One of the most remarkable innovations in democracy comes from India, where the Constitution requires every village (but not urban areas) to have both elected councils and empowered open meetings called “gram sabhas” (GS’s). Vijayendra Rao of the World Bank and Paromita Sanyal of Wesleyan write, “The GS has become, arguably, the largest deliberative institution in human history, at the heart of two million little village democracies which affect the lives 700 million rural Indians.” PDF
Apart from the scale of this experiment, its most remarkable features are (1) the right to active participation that is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, and (2) the steps required to promote equality of gender and caste.
As the government itself explains, Article 40 of the original Indian Constitution required “that the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats [councils] and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” But there were problems with the representativeness, fairness, and power of the panchayat system. As a result, in 1992, the Indian “Constitution was amended to … provide for, among other things:
- direct elections to all seats in Panchayats at the village and intermediate level, if any, and to the offices of Chairpersons of Panchayats at such levels;
- reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population for membership of Panchayats and office of Chairpersons in Panchayats at each level;
- reservation of not less than one-third of the seats for women;
- devolution by the State Legislature of powers and responsibilities upon the Panchayats with respect to the preparation of plans for economic developments and social justice and for the implementation of development schemes;
- [funding for the Panchayats from] grants-in-aid [and from] designated taxes, duties, tolls and fees;
- barring interference by courts in electoral matters relating to Panchayats.
There must be a gram sabha in each village at least once per year, although I think that is a statutory provision and not contained in the Constitution itself. “A Gram Sabha may exercise such powers and perform such functions at the village level as the Legislature of a State may, by law, provide.” Apparently, some make substantial decisions about spending and planning.
The most remarkable impact of this reform has been to strengthen the confidence, standing, and voice of the poor, of women, and of low-caste individuals. Rao and Sanyal conclude that the “GS facilitate the acquisition of crucial cultural capabilities such as discursive skills and civic agency by poor and disadvantaged groups. … The poor and socially marginalized deploy these discursive skills in a resource-scarce and socially stratified environment in making material and non-material demands in their search for dignity.”