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>> Research / Participatory Development

Participatory Development: A case for Civil Society and Panchayati Raj Collaboration

R.C. Choudhury

International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation

2000 May 23-27, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India


The failure of top down approach to solve the problems of the rural poor has increasingly been recognized by many a government, development agencies and nongovernmental organizations over the 1ast few decades. The top down approach has also led to mounting pressures on the government. Besides, this traditional strategy has led to inequality of status and largesse deteriorating environment and ecology sub-serving mainly the better off by converting the so called ecological people into ecological refugees. This has finally forced all those interested in development to seek for alternative strategies based on the principles of equity, ecology and economy.

Participation : Concepts and Approaches

Although, peoples participation and people's institutions are the most debated topics today, discussions about participation are never easy, mainly because there are so many contradictory and ambivalent notions of the concept and the practices involved. People's participation broadly interpreted, implies the active involvement in development of the rural people, particularly disadvantaged groups that form the mass of the rural population and have previously been excluded from the development process. Thus, participation is more than an instrument of implementing government projects and is to be viewed as an important approach to development, approach which not only takes into account the needs and aspirations of disadvantaged segments of the rural population but also involves them in the designing and implementation of policies concerning their well-being.

Decentralisation: An Historical Perspective in India

In India, the development process with the people's participation was initiated on a large scale through National Community Development Programme during the First

Five Year Plan which visualized the development of rural society and areas through 'aided self help'. Based on this philosophy, initiatives were taken during the first five

year plan itself resulting into policies like-

  • Reorganization of land relations in rural areas and linking the society with the development administration; i.e., Community Development Programme;

  • Creation of Institutional channels for delivery of key inputs of growth to all in a judicious and socially desirable manner like credit, seeds, fertilizers, etc. and providing post production services like marketing etc., through co-operatives; and

  • Involving the masses actively in decision-making at all levels of rural life. This active involvement or what is now known as people's participation, was to be ensured with the introduction of Panchayat Raj System in 1959 through the gradual political decentralization of decision making process.

During the second decade of Indian Planning the Community Development Approach gave way to a pure technological approach for agriculture development and shifted the focus from Community Based all round development to technology based agriculture development. The strategy brought about a sea change in the approach and perception of decentralized institutions. The CD blocks became more and more uni-functional and the cooperatives became the administrative channels to serve a few rather than more instruments of people's participation. This led to increased inter-personal inequalities in rural areas leading to agrarian unrest in some parts of the country; and increased inter-regional disparities favouring the geographically privileged areas and States in the country.

Viewing these distortions, the Rural Credit Review Committee (1969) recommended the setting up of special development agencies to help the 'Target Groups' and 'Target Areas'. As a result, multiple development agencies were created with headquarters and decision making powers at the district and even at the lower levels. Thus, after the initiation of political decentralization process in 1950s, administrative decentralization was pursued since the beginning of 1970s. The results of administrative decentralization were equally questionable as instances of inactivity and corruption have increased.

The failure of Government machinery to decentralize and deliver the goods to the poor was finally admitted in the Seventh Five Year Plan and a multi-pronged strategy was sought to give equal opportunity to the third block of decentralized structures i.e., Voluntary Associations like NGOs and other local people based organizations. At the same time, it was also decided to decentralize the constitutional powers to the grassroot levels. Hence, a Panchayati Raj Bill was introduced in 1989 which finally got through in 1992.

With the process of decentralization (73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts) the recognition and role envisaged for the decentralized and 'civil' organizations (NGOs CBOs and other people based organizations emerging at the grassroot levels which are largely covered under the notion of Voluntary Associations) increased at the Governmental and social levels. More specifically, the concept of 'participatory development', however, has gained momentum from the commencement of the Eighth Plan, which made a strong plea for greater role for voluntary sector through strategies of decentralization and people's participation. The present arrangements for decentralisation and people's participation may broadly be classified into following groups:

a) Constitutional provisions for decentralisation culminating in establishing and strengthening institutional structures for self-governance Panchayati Raj Institutions.

b) Government sponsored initiatives to promote people's organisation and institutions for people's participation-community based organisations and user groups / beneficiary groups.

c) Independent but parallel development of non-governmental initiatives of people's participation - NOOs, CBOs, advocacy groups.

