It was the Grama Sabha of a village located in the North-western part of Karnataka. I was present at the Gram Sabha along with the staff of BAIF, to present the list of beneficiaries in the BAIF-MGNREG scheme for the year 2011-12. The Gram Sabha is the local governing body where discussions are held on all aspects of the developmental schemes in the village with the elected representatives and panchayat officials in the presence of the villagers. The decisions arrived at the Grama Sabha are binding on the local government bodies. However, Grama Sabhas in these parts are notorious for either poor attendance levels or fractious faction fights!
Moving on with the story of this Grama Sabha, the venue was the local temple premises and the scheduled time for the meeting to commence was 11-00 AM. There was a sprinkling of people already assembled at the venue. A noisy drunkard attracted the attention of almost everyone; I was surprised that someone could get drunk so early in the day. I could not help but to nurse sympathy for a kindred soul. But then, the issue of alcoholism is a very sensitive and troubling issue especially in rural areas and almost everyone tends to paint the whole issue with a broad brush with utmost contempt for such people. The Grama Sabha was delayed for more than an hour on account of one Panchayat official. While all were seated and waiting patiently, our man the drunk promptly picked up a fight with one of the locals. By this time, most of the people in the Sabha had decided to ignore the drunk in their own self interest, given the man’s propensity to throw the choicest abuses at people.
The Sabha got underway with the elected members and the panchayat official leading the discussions on Indira Awas Yojana scheme and their potential beneficiaries. The drunk promptly interrupted the proceedings with an emotional outburst about democratic systems and the importance of the Grama Sabha, all this interspersed with abuses. He was shouted down by the rest of the crowd. He left the meeting in a huff to the collective relief of all. The discussion moved on to the topic of NREGA beneficiaries (work in private lands), and then the drunk made a dramatic entrance. Rumor had it that he had only gone out to fortify himself with more spirit and this time around he was not to be shouted down, he forcefully made his point about the primacy of citizen’s right to be heard in the Grama Sabha and some wild allegations of corruption in last year’s NREGA works. He simply had to be heard in order for the Sabha to move on, so with a weary approval from the crowd he was heard. He alleged leakages in the distribution of coconut saplings for beneficiaries who had set up a horticultural plantation. The main thrust of his argument was that the beneficiaries did not receive any amount for the labour for planting the saplings. This issue was immediately picked up by a couple of farmers who were the beneficiaries, and they demanded to see the relevant files for the exact number of saplings which were accounted for.
This sudden turn of events had the panchayat official (in particular) squirming; gone was the earlier confidence and authority. But it seemed that the files had managed a vanishing act from the office and were actually in the possession of a NREGA mate. This issue was again hotly debated as to why the files were not in the office. The official made a hasty exit to get the files, and returned with a sheepish grin on his face which said it all to the now animated crowd. The mistake was admitted and promises were made to ensure that the deficit was made good. Later on, I found out that – not only the veracity of the claims of the drunkard was confirmed, but also money reached the beneficiaries.
Personally, it was an experience that showed the danger of jumping to hasty conclusions with pre-conceived notions. But more importantly, it was really heartening to see the effective functioning of a legally mandated people’s body and the corrective mechanism of the Gram Sabha in overseeing the functioning of the local self-government.
– SBI Youth for India fellow Satyanand Mukund