20th Dr. M. A. Thomas Memorial Lecture

Power to the People: The Sociological Conundrum

George Mathew*

I consider it an honour and privilege to deliver the 20th Dr. M. A. Thomas Memorial Lecture this year when we are celebrating Achen’s birth centenary as well as the golden jubilee of the Ecumenical Christian Centre. During my most formative years I got the wonderful opportunity to work in this Centre. The extraordinary opportunities ECC provided to critically look at the emerging socio-political and religious situation in the country and the intellectual and practical experience I got during those years are unforgettable. I could build on those foundations, whatever humble contributions I could make, ever since I moved to Delhi in 1974. I remember participating in the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Ecumenical Christian Centre in 1988 along with Mr. Mannam Samuel, Archbishop Most Rev. Dr. Alphonsus, Mr. Pratap Reddy, Prof. K C. G. Sudarshan, and others. M.A. Thomas Achen’s statement on that occasion was: “Collapse of values and sacrifices of love had necessitated the creation of the institution [ECC]. It was the only way religion could become relevant to the society”.[i] He used to ask: Where are values today? Where are the ethics? It was  great
* Dr. George Mathew is Chairman, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. 
 working with M. A. Thomas Achen who gave inspiration to look at society in a broad perspective leading to adventurous ventures. M.A. Thomas Achen was a practical visionary who responded to emerging challenges in church and society. On this occasion I remember a very dear friend of us, Mr. Jonathan Gnanadason, who worked with us in those years.
Today, when three great events converge – the birth centenary of M. A. Thomas Achen, 20th anniversary lecture in his memory and the golden jubilee of the Ecumenical Christian Centre – I have chosen the theme: “Power to the People:  The Sociological Conundrum,” because Achen, who was my Guru in the early 70s, was always talking about power to the people and raising the question: why they are powerless today. This gave birth to the Vigil India Movement, a pioneering venture for human rights issues in the country.   
The late 1960s and the early 70s was the time when Jayaprakash Narayan began to challenge the powers-that-be and brought forward people’s power or Jan Shakti to the centrestage through Sarvodaya. JP’s concerns attracted nationwide attention and it was emerging as a national movement. When M. A. Thomas Achen came to know that Jayaprakashji was coming to Bangalore, Achen called me to his room and mentioned that it would have been great if JP could visit our Centre. I took it as a challenge and the happiest moment in my four years’ work in ECC was when I succeeded in bringing Jayaprakashji with his wife Prabhavati Devi to this campus. He inaugurated our library building.  The meeting and interactive sessions we had with Jayaprakashji raised one question: why people are powerless in spite of our democracy?  It was in July, 1972.
Then it was S. K. Dey, who was the Community Development Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, who told me all about the phenomenon of  ‘power to the people’. That was in Delhi from mid-70s onwards. The time I spent with S.K.Dey in his Lajpat Nagar flat in New Delhi was always an occasion to discuss who is responsible for the  distressing condition of the ordinary people in the villages of India. Both JP’s and S. K. Dey’s idea of  giving power to the people which is their constitutional right, converged on one instrumentality, and that was “the village Panchayats,”    because the majority of the people of this country – marginalized, oppressed and exploited − live in the villages.
When we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of ECC, it is a great occasion for us to look back and take stock of how the majority of the people experience their power today.  Is power to the people a mere slogan, rhetoric or has it really seeped into their lives through practical narrative, the development agenda?  Or after 60 years of S.K. Dey’s community development programme and 40 years of Jayaprakash Narayan’s Movement, is power to the people still a pipe dream?
During the Indian Independence movement, one of the main emphasis of the leaders was the transfer of power from the governments to the ordinary people. In the Congress sessions during 1910-1913, the calls were for increasing the powers and resources of the local bodies. A powerful plea for panchayats came from Dr. Annie Besant when she said, presiding over the 32nd session of the INC at Calcutta in 1917, “economic and moral deterioration can only be checked by the re-establishment of a healthy and interesting village life, and this depends upon the re-establishment of the panchayat as the unit of  government”.[ii]  In the same session, Surendra Nath Banerji strongly attacked the government saying that it has emasculated the institution of local self- government. From 1920 till 1947, under Gandhiji’s leadership, panchayat was at the centrestage ideologically as well as the vision and mission of the Congress party. All of us are aware of Gandhiji’s idea of Gram Swaraj, the village republic. In 1942 when the American journalist Louis Fischer interviewed Gandhiji (A Week with Gandhi), he said