The constitutional provision for decentralisation envisages participation of people in governance through electoral process at the grassroot level. Specific reservation for disadvantage groups like women and SC/ST have been made to ensure their representation. Though, political and other forces of vested interests have found ways to nominate their henchmen into these slots. This is a good beginning. Larger participation of people - to ensure a say in the affairs of local governance, role of Gram Sabha has been emphasized. However, Gram Sabba's involvement is more in breach than in practice for various but obvious reasons, though there are some shining examples of active involvement of Gram Sabha. One of the basis assumptions here is that Panchayats are representative bodies of people who indirectly participate in governance process by electing their representative. However, as experience shows, popular participation is missing. Members and Presidents of these institution of self-governance still operate on self-centred goals.

Simultaneously, the government sponsored initiatives for people's participation have come into several programmes. Some prominent examples are:

  • Water Users Association in Irrigation projects

  • Watershed Association in Watershed Management

  • Village Education Committees in Primary Education.

  • Self-Help Groups in Women Development and Micro Credit project etc.,

While these are welcome developments and some significant outcomes have also been achieved these community based organisations have been working in isolation of formal decentralised structures of governance.

On the other hand, NGOs strongly believe in the system of people centred community based organisations of specific groups like it user/beneficiary affected persons. Of late NGOs have been participating in many governmental programmes and schemes though by and large they prefer to have their own arrangements of institution building. Mostly they implement donor funded projects which specify a distinct line of approach. Invariably such an approach bypasses the formal structures of local self-governance.

The donor funded projects, in general suggest a new structure of involving civil society to leave behind a brand name or mark of donors. One of the reasons cited by them is that formal structures including PRIs are coteries of vested interest designated by wealthy and powerful and partisan as a ground for bypassing the structure. This may be a turning blind eye to ground realities. Apart from addressing post-donor sustainability, the basic challenge is to make the formal structures work and become responsible and accountable to the various sections of society. Instead of wishing them away, effective means of forging alliance among all stakeholders is the challenge that has to be met.

Notwithstanding several shortcomings and limitations in different models, the experiences across the world show the emergence of self-instituted civil society as an independent social partner, has thoroughly modified governance system. There may be fears in certain quarters that civil society has the potential to become a third system of power, side by side with political and economic power and therefore, resistance or non-receptiveness for the entry of role for civil society. There are instances to show that citizen movement and organizations, distinct from political parties and trade union but as interest groups of stakeholders (pressure groups), have made some dent even in the political scene also, apart from influencing the development process and its speed. In the recent years, the importance of civil society and the space available for them in the development process has been appreciated in some measure across the country. The experiences of people's campaign in Kerala, Janmabhoomi in Andhra Pradesh, Apna Gaon Apna Kam in Rajasthan, Gokul Gram in Gujarat, Namakku Naame (we for ourselves) in Tamil Nadu etc., or the NGO initiated experiments like Tilonia in Rajasthan, Ralegaon Siddhi (Maharastra), Sukhomajri (Haryana), Pam Panchayat, etc., are indication of eagerness of governments to promote people's participation to manage their own affairs.

Participation of poor in grassroots organization has been a key factor in the success of programmes to relieve poverty. Where there are village councils, women's groups, small holders associations or cooperatives, such groups have been used as entry points for participation in the projects. For instance, key element of the Small Farmers Development Project in Nepal has been the organization of the poor into small, homogeneous groups mainly around production activities. The development, through these groups, on a spirit of self-reliance and community cohesion has given power to communities who previously had little to bargain with their own labour (Jazairy et at., 1992).

The example of success stories in the areas of watershed development, (Ralegaon Siddhi, Sadguru Foundation, Agha Khan Rural Support Programmes Sukhomajan) forest management, community resources conservation (Chipko Movement), self help groups (SEWA), etc., are enough to highlight the important role that the VAs have been playing over the last few years in shaping the destiny of the people. Taking an overall view following developments seem to be emerging in the rural scenario mostly because of VAs involvement in the process of development and change -

a) Small group level functioning by democratizing the decision making process and giving equal opportunity to all those involved;

b) Increasing awareness among the rural society;

c) Decentralization and democratization of planning and implementation process;

d) Greater involvement of local communities in development process with their indigenous knowledge. This has resulted in many instances in getting local solution to local problems; and

e) Increasing community control over natural as well as financial resources bringing about equity in the development process and sharing of the gains.

