Local democracy and development action in India

Experiments with local democracy have had a progressive journey in post-colonial India. While Article 40 of the Indian Constitution provided for democratic local governance in rural areas, provision of 6th Scheduled areas in the Indian Constitution for parts of the North East provided for creating concrete local democratic and autonomous structures. Efforts to build democratic local democratic governance institutions extended to municipalities and panchayats in the 50s and 60s. The experiments have moved further in the form of 3 tier Panchayati Raj institutions, Gram Sabha, Ward Sabha, various user associations, local institutions managing Commons, PESA, FRCs, and autonomous regional councils such as for Gorkhas, Bodos, etc. Complementary to such efforts has been the proliferation of various grass root structures and processes for democratic governance and management of state, community and natural resources. These include, village health sanitation committees, school management committee, Rogi Kalyan Samiti, forest rights committees, watershed associations, self-help groups and the like. All these efforts have, among others, aimed to build a culture of democratic practice at local level.

Further, these have provided the opportunities for local development action to be embedded within democratic structures and norms, creating space for people’s voice and participation on matters that affect their lives. Expectedly, much of state and non-state development actions have nurtured such spaces and structures, thus deepening and widening its political, economic and social possibilities. On the other hand, there have been significant setbacks as well.

The rationale of this course derives from this socio-political context. Much of local development actions like MGNREGA, rural housing, community forest rights, watershed governance, school governance, etc. ride on various democratic platforms. Secondly, building capacity of local democratic institutions like Gram Panchayats, cooperatives, SHG based institutions, Forest Rights Committees, watershed associations and the like, are in themselves, central to many development actions. Third, popular resistance against top down economic growth policies of the state, also base their popular mobilisation on the available local democratic space (e.g. Plachimida Gram Panchayat against Coca Cola in Kerala, Querim Gram Panchayat against Dupont In Goa, Gram Sabha in Lanjigarh, Odisha against Vedanta, Gram Sabha in Raigad District, Maharashtra against Reliance’s SEZ, etc.) Fourth, much of the democratization of social space in terms of participation and assertion of the Adivasis, Dalits and women take place on these same democratic structures and processes. All these make it imperative that the MA Development programme recognises the critical importance of local democracy in India, and the opportunities of informed social actions to deepen it, while being aware of some of its intrinsic challenges and limitations.

Two motivations drive the design of this course. Firstly, the students of MA-Development are expected to have a grounded and nuanced understanding of the landscape of local
democratic structures in India, and how development actions are anchored within such local democratic space. At the same time the students should have the familiarity with the
systematic social processes that nurture such local democratic structures and outcomes.
This course is not intended to deal with all types of traditional and contemporary local
institutions; it specifically focuses on select structures; development practitioners typically
engage with.