 You see, the centre of power now is in New Delhi, or in Calcutta and Bombay, in the big cities. I would have distributed it [powers] in the seven hundred thousand villages of India…… … In other words, I want the seven hundred thousand dollars now invested in the Imperial Bank withdrawn and distributed among the seven hundred thousand villages. Then each village will have its one dollar which cannot be lost.[iii]

 In 1943, he said, the roots of democracy were to be found in the panchayat system and not in Great Britain.
In July 1946, to a question, “Would you kindly give a broad but a comprehensive picture of the Independent India of your own conception,” Gandhi answered:

 Indian independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat, having full powers. It allows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs, even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.[iv]

Despite the commitment of national movement for independence from the British rule and its leaders for democratic decentralization in the first half of 19th century and Gandhiji’s unequivocal commitment to the ideal of “village republics,” panchayats did not find a place in the first draft of independent India’s Constitution.  Finally, in response to the argument of all those who pleaded for the inclusion of village panchayats in the Constitution, a provision was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution which is not justiciable.
The critical issue I would like to raise here is: whenever a political party is out of power they become champions of power to the people. When they come to power, the concern is their own power and not people’s power. Perhaps in independent India’s history, there are only very few political parties which are exception to it.
But India went on to become a democracy and eventually the biggest democracy in the world. But soon, in the first few years of India becoming the Republic, our leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and S. K. Dey realised that for the ideology of   “power to the people” to become effective, we need more than  Parliament or the state assemblies. And that is possible only through the 7 lakh villages coming to the forefront.  While inaugurating the new panchayati raj in Nagaur, Rajasthan, in 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru said:

We are going to lay the foundations of democracy or panchayati raj in our country…. It is a historic event. It is fitting that the programme of panchayati raj should be inaugurated on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday…. The progress of our country is bound up with the progress in our villages…. we decided that in every village there should be a village panchayat with more powers... which will help its economic effort… . The time has come when the responsibility for planning and executing development schemes should be entrusted to the people… in our panchayats also everyone should be considered equal; there should be no distinction between man and woman, high and low.[v]

Jawaharlal Nehru passed away in 1964 and since then the whole country saw a defunct panchayat system.
In the late 1970’s and 80’s,  state governments  like West Bengal and Karnataka took important steps to devolve powers to the village panchayats, some of which became success stories. The most successful was Karnataka under the leadership of Ramakrishna Hegde and Abdul Nazir Sab and the state of Karnataka had become a role model at that time.
When we talk about sociological conundrum of “power to the people”, three issues come to the fore.
First, the gender inequality.  
The biggest challenge of independent India was women entering public life. In our first Parliament we had 23 women members (Lok Sabha). No questions were raised. We accepted it. After 37 years of India getting independence, in 1984 it was Karnataka, which came forward with 25 per cent reservation for women in the panchayats and municipalities. I remember, the big debate at that time was: whether there will be women to contest these seats at all. The general feeling was that these seats reserved for women will go vacant! But when the elections were held in 1987, on an average 3 women were contesting one seat![vi]
This revolutionary step was taken in Karnataka  because there was a political will. But just a political will is not enough. Popular awareness about the issues affecting the lives of people and the building of healthy conventions and traditions are necessary conditions. The Karnataka political action was possible because there was a congenial social ferment created by social reformers, civil society, writers, thinkers, academics,  think tanks and centres of learning and research.  What Karnataka did in empowering women through the panchayats paved the way for the rest of the country to follow its pioneering steps.  
When representation of women in Parliament and state assemblies is less than 10 per cent, local governments have gone a long way in opening a brave new world for women. Today, nearly 12 million women are getting elected to the three tiers of panchayats and municipalities. More than 36 million women are contesting the elections. Majority of the states have given 50 per cent seats to women while the Constitutional Amendment mandates that not less that one-third of the seats should be reserved for women. Local government elections are increasingly witnessing women defeating men in the elections from the unreserved seats.   Now there is a move to amend the Constitution to bring 50 per cent reservation for women in the panchayats and municipalities.
The most disturbing question is: how women are treated by our patriarchal society when they enter public life? In the recent book by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen titled An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, it is stated:

There are many manifestations of India’s patriarchal form of social and cultural relations: property inheritance is resolutely patrilineal, post-marital residence remains overwhelmingly patrilocal, women’s freedom of movement continues to be quite  restricted and violence against women (including domestic violence) is still pervasive… In fact, some of these patriarchal norms have had a tendency to spread rather than to vanish.[vii]