Similarly, many positive interventions have been made by the PRIs and government programmes by ringing about almost a sea change in the rural life. To cite one recent example, Kuthambakkam village near Chennai where the Gram Panchayat has been able to provide safe drinking water to all hamlets, institutionalize the child care and maternity services, formalize a data base structure for village, etc. What has been the most significant achievement of the village is construction of black top road covering the entire village and linking it to the main road totally by women's efforts. And these developments took place by people's efforts only, without any active involvement of Government or any VA. Such examples, however, are few and far between where Panchayats have worked much better and in more cost effective manner than the Government as such.

The Self-help groups DWCRA groups etc., primarily comprising of women have done extremely well to meet their needs and also to articulate their demand. Experiences in Andhra Pradesh have shown an exemplary success. Though these groups have been formed and functioned independent of PRIs, government mediation through DRDAs and Zilla Parishads, infrastructure and basic amenities - for these CBOs to survive and get strengthened. Thus, formal institutions have a role even for informal institutions to function effectively. The IFAD assisted women development project in Tamil Nadu is another example where government agencies working with NGOs have produced very impressive and positive outcomes economically socially, and politically. Watershed associations have shown some enamouring results in the planning and management of watersheds.

In a study conducted in 13 watershed projects in four South Indian states, it was observed that the roles of local farmers institution, indigenous ideas and technology and contribution from farmers are very vital in the success of the projects. Local institutions are essential to enforce commonly agreed rules and regulations relating to soil and water conservation as well as to resolve conflicts within the community. Local institutions are also essential to take over management responsibilities, once the external project support is withdrawn.

However, these watershed associations and committees have become a source of conflict and tension in rural areas. Constitutionally, agriculture and natural resources development come under the purview of panchayats, but in the scheme of things under watershed development, panchayats have no role. Similar paradox exists under Joint Forest Management Concept also.

There is a general tendency by development agencies to either bypass or undermine the importance of panchayat particularly in the process of formation and functioning of user groups. This is despite the fact that pancyhayats are statutory bodies, whereas the CBOs are informal bodies, only recognised by/registered with the concerned departments. They operate only under the administrative orders and have no legal standing. Absence of legal standing of user groups has led to legal disputes questioning their rights over the resources they manage. Thus, there are cases where the president of forest protection group was arrested on the charge of detention of cattle which entered their protected forest (Patnaik and Brahmachari, 1996). Sometimes the panchayat and the user groups appear to be competing form of organisations. For example, JFM initiatives in many states have attracted funds from international donor agencies. As a result, forest protection groups have been handling quite a substantial amount of finds. Sometimes, the leaders of these become more powerful than the existing sarpanch since more money is poured into the individual management committee of these groups as compared to the panchayat This leads to confrontation between the chairperson of the forest protection committee and the sarpanch.

Similarly, in forestry sector also the credibility of leadership rendered by PRIs in the state was recognised and a collaborative initiative was taken up. Initially the forest protection efforts by self-initiated groups were supported and recognised by the forest department. Later on, it was realised that these efforts were not sustainable (Raju, 1993). Hence, a dynamic relationship between the panchayat and the Forest Protection Committee has been contemplated to be build-up to mobilise wider public support at the grass root level (Patnaik and Brahmachari, 1996 and GOWB, 1994). The experiences from JFM in some states have demonstrated that the forest protection groups can be strengthened in-two ways. One way is to give a federated structure to these groups, as in West Bengal and Orissa. The other way is to explore the role to be played by panchayat in facilitating the management activities of these groups under its jurisdiction. It is viewed that in the present context the best option for the panchayat is to act as a coordinator or as a nodal agency for the implementation of government programmes. It does not need to have implementation done by its own members. It can delegate the work to an already existing institution in the village or it can create a body according to the need. It can facilitate the process of resolving (inter village disputes and assist the groups in dealing with government departments. While the Gram Panchayat can act as the basic unit of coordination, the Gram Sabba is necessary as an internal mechanism for overseeing the functioning of the Gram Panchayat.

