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Citizens, Panchayats & the State: Rural Local Governance at the Crossroads

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner
June 6, 2016

Almost a quarter century has passed since India embarked on the world’s largest experiment in decentralization. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution established more than 200,000 rural local councils (Gram Panchayats), devolved responsibility for an array of services, and reserved seats for women and Scheduled Castes and Tribes – historically disadvantaged communities. Many, though, see the panchayats as paper tigers plagued by democratic and bureaucratic deficits, and thus expect citizens to eschew these local bodies. Research in Rajasthan from the late 1990s, for example, found that an average of just 10 percent of residents would contact their panchayats for assistance across a range of social issues. Instead, citizens sought more informal pathways to the state, relying heavily on brokers.

My research, however, suggests new patterns. A survey of over 2,000 individuals from across Rajasthan reveals striking levels of citizen action in and around the panchayats, which stand head and shoulders above any other claim-making channel. A significantly large majority (62 percent) reports contacting these local bodies when seeking services from the state, compared to less than one quarter who turn to political parties or local associations, and just 17 percent who approach brokers. The panchayats, in other words, are emerging as a central site of local citizen-state engagement. This is true, moreover, for the most marginalized: women, the lower castes, and the poor. This marks a ground shift in local governance, particularly in a state with legacies of feudal “princely” rule, under which, as Rajasthan scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have noted, people were “politically irrelevant and thought that they should be.”

How can we account for this explosion of local citizen action? These patterns are the product of an increasingly broad but also uneven local institutional presence of the state, assessed in terms of its reach, visibility, and accessibility. Since the 1990s, the Indian state has moved closer to the village. But – in an environment marked by discretionary rather than rule-bound local administration – the state’s presence is variable: it is simultaneously visible and elusive, critical and capricious, in citizens’ lives. It is this combination of breadth and unevenness that sets the stage for claim-making. The greater visibility of the state increases citizens’ expectations, while its unequal performance generates a sense of grievance (and entitlement) where it does not deliver.

Three sets of dynamics drive the state’s uneven local penetration. First, India’s welfare sector is expanding (albeit in relative terms), driven in part by social rights legislation and made visible through rising expenditures and a proliferation of programming. Per capita social spending has increased by more than 50 percent since the 1990s, and central government spending on core welfare programs is now equivalent to Rs. 9065 (or 40 percent of the poverty line) per rural household. As anthropologist Akhil Gupta has observed, “One could hardly accuse the state of inaction toward the poor: it would be difficult to imagine a more extensive set of development interventions in the fields of nutrition, health, education, housing, employment, sanitation, and so forth than those found in India.” There are, in other words, resources to be had, and citizens are increasingly aware of this fact. They are, moreover, resources that matter; accessing the state is an issue, if not of life or death, of whether and what one will eat, where one will work, and whether one has access to basic protection and care. Many, however, remain frustrated in their efforts to secure even basic goods and services. And yet this very gap – visible in the failure of the state to deliver in a uniform fashionfurther necessitates and motivates citizen action.

Second, the panchayats are becoming more deeply institutionalized over time. While their fiscal autonomy remains limited, greater resources are flowing to and through the panchayats. This is particularly true since the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – the central government’s flagship work program established in 2005. Panchayat members play important roles – both formal and informal – in the administration of this program, which exceeds $6 billion in funding and covers one-third of rural households. Panchayat elections are also becoming more competitive; in 2010, an average of 6.6 candidates contested each council president seat in Rajasthan. Quotas for women and the lower castes and tribes, moreover, have changed the face of the panchayat, decreasing the social distance between local elected officials and their constituents.

Third, the local governance environment is diversifying. The expanding welfare sector means, in crude terms, that there is a bigger pie to divide. As a result, more and new actors – both formal and informal – have emerged, attempting to link citizens and the state. My survey data highlight this complexity: a majority pursues more than one claim-making channel and citizens often mix and match direct and mediated approaches. Of those who directly contact the panchayat, for example, two-thirds also engage mediating institutions (such as neighborhood associations, NGOs, or brokers). The panchayat, for its part, plays a gatekeeper role; for example, 90 percent of those who contact political parties do so in conjunction with the panchayat. The panchayat, in sum, is a critical lynchpin in an increasingly complex local environment.

The cumulative result of these changes is an increased frequency and intensity of local citizen-state engagement centered around the panchayat. Rural citizens today encounter the state at their doorsteps, visible not only in a growing array of public programs but also in the form of regular local elections and representatives who hail from their local communities. A growing array of brokers and intermediaries, moreover, provide new and additional channels through which citizens navigate access to the state.

What, though, are we to make of these high rates of local citizen action? On one hand, we might see residents of one of India’s poorest regions actively engaging the state in pursuit of services as evidence of a dynamic local democracy. A darker view, though, might suggest that citizens are forced to make claims because of the state’s – and the panchayat’s – failure to regularly provide. Rural Rajasthan, like much of rural India, thus stands a crossroads, poised between a virtuous and a vicious cycle of citizen voice and state responsiveness – or lack thereof. 

Institutions are critical to how this story will unfold. Will social movements mobilize and sustain citizens’ claims? Existing groups, like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, are already active in Rajasthan and have effectively generated campaigns around social rights. Their presence, though, remains patchy at the local level. Will they grow in their reach and influence? Or could political parties rise to fill the gap? This seems unlikely in the current electoral environment marked by intense competition for votes in a system that has long rewarded patronage. The emergence of new parties, like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which espouses an anti-corruption platform, signals a potentially important departure from the traditional party model. As yet, though, such parties are not particularly active in rural settings such as Rajasthan. Perhaps most promising is the Gram Panchayat, which has emerged as a critical site for claim-making. Will they be empowered to play the representative and deliberative roles for which they were designed? Change is slow and uncertain. But there is reason to follow the lead of the myriad citizens who nonetheless place hope in these local institutions.

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner (gabikaya@gmail.com) is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International Area Studies and, effective August 2016, will be an Assistant Professor of Politics & Global Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on citizen-state relations, local governance, and social welfare. Her current book project examines citizenship practice in the state of Rajasthan.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI. IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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