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Panchayati raj institutions are considered to be an important organ of participatory democracy. The basic idea behind establishing these grassroots-level bodies was to decentralise power and resources from the national and state capital to villages, to ensure people could administer their socio-economic and political life as per local needs. But weaker sections of society -- particularly Dalits -- have not been able to participate in panchayats mainly due to contradictions inherent in Indian society.
Direct intimidation and other kinds of pressure tactics are always used by the dominant caste hindus to deny any meaningful participation of Dalits in panchayats. Let us see some recent examples. Last year, a Dalit panchayat president in Pappati village, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, had to resign shortly after being sworn in because of immense upper caste hostility. In an even worse case, the husband of an honest and bold panchayat president -- of village Kamrej in Bhavnagar District in Gujarat, the first Dalit woman to hold such a post -- committed suicide because he could not persuade his wife to resign from her post. The Dalit woman panchayat president had refused to follow dictates of caste Hindus of the village. Consequently, she was not allowed to enter the panchayat office and her family was subjected to constant harassment.
Let us look at some figures to illustrate what we mean. In 1961, 72.24 per cent of scheduled castes depended on agriculture -- 37.76 per cent were cultivators, while 34.48 were agricultural labourers. Their dependence on agriculture further went up to 74.5 per cent by 1991 (the data on scheduled castes from the 2001 census is not yet available). At the same time, the percentage of scheduled caste cultivators decreased to 25.44, while those of agricultural labourers rose to 49.06. Moreover, the percentage of scheduled castes in household industries also decreased from 6.56 per cent in 1961 to 2.41per cent in 1991.
Clearly, Dalits are not doing well economically. Their enfranchisement has not been accompanied by any economic gains for them. Consequently, participatory democracy has not served its purpose.
Umakant is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org