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.)