I would like to add here that all religions endorse this state of affairs in our society and in many cases, sanctify the above patriarchal trends.
How many women have lost their lives since 1994 when the panchayat elections began to take place after the 73rd and 74th Amendment, because they contested the elections or won the seats?
Second, the caste-ridden social structure.
The most serious sociological puzzle is how do we implement “power to the people” ideology in a highly stratified society that is ours. According to Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen,

Caste has a peculiar role in India that separates it out from the rest of the world. India seems to be quite unique in terms of the centrality of caste hierarchies and in terms of their continuing hold in modern society. And caste stratification often reinforces class inequality, giving it a resilience that is hard to conquer… it is the mutual reinforcement of severe inequalities of different kinds that creates an extremely oppressive social system where those at the bottom of these multiple layers of disadvantage live in conditions of extreme disempowerment.[viii] 

Certainly there is increased participation of the hitherto excluded sections of the population (tribals, lower castes,  etc.). However, even today the landlords and upper castes have control over social life in rural areas. Barring a few states, land reforms are only on paper. At the all-India level 41.6 per cent households are landless. If we take a typical village panchayat in North India, land lords and upper caste leaders control everything from village assembly to higher levels. Government officials are happy to work with the  landowners. In a village, on an average 15-20 per cent are the Scheduled Castes  and they don’t own land. In such situations, elected panchayats function for name sake. It is the landlords who get elected as members and presidents. When the former untouchables, (today they are commonly known as Dalits)or courageous women or people with idealism,  after getting elected to  the panchayats, question the actions of the powerful and try to bring changes, they are at the receiving end. The  Dalits have been facing the landlords’ ire, intimidation, threats and violence because of their passion to come to public life and contribute to their community and villages or towns. Very often the government prefers to sweep these tragedies under the carpet or refuse to recognize what it means for the oppressed when panchayats are at work. Sociologically it can be interpreted as conflict dimension of social change in traditional societies but the poor are paying a heavy price today. That too, after the emergence of democratic institutions at the local level (panchayats), the cruelty and intensity have intensified.
Third, the elite capture.
The government has so many programmes for the poor and maginalised. But why are they not reaching the people? Because the elites in the society take them  and control them. A study conducted in Karnataka by the Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore, about MGNREGS and housing programmes in the grama panchayats had the following findings:   In the focus group discussions nobody wanted to mention the names of elites who capture the programmes meant for the poor or protest against them. Why? “Touching the elites would be equivalent to touching ‘high-voltage wires’ …  any  complaint against the elites would have disastrous consequences” because they have money power, muscle power and political connections.[ix]   The conclusion says:

The elite need not necessarily belong to the upper castes; they can as well come from backward or even depressed castes. But one common feature is that they are wealthy, have political connections…. The checks and balances incorporated into the schemes did not come to the rescue of the poor because the officials themselves often colluded with the elite in subverting the rules.

