AgBioIndia Mailing List
Subject: Village Republics of India -- A Global Lesson in Governance
The British undid what had traditionally and historically been the
practice in India. The British had a motive behind what they did; after all they
were the colonial masters. Starting from the 'sabha' as described in the Vedas
to Gautama Buddha's religious congregation to the current self-rule movement,
India has been a witness to many forms of republics. But natural resources were
never a state domain; villages managed them. The British reversed this trend
between 1800 and 1820. But still, the village republics managed village affairs
independently. British diluted the power of village republics during 1830s-1850s
so as to expand their territory.
But what about Independent India?
Successive governments, and that too democratically-elected, refuse to bring in
'gram swaraj' (village self-rule). You will invariably find that the nexus
between the politician-bureaucrat-contractor to exploit the natural resources
that these villages are bestowed with is so strong that the entire effort of the
State gets focused on how to extract it to the maximum. In the bargain, the
custodian of the natural resource -- the villagers -- are left high and dry. The
political masters as well as the bureaucracy refuses to give up control over the
natural resources. The result: India refuses to grow. Poverty and squalor
continues to multiply.
Sadly, it is here that the 'development tourists'
step in -- the neo-classic breed of development workers -- with stale and
donor-driven prescriptions of gender discrimination, micro-credit, self-help
groups etc. They too know that the real cause for the collapse of the village
economy as well as its social-well being is the usurping of the rights of the
people over their own resources. But since it will be politically incorrect to
talk about that, they very conveniently divert the attention to issues which are
far away from the reality. This is the development paradigm that is being made
In this second part in our series, we bring
you the stories from four village republics in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh,
Rajasthan and Jharkhand States of India. (The first part was released on
September 27, 2002: http://www.agbioindia.org/archive.asp?id=91
By Richard Mahapatra with Prabhanjan Verma, Nidhi Jamwal
and Kazimuddin Ahmed
Down to Earth
Aug 31, 2002.
Republican Paradise Mendha, Gadchirolli,
Defied the Forest Act. Every resident
Contributes part of
annual income for
community works. If somebody bribes
official, the same
amount to be given to the gram sabha.
Heaven: miles and miles of forest without any
Hell: miles and miles of forest without any mahua
-- Leaves From The Jungle, British
anthropologist Verrier Elwin's conversation with a Gond member in
Gonds in Mendha fought for 'heaven' to avoid the 'hell'.
With India's Independence started Mendha's freedom struggle. A village with 80
per cent of its area covered with dense forest, it was a prize catch for the
forest department when in 1950 its officials armed with the Indian Forest Act,
1927, took control of it. So many believe that the forest act gave birth to the
republic of Mendha.
The Forest Act is still powerful but the forest
department accepts Mendha as a model forest management practice. It became the
first village in India to get well grown forest to manage under JFM, which
otherwise gives degraded forest for joint protection.
Mendha has composed
the new anthem of India's numerous village republics by practice: "Mawa Nate
mate Raj, Dilli-Mumbai mawa Raj (in our village we are the government, in Delhi
and Mumbai it is our government)". Former governor of Maharashtra, P C
Alexander, had to seek permission from the gram sabha in December 2000 to visit
Mendha, a virtual acknowledgement of the village's sovereignty.
probably became the first village in India, where every community work is an
individual's work and hence everybody has to contribute time and resources to
it. The village constitution makes it mandatory for its citizens to contribute
10 per cent of his/her total annual earning to implement the gram sabha
decisions. As the village has decided not to accept donation or any government
programme but to treat them as loans, the contributions compensate. Any work
that is started in the village's 1,600-hectare (ha) area, permission of the gram
sabha is mandatory. "This makes the village a true republic and an effective
participatory democracy," says Mohanbhai Hiralal, convener of Vrikshamitra, an
NGO working in Mendha. More so if anybody bribes a government official for work
to be done, he/she has to give the same amount of money to the gram sabha
At a time when nobody was bothered about the existence of the
forest act, Mendha led the nation in exposing the act as another colonial
instrument. In 1950, government took over the village's forest by declaring it
protected forest under the act. In its first fight against the act under the
gram sabha it decided to revive the traditional system of Ghotul in the village.