It is in this context that serious efforts will have to be made to strengthen the role of gram sabha. It is no secret that at present the gram sabhas are not functioning effectively due to various reasons which need not be elaborated here. This has resulted in large sections of the rural population being kept out of the decision making process. This has also resulted in lack of transparency and accountability of the panchayats, Users' Associations, NGOs, etc., to the people of the local areas. This has adversely affected the interest of the villagers, particularly the weaker sections of the society. A number of suggestions have been made to improve the functioning of gram sabha. One such suggestion is the organizing meetings at habitation/hamlet levels, organising meetings of different interest groups, specially the weaker sections, such as SC/ST women, small and marginal farmers, etc. Such meetings will facilitate wider participation of masses in the decision making process. The recommendations of all such smaller meetings can then be discussed in the full gram sabha meeting to take a final decision. Along with other measures like capacity building, such a measure will go a long way in strengthening the process of decentralised democracy and grassroots level planning.

There is a growing feeling in the recent years to find ways for a collaborative mechanism of functioning between panchayats and user groups. For example, in the case of irrigation management, despite a strong feeling that at all levels water management should be by representatives of user groups, a recent workshop on managing farmers suggested that the water users' association might be recognised as one of the standing committees of the gram panchayat so that it enjoys official standing with considerable autonomy. The recurring income from managing local resources can be shared between the water users' association and panchayats (Report of the Workshop on Farmer Management, 1997).

Experiences show that leadership qualities of the managers are crucial for the sustainability of the initiatives of user groups. But unfortunately such qualities are not easily available in the user groups. In order to overcome this problem, the Government of West Bengal took advantage of the panchayat system for operation and maintenance activities under irrigation and forest management programmes.

Importance of civil society in Development process

Till now, the presence and role of civil society has not been sufficiently acknowledged and certainly not adequately institutionalized, However, in the recent years, the importance of civil society and the space available for them in the development process has been appreciated in some measure across the country. Some examples are people's campaign in Kerala, Janmabhoomi in Andhra Pradesh, Apna Gaon Apna Kam in Rajasthan, Gokul Gram in Gujarat, Namakku Naame (we for ourselves), in Tamil Nadu, etc. However, several ambiguities persist. For instance

  • Who empowers them: Is it a self instituted process or a partial devolution of power on the part of government?

  • In which spaces of development the citizen's movement and organisations have their niche - local or in all spaces?

Citizen Movements, which can take the form of community based organisations (CBO) like interest group, user group, beneficiary group etc., should be given a permanent opportunity to participate in the governance at local level along side political parties, trade unions and other formal structures. Such a participation would enable multi-stakeholder dialogue and negotiations around developmental strategies and concerned ways of implementing them. Such negotiations can be translated into agreements on certain assigned roles and responsibilities. An opportunity like this will bring about greater awareness of people's problems and aspirations and a more detailed knowledge of diverse local settings and of latent underutilized or misused resources and manpower as well as imagination in proposing and designing innovative partnership with other stakeholders.

These changes, however, are not easy to bring about. Firstly, this would call for change in the mindset of both political and bureaucratic leadership. Secondly, to ensure 'appropriate' representation for each subject / areas, both in terms of competence and legitimacy, needless to say that considerable institutional flexibility and open minded experimentation are needed in this regard. The smooth working of such collaboration between formal and informal structures would require identifying areas of consensus between stakeholders and more importantly, reaching compromises between their often-conflicting interests. Continuous negotiations between stakeholders is thus central to the very existence of such a collaboration.

At the heart of the idea of "good governance" is some extent of 'rolling back of the state' and providing more space for civil society. To put it simply 'participatory Development'. However, this does not mean that NGOs, VOs, CBOs have capacities to substitute the stat. On the other hand, both formal structures of governance and informal and self-instituted civil societies have their own strengths and weakness. Appropriate blending, drawing on each others' strength through a working relationship, if not an organic linkage, is likely to synergise the development process - what is needed is partnership in development.

