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The “State-Sponsored” Public Sphere

Darshana Patel's picture

In India’s 2 million villages, public meetings at the village level called Gram Sabhas (GSs) have provided a structured, institutionalized space for dialogue between the local government and its citizens.  In a recently released paper on the topic, Vijayendra Rao and Paromita Sanyal have coined these GSs as “state-sponsored” public sphere.  In fact, these meetings are mandated by national legislation. 

In India, these public meetings not only offer a space to dialogue and feedback between citizens and local power holders, they also pair it with real decision-making on how to manage local resources for beneficiaries for public programs.  This is the most striking feature of the GSs.  While the government provides data on families living below the poverty line that could be eligible for local resources, the GSs are required to have these lists ratified by those attending the meeting.  Citizens can directly challenge the data in “a forum where public discourse shapes the meaning of poverty, discrimination and affirmative action.”

Without ever having actually attended a GS myself, I tentatively ask how would this process look in other local government contexts? 

I can only think of my own experiences with city government in Washington, DC. Working with community organizers, parents, students and teachers to advocate for a more responsive public school system, the main challenge was a public space that is not structured to accommodate such blurred roles between citizens and decision-makers. 

As community organizers in the US are well aware, getting the community to attend public meetings is half the battle.  When they do attend, these spaces are often constructed by local government bodies and the agenda is already set by without community input.  Often times, activist parents and teachers become too disempowered and frustrated to see the process through.  

In reality, it is just as and sometime more important to pay attention to what is left unsaid.
At the very least, if the local government in DC initiated conversations around local resources that are explicitly linked to poverty and discrimination, I would imagine the results would be different.

Of course, there are vested interests that would rather not see these conversations happen and this is true even in India.  Rao and Sanyal acknowledge that the GSs are such a threat that local power-holders that they would rather not even organize them.  (In 2001, 25% of the local bodies did not organize a single GS within a year’s time.)

 

Photo Credit: Community meeting. Aurangabad, India. Photo: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
 

Comments

Submitted by Vijayendra Rao on
Thanks for the post Darshana! I think it would be incorrect to assume that Gram Sabhas in India do not have problems. They are often appropriated by elites, sabotaged by politically powerful people, suffer from low attendance, etc. However, because they are mandated by the Indian constitution they are not going anywhere, and have become regular bi-annual or quarterly events (depending on the state). Consequently, with time, they are evolving into effective fora and providing citizens with voice and agency. So, I think, one of the main lessons from this is to not implement these spaces as ad hoc events (tied to the 3 year cycle of a World Bank project for instances), but as part of the political and administrative structure. If this is done, they can - with time and attention- become powerful agents for change. I believe that countries around the world - both rich and poor - can learn from the Indian gram sabha experience as an important method of deepening democracy.

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