"Ghotul made of wood is a home for young boys and girls where they were taught
the traditions and values of tribal culture," explains Shivram Dugga. Villagers
constructed a ghotul of teak wood, proscribed by government from felling, in the
"The forest department came with a large armed contingent and
broke our ghotul as they we had violated law," says Dugga. This move by the
forest department enraged the villagers and they called a mahasabha (grand
assembly) of 32 villages in the area. The grand assembly endorsed Mendha's fight
and vowed to fight over the forest. "Twelve villages constructed ghotuls in
their villages and the forest department had to eventually retreat," says
Hirabhai. It was a moment of reckoning for the village and its new governance
system. In 1992, the village started its decisive fight over the forest
when about 80 per cent of its forest was declared reserve forest. The gram sabha
decided to challenge the move of the government, and appointed a van suraksha
samiti to take control and to manage the forest. The gram sabha took up
extensive watershed management inside the forest and constructed 1000 gully
plugs in the forest stream. "The effort has increased the productivity of the
soil," says Shiva Ram. Finally the forest department allowed the village to
manage the 1,600 ha forest in 1996. The ultimate victory came to the republic of
Mendha when the state cabinet decided to give back all its traditional rights
over forest recently.
Roots of change Seed, Udaipur,
Seed doesn't need a collector. The lagan is collected by the
gram sabha and sent to the government. Government officials are not allowed to
enter the village without the permission of the gram sabha, says Ramaji Rawat,
president of the gram sabha's karyakarini (executive committee).
Ironically, Seed is a government-approved village republic, sanctioned under the
Rajasthan Gramdan Act, 1971 - a radical piece of legislation inspired by the
late Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement. But its self-rule movement, in fact, began
much earlier. The bone of contention was beed (the common grazing land), which
formed the lifeline of an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and
After independence, beed's ownership was transferred to the
local royal family, though villagers still had traditional grazing and usufruct
rights. In the 1950s, the ownership went into the hands of the forest
department. But strangely the royal family sold it to a resident of nearby Kanod
village in 1963 again. The new owner prevented villagers from using the beed.
The dispute continued till 1967 when the Revenue Appellate Authority upheld the
status of beed as forest area and also recognised the rights of villagers. "This
case was a major victory for the residents from where started their march
towards self-rule," says Jagdish Purohit, coordinator of Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal,
an NGO based in Udaipur.
During this time, Vinoba Bhave, half way through
his 13-year march to propagate the Bhoodan concept, was addressing a gathering
in Udaipur. "I got inspired by the gram dan concept and decided to dedicate my
life to Bhaveji' s work," says Rameshwar Prasad, a resident of Sethwana village
near Seed, who was the purohit for Seed. Gram dan is derived from bhoodan (bhoo
and dan), which means donation of land. Prasad was to become Seed's leader in
its march towards republic status. Seed's gram dan was established which took
complete control over its natural resources - jal (water), jungle (forest), and
jameen (land). The karyakarini through its sub-groups of residents monitor
various issues such as crop loans, forest and nursery development, water
resource development and selling of grass. "We only pronounce decisions taken by
the gram sabha," says Rawat.
The results are showing up. Due to the
efforts of the gram sabha to propogate water harvesting, there is enough water
for both drinking and irrigation. Gomti, which was earlier a seasonal stream,
has become perennial. The anicut of Gomti ensures that the village never faces a
drought. The village has strict rules to protect forests. Anyone cutting a tree
from the common land is fined Rs 2,000. "In 1998, a villager from a nearby
village was caught stealing wood from the forest. His bullockcart was auctioned
and he was fined Rs 500," claims Moti Lal, the village forest guard. No patwari
is required in the village. All land records are with the gram sabha and all
land disputes are sorted out by the gram sabha.
But in some ways, Seed
today feels cheated. In 1995, the state government amended the Rajasthan Gramdan
Act, 1971, and removed section 43, which gives wide-ranging powers to the gram
sabha (see box: An unholy act on p32). "Earlier we used to get money directly
from the state departments, but after the removal of section 43, we have to
route all development work through the panchayat, which is corrupt and looks
down upon gram dan village," says Rawat. Villagers feel that to bring back gram
section 43 needs to be restored. But what makes this village different
is that though the act has died prematurely, the village remains a true republic
- in letter and spirit.