Such a partnership would necessarily need to determine the kind of relationship between the citizen and the state. This has to be accomplished through democratic political process of negotiation without undermining the legitimacy and importance of formal democratic institutions. It is, therefore, important that while working out partnerships the role of state (formal institutions) and the nature and extent of participation of civil society must be cohesively integrated. Participation is desirable because it enlarges human talents and potential which is the goal of development. In more practical sense, participation improves project effectiveness and sustainability because it gives people a stake in the development initiatives making them willing to support development efforts thereby ensuring judicial use of resources. Participation ensures that development happens and finds multiple ways of initiatives, which are efficient and cost effective. People's involvement should be ensured at all stages of development - planning, implementation and management. While it is necessary to institutionalize the process of participation, it is equally necessary to safeguard these institutions from being politicalised lest they become a tool in the hands of vested interests. At the same time, it is also recognized that civil society should function within the preserve and regulation of public authority. In our scheme of things, civil society is seen as an area where marginalised assert their essential human and democratic rights enabling popular participation for an egalitarian society. It is a means of empowering the common man.

It is in this context, we argue the case for promoting a variety of social movements and institutions like ecological movements, women's movements, users association and other forms of community based organisations interest groups, which can seek to restore the principles of good life in the conduct of human affairs. Though these organisations stand outside the state, they can be profitably integrated to supplement and complement the efforts of state and formal institution of the state.

It is well recognised and commonly accepted that the bureaucratic and administrative machinery is over-stretched and thus become unresponsive to people's needs and aspirations. State has become routine and mechanical operator and lost its ability as an agent of transformation. It is in this context that we see the scope and space for civil society in the developmental process. We have to open up possibilities that augment public participation and motivate people in self-management.

It is also to be appreciated that the formal structures of decentralisations, viz., PRIs will have to be kept central to the entire process wherein civil society work in collaboration and under the umbrella of PRIs. The provision that panchayats should implement projects should be defined in a wider context that PRIs should involve civil society in the implementation and confine itself to the role of a facilitator. The activities and performance of all CBOs as well as panchayats should be presented before and scrutinized by the Gram Sabha. This is important because, while the measures seeking to involve local structures and organisations and the people in development processes are welcome, there is a need to appreciate the ground realities that would influence and affect the viability of such initiative in the absence of a formal sustainable structure.

Emerging Issues and Suggestions

In the emerging scenario, therefore, it is obvious that the Governments at the Centre and in the States , PRIs and Civil Society have crucial role to play in their respective areas and can effectively work together in the common good of the citizen. The basic issues to be addressed in this context are:

1) The respective roles of the PRIs and the CBOs: While the PRIs should act as the planners, coordinators and facilitators for all development programmes in their areas, the actual implementation of the projects should be carried out through the community organisations. The formation of various user groups such as Watershed Association, Water Users Association, Education Committees etc., is a good augury and must be encouraged.. However, these organisations should not have been in isolated fashion and independent of the PRIs. These organisations should be responsible to the gram sabha for their functioning through the gram panchayats. The gram panchayats should play a coordinating and facilitating role in overseeing the functioning of these user groups through respective standing committees. This way, the peculiar situation which is prevalent at present can be overcome and full empowerment of the panchayats as well as the user groups can be ensured. The PRIs and the various user groups needs to be sensitised to their respective roles through effective capacity building measures.

2) The Governments at the Centre and in the States must not do anything which would jeoparadise the respective role and functions of the PRIs and the CROs as mentioned above.

The PRIs being duly effective constitutional bodies must be accepted as the nodal agency at the grassroots level to plan and implement all developmental programmes within their jurisdiction. The government departments and the donor agencies must not be allowed to bye-pass the panchayats and go directly to the CBOs. They should always go through the Pills in forming the CBOs and implementing the schemes through them. This will give rise to a smooth working relationship among the various agencies-involved in the development process.

3) Similarly, the role of voluntary agencies vis-a-vis the Pills must be well understood and appreciated. They should consider each other as partners rather than contenders for the process of decentralisation and development. (George Mathew 1999). The voluntary agencies should supplement and complement the efforts of the PRIs in building efficient civil society in planning and implementation for the development of rural society in all aspects. The voluntary agencies must take the PRIs into confidence in performing all their functions. The voluntary agencies should not do anything without the knowledge and involvement of the PRIs.

4) The PRIs should be empowered and enabled to prepare and implement both annual and perspective development plans for their respective areas. Capacity building of the PRIs for this purpose is a pre-requisite. Transparency and accountability particularly in the management of finances can be ensured through strengthening the position of gram sabha. For this purpose, gram sabhas must be given statutory powers and ways and means must be found to make these bodies fully participating in nature, so that no section of the rural society is left out of decision making process.

* Director General, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad.

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