MADURAI, October 3, 2011
Grassroot democracy still eludes Dalits
The village square built using granite stone at caste Hindu dominated
C.Nattapatti in A. Pudupatti Panchayat near Usilampatti.
The Hindu The village square built using granite stone at caste Hindu
dominated C.Nattapatti in A. Pudupatti Panchayat near Usilampatti.
Women, Dalit representatives face hardship in villages dominated by
local political and social elite
The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution instituted a policy of
political reservation in local government for historically
disadvantaged social groups, including Dalits and women. The move was
hailed as a breakthrough in bringing about a vibrant system of
participatory democracy at the grassroots and a paradigm shift in the
process of development.
Almost three decades into the enactment of the amendment and elections
around the corner, an analytical perspective on the functioning of
grassroots democracy in and around Madurai reveals effects of such
democratic governance have failed in most cases to serve the purpose.
The governance environment here could be termed as a space where
elements of inequality, local power relations and factors like gender,
caste and patriarchy come together. Indeed, it is the sum of these
factors that tell the stories of both women and Dalit representatives
who have faced difficulties in villages dominated by the local
political and social elite.
Pranab Bardhan, political economist based in California, says, "While
democracy tends to empower local people, and thus increases the
accountability of the local government, the decentralised nature of
grassroots democracy may make it easier for local elites to capture
the local politics. Democracy does not necessarily lead to a fairer
provision of public goods."
As a case study, C. Ayyankoilpatti, in A. Pudupatti panchayat of
Chellampatti panchayat union, is a village with a predominant Dalit
population most of whom are highly literate and in better government
Despite such upward mobility in terms of education, they felt that
they were being discriminated against just because they happened to be
Dalits. Demanding basic amenities, the Dalits in the village observed
a fast on September 25 and 26 and also threatened to boycott the
Madurai Veeran (38) said that all welfare schemes meant for Dalits
were usurped by the dominant caste, so they had to protest and go on
fast. After the intervention of Revenue officials and promises to look
into the issue immediately, they decided to give up their protest.
R. Pandian said that their demands include retrieval of 45 cents of
land meant for a drama stage and restoration of the Kaliamman Temple,
balwadi and a community hall. However, within the same panchayat,
discrimination is tangible. The caste Hindu dominated C. Nattapatti
has all the facilities — a village square a drama stage with granite
floor built at a cost of Rs.2.25 lakh. A fact-finding report by the
Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Presidents of Panchayat Government,
Dalit Panchayat Presidents Federation of Tamil Nadu and Panchayat
Presidents Coordinated Federation- Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, found
that the meaning of grassroot democracy and local governance was still
elusive for the elected Dalit representatives.
Allegations include compulsion to sign blank cheques without giving
details of their utilisation; non-cooperation of dominant caste
members in panchayat councils; prevention of Dalit presidents from
passing resolutions and denial of access to panchayat records, account
books and registers. Panchayats like Keeripatti, Pappapatti and
Nachikulam in Madurai, which have Dalit representatives, had faced
discrimination many times.
A large number of elected Dalit and woman panchayat presidents
suffered humiliation at the hands of the vice-presidents and
co-members and even government officials. In many cases, it was found
that the Dalit presidents had to take orders from caste-Hindu leaders
and that a substantial number of woman presidents were acting de-facto
for their husbands or other men of their families.
For rural women and Dalits, most of whom were elected to these posts
for the first time, it was an uphill task. Fear of facing hostile
people prevented them from even convening the mandatory gram sabha
R. Thilagam, State Coordinator, Dalit Women's Right to Political
Participation in Rural Panchayat Raj Programme, Madurai, said that
decentralisation of political governance was indeed a boon for the
marginalised, especially Dalits and women. It ensured the
participation of people who were hitherto not part of the political
process. However, if there was no reservation system in place they
would not have had the space as local governance largely dealt with
gender, caste and patriarchy.
The programme did empirical research and found that not many women who
were holding posts were aware of their rights. Statistics revealed
that women were mostly victims of gender and patriarchy and their
democratically elected posts were being usurped.
There can be no second thoughts on the fact that the 73rd Amendment
had provided the much needed space for women and Dalit women in
particular to come out of their domestic confines and be part of the
public sphere and these changes were possible because of this local
Ms. Thilagam was of the view that the problems lie in the
non-implementation of programmes and lack of proper monitoring system.
Moreover, there was lack of will on the part of the bureaucracy to
support the panchayats. She also opined that the reserved panchayats,
for both women and Dalits, be allotted more funds for deep
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