Unshakable Nimalapedu, Vishakapatnam, Andhra
Reminded India of its constitutional mandate for
autonomy. Fought bauxite companies for not getting
consent. Has inspired a new generation
Where the spacious black topped 20-km long road ends,
India ceases and the republic of Nimalapedu starts. Life takes a different
meaning altogether: "Here people rule," says Sambhu Pollana, the head of the
village's gram sabha. The 200 residents are busy harvesting their first crop of
paddy in June, unmindful of the fact that the state's one-third villages have
been declared drought-stricken. "We have to prepare for the second sowing
immediately," adds Pollana. Three crops a year and a kitchen garden in each
household make the village prosperous; so much that once it told the district
collector that the village would feed him and his hundreds employees for a
Pollana should know it better. In 1992, his village was threatened
to be bulldozed by the earth-removers of a private mining company to extract
bauxite. He was told to move out of the village and to settle somewhere else.
But a brief meeting of the residents changed the course of their life. "We can't
move without the perennial stream and the few tamarind and mango trees," the
village meeting decided. Thus began a four-year-long legal battle to throw out
the mining company from Pollana's village.
In 1996, the Supreme Court
gave its verdict: In the Fifth Scheduled areas, nothing can be taken without the
consent of the gram sabha. The gram sabha didn't give the consent to the
company. The company had to abandon its Rs 250 crore investment and Pollana
declared sovereignty. Since then nobody from the government visits the village.
"The biggest lesson is how to govern," says Karingi Ramana, a resident. That
spacious black-topped road, built by the mining company to transport bauxite
from the mines, remains a metaphor for the village's 'independence struggle'.
Nobody walks on that road and it is used for husking and drying paddy. "We don't
have to use it for walking as hardly we go out. Our own resources are enough to
have a surplus economy," says Ramana.
The village now harvests three
crops and has earmarked all the fruit bearing trees with estimates of their
annual economic value. A tamarind tree fetches Rs 1,500 every year, a mango tree
fetches Rs 2,000 and the jackfruit tree has unlimited value as they form the
common food pool for the monsoon. A small stream has been diverted into the
village to supply water. Residents have made their own canal using bamboo and
wooden pipes to take water to their fields. "The income from agriculture is
sufficient so that the village has decided to give land to the six landless
families on lease with nominal fee of few kilogrammes of tamarind and mangoes,"
says Bala Raju, the village 's first college going resident. "My education will
also be taken care of by the gram sabha," he says. Education, it seems, is the
republic's next agenda. The gram sabha has opened a primary school and the
curriculum includes self-governance. "While learning alphabets the first word we
teach them is 'village'," says B Rama Naidu, the teacher. The school opens
whenever the students are free from cattle herding or feel free to study. It is
not recognised but the importance of the village is that the next generation
will know about the village's rebirth. So it is not a matter of shame when none
of the residents, including the teacher, could tell when is India's Independence
In Birsa'a Land Horomocho, Hazaribagh,
A coal mine to own and manage. Sustainability
as a principle. Revival of an ancient
Santhal system of
Horomocho is just another sleepy village in the
district of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. There is nothing much that looks very
striking in this village of 52 Santhal households. Mud walled houses, mohua and
kusum trees, kacchha streets, people lazing around after work - as in most of
India's villages. But few things are compellingly unusual.
forest and the absence of forest department officials is one of them. However,
the surprise is on the bank of the Rohargada river, a small rivulet of the
Damodar: a community coal mine. Ask the villagers and they are most nonchalant
about it. "Oh that! It has been there. It belongs to the village," they
will say with a shrug. The next thing that comes to one's mind is the legal
part. All the mineral deposits in India belong to the government and the
contractors who take them on lease exploit them. Moreover, any mine cannot be
like that of Horomocho. Normally, bulldozers and contractors mob any piece of
mineral. How come this coal pit here is devoid of any such thing?
