• Charudutta Panigrahi

Gram Sabha & India's future

Grama Sabha is probably our last coveted democratic tool to develop and prosper legitimately

source: Rajesh Patnaik

I believe that “Na Lok Sabha, Na Rajya Sabha, Sabse Upar Gram Sabha'. It is meant to be that. The entire development process should start from the consent of the villagers in a formal congregation with decision making powers. This parliament of the village needs to maintain a quorum - at least 1/3rd shall be women and the number of SC/ST participants shall bear the same proportion to the quorum as the population of SCs/STs bears to the total population of the Village Panchayat. From 500 to 1000 population of a village panchayat the quorum ranges from 50 to 300. The provisions made for the Gram Sabha in India is effective, practical and potent. Record keeping of the Gram Sabha is mandatory which includes attendance and proceedings. Keeping audio visual record is mandatory for the conduct of GramaSabhas. There are many low income, backward areas where the gram sabhas have held sway over the decisions to allow investors in industry or mining companies and others to enter the geographies. The villagers have to decide about their own future and here comes the ‘capacity of villagers’ syndrome. In the name of building capacities many ‘outside agencies/NGOs’ try to influence the villagers negatively or with motivated interests. The compass of the villagers can be expanded legitimately and with positive reinforcement through a Master trainer/Champion program. A group of locals to take charge of preparing the rest of their co-villagers to take decisions for the good of the village.

The Grama Sabha as a forum is expected to conduct Social Audit of all schemes pre and post implementation in the villages. Truly laying development in the hands of people. The onus is on the people to maintain the dignity, power and influence of the Gram Sabha. Odisha as a leading state of India in mineral industrialisation has had a remarkably strong growth of Gram Sabhas in different districts and more in tribal areas. If power does not flow to the last mile, last house and last person, power holds no meaning. It becomes a bundle of waste not handled properly by a fistful of people with the perennial scare like that of radioactive substance, which doesn’t differentiate between people and creation. Decentralization through Gram Sabha is a strategy to empower citizens to control their own destinies and to be specific fiscal measures. This signals that citizen collectives can come together to make decisions of allocation and expenditure of public resources. ‘Democratic decentralization’, as practised in India, is where this power is devolved to elected local governments—this was the spirit of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992-93.

Recently I was invited by a civil society forum to consult on the 15th Finance Commission and devolution of power to the PRI. I was sharing my thoughts that this form of decentralization was intended to break away from the conventional planning processes that did not involve citizens. A few years ago, citizens had no role in the development channels of even their own communities. In the democratic decentralization system, gram sabhas have been envisaged and treated as key platforms for popular participation.

Let me explain to you how and what have been the impact of gram Sabhas in Odisha and flagging off at the same time the dangers of Gram Sabha as the vehicle of democracy in a jungle land.

source: Rajesh Patnaik

Indigenous people occupy 22% of India’s geographical terrain and constitute over 23% of the state’s population. Odisha is a gifted land in the world because it has a mix of all – the natives who are rich with mineral resources, the unique art and crafts of skilled people with unbelievable piety and unparallel soft skills and invaluable landmass to foster rapid industrial growth (480 kms coast, large numbers of water bodies, reasonably higher groundwater table, over 310 sunny days yearly, increasing forest cover) and trouble free labour force. The long coastline contains Asia’s second largest eco-system of mangroves and some of the world’s richest biodiversity. We are aiming at making Bhubaneswar the skill capital of India and ideally, Odia youths should be employed there. But industrialisation has to be rapid. The perennial question – can we or should we abandon the globally unique and superabundant flora and fauna and run the rat race towards destruction, pollution and contamination.

I would not have nee worried about industrialisation if we knew how to tackle development along with a clean environment, if we knew how to enforce ecological discipline among the companies playing with natural and mineral resources, if we knew how to respect the PVTGs, if we knew how to handle exploitation of land, labour and faith. Because Odisha should not, at any cost lose its pristine wealth, its blessed existence and the benediction. From Puri, the seat of Odia spirituality to Rayagada the woodland of Odia economic growth, tribality is the profound underline. It’s all about tribals, from the Lord to the Mining, but they are the most deprived, utterly neglected and severely cornered.

Odisha is the treasure house. No other state in India has comparable wealth - large reserves of bauxite (65%), chinaclay, chromite (98.3%), coal (27%), dolomite (20.7%), fireclay, graphite (76.67%), gemstones, iron ore (26%), limestone, manganese ore (31.7%), mineral sand, nickel ore (95.1%), pyrophyllite, diamond and quartz. The stack of other minerals includes copper ore, lead ore, titanium bearing vanadiferous magnetite, talc/ soapstone and high magnesia igneous rocks. Odisha possesses almost all of India’s chromite, graphite, nickel, bauxite, high quality coal iron ore, beach sand. Yet the contribution of Odisha to national GDP is unconvincingly low. Sometime ago the economy of Odishawas equivalent to Ethiopia on nominal basis and equivalent to Equador on PPP basis.

source: Biswajit Sahani

Odisha is starting to grow more dependent on the service and industry sector and less on agriculture. Per a recent study, the state faces 'acute' food insecurity due to a drastic decline in the production growth rate of major crops. The inter-district productivity gap is also widening. There are scientific predictions that Climate emergency is feared to wreak havoc in the coming years in Odisha which would further debilitate lives, families and village economies. We also believe that fast economic growth, business potential and industry-friendly policy can make Odisha a $1 trillion economy by 2030. India, we hope will become a $10 trillion economy by 2035, and Odisha’s contribution is expected to be major. After Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu Odisha could be the third State, by then to be a $1 trillion economy.

