoti.

“Villagers who had land titles in their name and their subsequent heirs were nominated to give their written opinion. The lists were prepared when we sent out the notifications. We are referring to the same lists. We have allowed each and every person to vote, even those who may have already sold their land to the company,” said Kurtkoti.

Around 28,000 farmers, including the heirs, were slated to vote, said activist Vaishali Patil of SEZ Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti.

The impromptu nature of the plebiscite showed some cracks. Farmers in Wadhav village were miffed that the process took around 30 minutes per person.

“They have not included the names of the heirs in the list. It just mentions the name of the landowner and says ‘others.’ We have to prove that we are part of the others. This takes time. If one person takes half an hour, when will all the people finish voting in time? There is no stamp of approval. How can we prove whose signature it is? This is just a ploy by the government to thwart the process,” said Praful Mhatre of Wadhav.


The confusion over the stamps festered and the resident Collector had to intervene. He assured the farmers that the forms would be taken back to the tehsildar and would be stamped. However, as proof of voting, the forms or statements submitted were signed by officials.

The polling exercise had no formal application forms, only a format. Two kinds of forms were seen in the polling exercise. One set of pink and red forms was prepared by the Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti, which is staunchly opposing the SEZ. Many farmers were seen carrying these.

A small number also had a different form. This one carried a list of demands from increasing the compensation package to one crore, looking after the health and education of their children. Some villagers held that if these demands were fulfilled, they were ready to part with their land.

Those who opposed the SEZ said the SEZ would rob them of their livelihood. They also distrusted the promises and packages. “If they take our land, where should we eat, where should we go and what do we do? Our land is our life,” asked Gajanan Zemse of Borze village.

Balaji Narayan Mhatre (who has reportedly won three prizes in agriculture) of Vashi village spoke of the variety of flora in the village, the fish which is transported to Mumbai and Pune and the abundant harvest of Pen.

With the SEZ, all will be lost. He also pointed out that apart from the farmers, tribal in the neighbouring hills and other talukas also depended on the land for labour.

Green zone

There lies a deep pride in the produce of the land. Raigad is a rice cultivating area and farmers speak of good harvest. The erstwhile saline soil has been converted to fertile arable land over decades.

“Generations have toiled on this land and today it is called a green zone. No one can take this zone,” averred M.N. Thakur of Kaleshri.

Amidst the general stance of opposition, there were some dissidents. Janardhan Thakur from Borze said that earlier he had supported the andolan against the SEZ, but it fizzled out. “We saw that people were giving land at Rs. 10 lakh. To intercept this we placed our set of demands for increased compensation. If Reliance agrees, we are ready to part with the land. However, if the vote goes against the SEZ, we have no objection. We will welcome it.”

“People who have sold their land have done so because of personal adversity. This number is low,” said Laxman Zama Thakur of 24 Gaon Sangharsh Samiti.

Those who have sold their land had infertile land, said some.

Reports of agents giving commissions of Rs. 5,000 per voter were also within the earshot.

While MSEZ caused much bad blood, the Hetawane dam project on the other hand is seen with equal approval. Villagers do not mind parting with some part of the land for canals which, they believe, can only do them some good. With more irrigation, farmers will be able to cultivate rabi crop in addition to the current kharif crop of rice. Zamse, who has already given some of his land for canal building, has no grouse.

Hetawane, a Centre’s undertaking, covers 54 villages. It is aimed at providing drinking water and irrigation. Rows of cement pipes are lying in the villages.

However, not all is well there. Said Patil, “The government, hand-in-glove with Reliance, is planning to divert this water to the SEZ. This is another of its ploys.”

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