Limited democracy

Panchayati raj institutions have not given much justice to Dalits

Published: Wednesday 30 June 2004

Limited democracy

-- 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.
Major riftlines Illiteracy, poverty, the hostility of caste Hindus and above all non-cooperative and extremely unsympathetic government officials militate against effective Dalit participation in panchayati raj institutions. The political scientist M K Lele, in a recent comparative study between traditional village panchayats and the modern gram sabha in Maharashtra, has highlighted this. Lele observes that though the gram sabha remains theoretically open for marginalised sections of society, in reality the caste system works to alienate Dalits from the political process. Even reservation of seats has not helped to make the marginalised more vocal or assertive.

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.
Savitaben The third case is that of Savitaben, elected sarpanch of Saddha Gram panchayat in Himmatnagar taluka of Sabarkantha district, Gujarat, in 1995. Savitaben took up development activities such as constructing roads, water pipelines, tanks and community halls. She also helped handicapped people and other needy families to get access to benefits from various government schemes. All this made her popular among villagers but other panchayat members, especially those from the upper castes, accused her of misusing her powers and started to humiliate her. These panchayat members managed to oust her from office through a no-confidence vote. On contesting elections again, despite threats from panchayat members, Savitaben was re-elected by a thumping majority. But this was not the end of her ordeal. After six months panchayat members once again suspended her on the grounds of incompetence.
But why? Cases like these abound. But the question is: why have panchayati raj institutions failed in providing justice to Dalits? The answer lies in the oft-repeated aphorism: political democracy serves very little purpose without social and economic democracy.

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

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