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…


Friday, February 15, 2008

Panchayati Raj - Gram Swaraj: Participatory Democracy Takes Root in India

India has a long standing tradition of participatory governance at the village level. Traditionally this system of governance, known as Panchayati Raj or Gram Swaraj, was not formalized. Efforts to institutionalize it began in earnest with Mahatma Ghandi and the co-operative movement, but did not really take hold until Panchayati Raj became law by contitutional amendment in 1993. Since then it has been spreading throughout India, and although the decentralization and transfer of power has faced obstacles, the movement is gathering momentum steadily. To learn more about this blossoming of participatory democracy in India read the following article and visit the India links on our links resource page by clicking here. - Editor

Panchayati Raj for Developing Rural India

By Trailokya Deka

The term ‘participatory approaches’ describes a growing family of approaches and methodologies that enable local people to share their knowledge on standard of living and local socio-economic and cultural conditions so that they can analyse their problems, plan, set targets and develop strategies and practice on these ideas. This approach of participation is essential for the development of member’s ‘community based institutions’, for finding resolution of their conflicts for the enhancement of their capabilities and skills for the exploration of opportunities.

The idea of community participation originated in India many centuries ago. The last ten 5 year plans have shown that no community development programme can succeed without community participation and even a bad programme can succeed. The UNDP report called the community or people’s participation as the participatory movement. Participatory approach can bring together different disciplines like farm activities, micro-finance, health and community development, to facilitate and enable an integrated vision of livelihood and well-being. Historically there are three great pioneers of community participation namely FL Brayne, Dr MS Radhawe and Mahatma Gandhi. The trend of community participation prevails in all walks of public life. This is evident mainly from the prevailing advocacy for participatory governance i.e. ‘Panchayati Raj.’

During ancient days participatory movement was an organised process that enabled Indian villages to maintain social order through Panchayats. During that time Panchayat was an informal institution. Panchayats were responsible for governing and maintaining village society in accordance with socio-political norms. Following co-operative movement of Mahatma Gandhi persistent efforts have been made in India to make rural local self-government viable and self sustaining, specially after independence. But the State governments showed very little interest for the establishment and empowerment of rural local political institutions. Transfer of power to the representative institution was almost negligible. But the States like Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal were somewhat exceptional and introduced the local self-government system. Unfortunately people’s participation in those States was very minimal and the development planning found to be faulty.

With the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, enacted in 1993, the Central Government came forward for making people’s direct and responsible participation through Panchayats. The 73rd and 74th Amendments have provided uniformity and formal structure to these institutions of self-governance for the sake of their effective functioning. Based on the philosophy of decentralisation and power to the people the amendments have initiated a fundamental restructuring of governance and administrative system of the country. The 73rd Act was made mandatory for all the Indian States and through this Act Panchayats were provided with constitutional status. State Acts have been amended from time to time to make the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act more effective in establishing Panchayati Raj institutions as genuine structures of grass roots democracy.

The three tier Panchayati Raj system in all states having a population of 20 lakh have been empowered significantly to enable them to discharge their duties properly and fulfil the expectations of the people. The 11th Schedule of the constitution lists 29 subjects to the Pachayati Raj institutions. Participation of the weaker sections has also been ensured in all the regular elections every five years in the States through the system of reservation. Reservation for women, SC and ST in Panchayats has combined political empowerment with social empowerment. Earlier fears about elite groups capturing these institutions have been allayed. At present there are more than 2 lakh panchayats in the country with about 30 lakh elected representatives out of a whom 6 lakh belong to SCs and STs with 10 lakh women. If this army of elected representatives are converted into a community force the six goals of Bharat Nirman i.e. rural irrigation, rural roads, rural water supply, rural housing, rural electrification and rural telephony will be met within the targeted year of 2009.

Truly speaking, Bharat Nirman is people’s own programme where every village will have electricity, every habitation a road, safe drinking water, a telephone and every village family hopefully a pucca house. Only the gram panchayats can ensure community participation for the achievement of this challenging task of Bharat Nirman. There will be no Bharat Nirman without people’s active participation, specially at the village level.

But unfortunately, a perusal of a decade of functioning of Panchayati Raj put forward a mix scenario with some evidence of positive movements and several hurdles. The evidences from the States suggest that people’s participation has remained low. The efforts to make the grassroots institutions viable and significant remained confined to a formality. The bureaucratic resistance is visible in many matters.

In addition to the 73rd and 74th Constitution amendments under the leadership of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Indian Parliament has also enacted the Panchayats (extension to scheduled areas) Act for dealing with the economic and emotional alienation of our tribal brethren which lies at the root of the growing menace of Naxalism.

The important point to note here is that the importance of participation in the activities of Panchayats as an important part of Panchayati Raj has not been realised in practice by the common man. Persons of status and influence stay away from participation in Panchayats. The need of the hour is to utilise their capacities for village development with the active involvement in the system. Marginalised sections of the society which have been out from the process of decision making have also to be taken in the mainstream through sensitisation and capacity building.

The experience with panchayats and their role and system vary from one region to another. States must learn from each other on effective empowerment of panchayats. Panchayat functionaries need continuous training and capacity building. Democratic decentalisation is to encourage people’s participation in the processes of governance. Effective implementation of Panchayati Raj system will bring real power of administration to the grassroots level and it will also help to reduce corruption and abuse of power by various government functionaries. Strong empowerment Gram Sabhas and Ward Sabhas, which meet frequently and regularly to keep the elected executive authority under continuous check and watch, can also guarantee clean Panchayati Raj. Panchayati Raj will truly bloom within the next few years so that even as our economy gallops forward, rural India sees the blossoming of the dream of Gram Swaraj that has inspired our leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi.

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