Village Forums or Development Councils: People’s participation in decision-making in rural West Bengal, India

Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Bhaskar Chakrabarti, Suman Nath


The policy shift towards decentralisation promises important social change in rural India, providing as it does a three-tier system of local self-governments, the Panchayats: at the village level, the district level, and an intermediate level between the two, called the Block Panchayat. There is evidence of far-reaching social change in rural West Bengal, a state in eastern India, after the Left Front government came into power, particularly because of revitalisation of the three-tier Panchayat system. The initial years of Left Front rule saw the village poor enthusiastically attending Panchayat meetings and taking part in decision-making at the village council, the Gram Sabha, the general body of villagers of voting age covering 10-12 villages, and the Gram Sansad, the forum of local democracy at the ward level. However, today, relatively few people in the villages are taking part in government-sponsored initiatives. Panchayat meetings are scarcely attended and almost always exclude certain classes and members of the community. In order to combat the problem, the Government of West Bengal has recently tried to further devolve the power and responsibilities of local government and has established Gram Unnayan Samiti (GUSs) or Village Development Councils, consisting of political members from both elected and the opposition parties and certain nominated members.
The GUSs are supposed to bring in more participation at the grassroots level. In this paper, we study the formal policies regarding decentralisation and people’s participation in West Bengal, and analyse the dynamics of political processes regarding decision-making at operational level after the introduction of GUS. We have analysed audio recordings of meetings of the Gram Sabhas and the dynamics of the newly formed GUSs to uncover the actual rate of people’s participation, actual meeting procedures and reasons behind people’s reluctance to participate. We argue that solutions lie in having a strong third-tier in order to address issues of lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making, and make recommendations as to how that might be achieved.

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