How do we help Odisha achieve this? And what is the role of the civil society?

So far the role of the civil society has been queasy and limited. We are aware that investment-friendly policies, good governance, robust infrastructure, mineral resources and agriculture resources and access to the market can make Odisha a complete development destination. But it all starts with the opening of the lock at the community. We are talking of the development of the state and do we forget that development means ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. In this discourse of development the only word scarcely used is ‘People’. Only a Gram Sabha reminds us of the rights of the people to decide about themselves. But who works towards sensitising the communities who constitute the Gram Sabha? Where are the civil society organisations, the NGOs? On one hand, we have activists promoting their ISMs in the name of being pro-poor and on the other hand, we have CSR programs of industries engaged in tokenism in the name of development. Gram Sabha is the only key to development, bottoms up.

The mineral industry, specifically, depends on the indigenous rights and the development process, the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) derived from indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and their right to property through ownership or traditional use. How do the PVTGs in Koraput know what is good for them and not good for them before they take a decision? They should be informed and not misinformed either by the industry or by the NGOs. At stake here is a reserve of 310 million tons, Panchpatmali mines, which is considered to be the world's largest single-site bauxite deposit. How many discussions have been organised with the local communities on this? How many of us know about the global ramifications of this process?

source: Rupal Satpathy

It seems that for the expansion project of NALCO, gram sabhas are being organised by the district administration in Maliput, Pottangi, Nuagaon and Kotia villages. The villagers, while putting forth their demands, favourably and unfavourably, voiced parameters to support the company to carry out mining and developmental activities. But do the villagers know what to ask for and what is their need? Is there any NGO or organisation there, to assist them assess their needs?

For the existing Panchpatmali bauxite mines, the Nalco has been awarded the highest 5-Star rating of Government of India for its sustainable mining practices and environment protection measures. Do the affected or involved villagers know what this rating means? What is their inclusion in the development process? Have they been at least taken on a trip to show around how and what the company has done to adopt reclamation and rehabilitation processes for ecological restoration of the mined-out area? Is the area being systematically backfilled with lateritic overburden to form benches, terraces and leave-depressed areas at strategic places to form reservoirs/ rainwater harvesting structures to support vegetation and wildlife? None of the villagers are aware of the process or the ensuing benefits of the processes.

Before the Gram Sabha sits, the people of the villages should know whether mine void has been reclaimed and afforested with trees of native species, having the capacity to endure water stress and climatic extremes. Nalco’s or any company’s genuine efforts for environmental protection also need to be disseminated amongst the directly affected people and not confined to the preserves of intellectual presentations in the state capital and country capital.

This because Gram Sabha is where the action lies. It is the council holding the key to the development of the country. If Odisha is the gold mine and the global repository, then Gram Sabha is the door to the treasure. More so, when we are discussing the rental economy.

Nalco, with all its seemingly precautionary measures and pre-emptive steps to conserve nature and recharge water had to face opposition at the second Gram Sabha held at the panchayat office of Pottangi for the proposed bauxite mining. The locals feel that the local economy and household well-being of over 5,000 people of four panchayats depend on Serubandha hill and on minor forest produces. The local people use the stream water of the hills for agricultural activities. They are of the opinion that when mining starts, the streams will go dry and their economy will collapse. Who is there to spend time with Serubandha Surakhya Samiti (which is spearheading the anti-mining movement) and share legitimate data, information and case studies to sensitise them? Their reaction should be genuine, and fact-based, not political. The civil society has been under-performed in deep-dive, long-standing community intensive work. Can you name NGOs that work sustained with the community, notwithstanding external funds support? Taking CSR contracts for a limited period of time is the business of development, not development.

Gram Sabha is probably our last, coveted democratic tool to decide on:

  • Odisha and India getting on to the fast lane of development

  • Odisha discarding its poverty tag and take on the high growth, ‘smart’ development brand

  • The transition of natives from a forest-based dwelling to more mainstreaming, while maintaining equity and ecology

  • The trade-off between reckless expansion (in the name of development) and real development in lives

Our last bastion of aboriginal simplicity and naivety should not be corrupted with manipulative systems which would rob them off their soil. This whole fight for international wealth making is for their soil.

Let’s all develop. Let’s all prosper. But legitimately.

Gram Sabha would script our future growth story. Nurture, empower & respect it.

Article by

Charudutta Panigrahi,

Author & Futurist

Recent Posts

See All