As a result of the elite capture, the poor have become even more vulnerable.[x] This is a case study applicable all over the country; in almost all the states.
Why were the panchayats not under the legally enforceable part of the Constitution till 1993? Why was it not given the constitutional status and recognition it deserved? The answer lies in the fact that the urban as well as the rural elite and their representatives in politics from the time of the national freedom movement onwards and the bureaucracy conditioned by its class character had a disdain for devolving powers to the local level. This has ever since remained intact.
On the eve of India’s independence from the British rule, Mahatma Gandhi wrote:
When Panchayat Raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do.  The present power of the zamindars, the capitalists and the rajas can hold sway so long as the common people do not realize their own strength.  If the people non-co-operate with the evil of zamindari or capitalism, it must die of inanition”.[xi] 
Whatever genuine attempts were made for the devolution of power, these interests saw to it that the attempts did not succeed. It took more than four decades after Independence for this impasse to break. That happened because of the unrelenting, continuous upsurge of people’s struggle for meaningful democracy at the grassroots level and demand for people’s involvement in governance as well as their development.
Even after India has entered the 7th decade of Independence and nearly two decades of the new generation of panchayats, the upper castes, the zamindars, capitalists (corporate sector) and newavatars (incarnations) of rajas hold sway on Indian society and politics. In many a situation, local governments have become a victim of these forces. The greatest threat is the resistance put up by the traditional social forces and their manifestations at various levels of society and government. It is a social reality that there is resistance from dominating class to share power with the disadvantaged groups.[xii] 
The Members of Parliament (MPs) and State Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) are eager to act as micro development agents. When five crore rupees per year is allocated to a Member of Parliament in the name of local area development,  the local governments are starved of funds. The MPs and MLAs use this money to create their vote banks through patronage and clientelism. The MPs/MLAs would like to see their names on a bus stand, a culvert, a temple stone or a toilet block while the local development is the mandatory role of local governments. . In most cases, the MPs and MLAs put strong resistance against devolving powers as well as finances to the local governments. Very few elected representatives in the state assemblies or Parliament are change agents. Most of them have vote banks and keeping that intact will be possible only through maintaining status quo.
The bureaucracy is rarely happy to see panchayats emerge as institutions of self-government or the third stratum of governance. Our administrative culture is to retain the powers of the line departments and not to give power to the people. Their structure and procedures are deeply mired in the imperial model of governance and they retain their distrust of local governments. There is a strong belief that the nexus between politicians and officials at various levels needs to be eradicated; otherwise power to the people will remain a pipe dream.
The power-brokers continue to hold sway. They appear in various ways as contractors, middlemen, lobbyists, mafia and so on. They always prefer centralised corridors of power and not decentralisation. In India, in Parliament and state assemblies there are 4,962 elected members. It is much easier to deal with them and the officials in the national and state capitals than nearly 32 lakh representatives and presidents in 2.5 lakh local governments. The contractors are omnipresent. The much-acclaimed Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MNREGS) which is to be implemented by panchayats has banned contractors. But the collusion between officials and contractors has given sizeable space to the latter.
The corporate sector is also working without respect to the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people in the villages. Since profit is their main concern, corporate social responsibility takes a back seat. Whether it is about the use of natural resources – forests, water, farm land, etc. – or human resources – skilled or unskilled workers – the corporate sector seldom takes the view of the local governments. The case of Dupont in Goa and Coca Cola in Plachimada in  Kerala are cases in point. The corporate sector in cooperation with the officials and elected members of Parliament and state legislative assemblies works against giving power to the people.
Although the 73rd amendment envisages panchayats as local self-governments, in every sense of the term, in many states, the governments treat them as low-level administrative units to be kept under strict bureaucratic control. There is very little autonomy, no funds and no functionaries, in spite of the fact that all experts on the subject have stated that panchayats are the third stratum of governance. Every attempt to give power and prestige to panchayats is being thwarted by vested interests.
This is the big sociological conundrum today.
After Independence, the main concern of our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, EMS Namboodiripad and many others was bringing about social change so that every Indian can live with freedom and dignity. But when our people become active players to bring about that social change, instead of society changing, society removes them with impunity.  
When the power to the people programme began to move from a concept to reality, hundreds of men and women have lost their lives. In 1978, Karpoori Thakur was the Chief Minister of Bihar.  Panchyat elections were held in the state and more than 750 people lost their lives because of the violence during the panchayat elections.[xiii] After the 73rd Constitutional Amendment when the first election was held in the same state in 2001, 136 people were killed. In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, Keeripatti, Pappapatty, Natarmangalam, Melavalavu and the Madurai town witnessed bloodshed because of the movement for giving power to the people. In almost all the states, this has been the story. The latest was in a state which was a role model at one time - West Bengal. There 31 persons lost their lives in the panchayat elections which concluded a few days back, on 25 July. Perhaps the only exceptions are Karnataka and Kerala. The stories of the killings and dishonouring of women and SCs and STs bring to the fore the question: In spite of being the world’s largest democracy, when democracy is at work, what it means for the poor and the oppressed?
Are these hundreds of men and women, who lost their lives for bringing power to the people, martyrs? Does anyone remember them? The answer is: ‘No’.
This is the sociological conundrum the socially concerned citizens, think tanks and social institutions like the Ecumenical Christian Centre must ponder over.
The judiciary in India has been playing a critical and positive role in upholding the interests of the people through the institutions  of local governments. Since the panchayats are to protect the interests of the local people, the people at the grassroots feel frustrated by the concerted efforts of vested interests.  The judicial response has all along been in favour of local bodies and reflects a clear acknowledgement of treating local governments according to the true spirit of the Constitution. The courts have taken a very strong stand against state governments, which have made all-out attempts to withhold and postpone elections to the local governments and place them under administrators. It has played a pro-active role whenever the concerned citizens have sought its intervention in saving the institutions of local government from becoming defunct and lifeless by the callous attitude of state governments. Due to this, people have been frequently approaching the courts for justice. However, in many states justice is delayed and thus justice is denied[xiv].
For many in our country, giving power to the people is the mantra. How do we see its future?
Today people’s demand, which is slowly but steadily emerging, is based on the principle of subsidiarity. That is, what could be done at the local level must be done there. Only those matters which cannot be done at the lower level must go to the higher levels. Moreover, there is a strengthening of the relationship between the civil society and local governments, with the former increasingly coming to the fore to strengthen grassroots democracy.
Monopolisation of power and building of colonies and empire have brought about strong centralized administrative systems. In modern times,  the tendency of the governments is: they are urban-centric, pro-elite, supportive of free market economy and militarization.  Their policies are oriented towards middle class, rich and powerful, sidelining the rural people and urban underclass. Spread of democracy, pluralism and appreciation of diversity as both principles and values must become  compelling factors for national and sub-national governments to pay attention to revival and strengthening of local governments.
But our society has a long way to go. Some of the challenges of elite capture within local government system, failure of the last mile service delivery system and lack of transparency and accountability are seriously eroding the confidence of the poor or marginalized in local governments. Suffice it to say that we may have all the necessary institutions or mechanisms in place but those by themselves do not create a successful cohesive local government system. The people at the fringes, those citizens of our country who are ‘missing’ from the grand reports and analysis of the Planning Commission of India and who are treated with scant respect by those who govern this country - they are the ones who have to take up the reins and demand their share. But when and how it will  happen? How many more have to be killed or maimed or have their livelihoods destroyed, their family and loved ones wiped out before they can begin to live with dignity? The noble ideals of “institutions of self-government” as expounded in the famous 73 Constitutional Amendment cannot be translated into reality in the present iniquitous society. We cannot even begin to draw the picture of panchayati raj which can give power to the people on a canvas where the caste system is still strong, feudal values hold forth and gender inequality and inhuman poverty conditions continue to exist.
Finally, I would like to remind ourselves what Dr. Ambedkar said on 4 November, 1948 in the Constituent Assembly. Dr. Ambedkar vehemently criticized the villages then and went on to say:

… I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am, therefore, surprised that those who condemn provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a stink of localism and a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?[xv]

We were all working hard over the years to prove Dr. Ambedkar wrong. That was through political actions, administrative and policy changes coupled with creating awareness among the people for the need to take democracy down to the grassroots and creating local government system for and by the people. But have we succeeded in this mission? Or can we say that even after 65 years of Dr. Ambedkar’s statement, today it rings true? This is an important question when we have entered the 67th year of Independence of our country.
Let me conclude by quoting Rajiv Gandhi who said while introducing the 64th Constitution Amendment Bill on 15 May, 1989:
 “To the people of India, let us ensure maximum democracy and maximum devolution. Let there be an end to the power brokers. Let us give power to the people.”[xvi]
Visionaries like M.A. Thomas have shown us the way. The civil society, research and study centres, social activists, academics and intellectuals must take it forward. 

[i]    “Bid to spread cosmic unity thro’ religion”, Indian Express, Bangalore, 6 January1988, p.3.
[ii] Malaviya, H. D., Village Panchayats in India, All India Congress Committee, New Delhi,
   1956, p. 217.
[iii]  Malaviya, Op. cit.,   pp. 249.
[iv]  Malaviya, Op. cit.,   pp. 244-45.
[v]   Jawaharlal Nehru: Selected Speeches, Volume Four, 19571963, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, August 1964, pp.92-94.
[vi]  George Mathew,  “Panchayat Poll in Karnataka”, The Hindustan Times, February 9, 1987
[vii]  Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Allen Lane (Penguin Books), England, 2013, p. 226.
 [viii]  Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Op. cit., 213.
[ix]  Report of the Study on “Elite and programme Capture in Grama Panchayats of Karnataka” by Dr. Rajasekhar, M. Devendra Babu and R. Manjula, Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute of Social and Economic Chagne, Bangalore, March 2011, p. 73.
[x]  Ibid., P. 105
[xi]  Malaviya, Op. cit., pp. 252.
[xii]  "Enemies of Panchayati Raj", The Hindu, 11 January 2002; Mainstream, Vol. xxxx No. 8, 9 February 2002; "Panchayati Raj ke dushman", Dainik Jagaran, 7 February 2002.
[xiii] See, M. L. Majumdar, Emerging Grassroots Power, Institute of Social Sciences and Concept Pubishing Co., New Delhi, 2005.
[xiv]  George Mathew, “Indian Judiciary and Local Governments” in B. D. Dua, M.P. Singh, Rekha Saxena (eds.), Indian        Judiciary and Politics: The Changing Landscape, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2007,  pp.321-339.
[xv]    Malaviya, Op. cit.,p. 258.
[xvi]  Rajiv Gandhi: Selected Speeches and Writings, Volume V, January to November 1989, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, August 1991, p.178.


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