shadow of government has not touched Horomocho. Not since 1943 when a government
team came to survey the village. Ten kilometres to the nearest bus stand,
Horomocho has not seen many amenities. But nobody complains. On the contrary,
they defy these. "We are rich," says Dhaniram Tutu, the Majhi Haram or head of
the village in the traditional Santhali system.The village economy is limited to
sustenance. For extra money, they sell forest produce in the nearby
Rich they are. They have a coalmine, 200 hectares of sal forest,
perennial water sources and the agricultural fields. A two-room dispensary and a
three-room school, both under the cool shade of mohua trees, complete the
picture. In 1982, the village declared sovereignty over these. And with the
Majhi Haram, the Santhal traditional gram sabha, managing these resources with
wisdom, there are not too many worries and plenty of time to play football. They
have the best football team in the area.
"Our law is equal for everyone,"
says Charku Soren, the deputy chief of the village. The villagers who work
around the traditional Majhi Haram system manage things with an iron hand. "We
had to be strong," says Charku, his stern face glowing with the light of a
kerosene lamp. He explains why. The forests of the village were depleted
due to massive felling by the forest department as well as the neighbouring
villages. "We felt threatened. They (the government) tried to take everything
from us instead of giving us anything," says Dhaniram. This was pre-1982 when
some like Dhaniram and Charku have seen schools and gained some confidence. The
village decided to act. They went to the forest department officials and told
them to take their salary from their homes.
With the forest, they also
acquired the coal pits on the banks of the small rivulet in the village.
Situated on India's rich coal belt, Horomocho could foresee its fate: one day
the village would be buried in coal pits. The only way to save the village
forest, protected since last two decades, was to keep the mines commercially
unexploited. So the logical step was to declare the mines as community property.
"This is a property of the village and it will stay in the village. No
commercial use will be allowed here," says Churku. The villagers now use the
mine, a six metres by three metres pit, about three metres deep, filled with
water beside the Rohargada river in the village. "Every year the villagers take
out about 20 tractor-loads of coal for the village," says Lambu, a resident. The
coal, however, is distributed free of cost and suffices the fuel requirements of
the village for most of the year. Remarkably, this has also decreased a lot of
pressure on the forest for which the mine was taken over. "It is natural and
practical for the village to take control," says Bina Stanis, an activist based
They are still strong. And united. "You never know this
money business," says Ganesh Ganju, a resident of Lathia referring to the nexus
of government officials and contractors. This village also manages its resources
like Horomocho and so do seven other villages. "The government can also come
anytime to claim the resources," he adds talking about bitter experiences of the
past. However, they all are sure this. Whatever it takes, they are not going to
part with their jal, jangal and jameen. Fully aware of the confrontations and
the difficulties involved, they are also very confident about winning this war
and keeping it that way. Once Birsa Munda did. One cannot see why Horomocho and
its allies cannot.
Horomocho, Seed or Mendha are just replays of India's
past. India had carefully evolved and maintained this decentralised democracy
for centuries as a management tool for a complex livelihood system.
strong were these republics that the British Empire tried to exclude them from
their formal control, after years of effort to control them and before weakening
them substantially. "The village communities are little republics, having
everything that they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any
foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts," wrote Lord Ripon
to the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1832.
threatened by Ripon's assessment and the humiliation of the 1857 mutiny, the
village republics were subjected to systematic dosages of government control
till they lost their relevance. First, they weakened the institution by taking
over part of village's traditional administrative and legal powers. Even then it
could not completely wipe out the traditional institutions. They failed because
they had to fight the whole society in each and every village. Ultimately they
withdrew from some tribal areas and called them excluded areas (the Indian
constitution's Fifth and Sixth Schedules recognise these areas as autonomous
For other villages the final blow came in 1856, when Dietrich
Brandis, a German botanist and India's first inspector general of forests, was
making an inventory of India's trees. After nine years in 1865, the forest act
came to existence, India's republics were facing the test of centralisation and
also alien invasion. It formalised government control over forest and everything
inside it thus making villages' access to resources a mercy at the hand of the
Empire. Next came the government-created village level institutions to replace
the traditional ones. The Appointment of Royal Commission on Decentralisation in
1907 decided that the local government should start from the village level
rather than the district level, but favoured the government-created institutions
like the panchayats to implement such programmes.
By 1947, such
panchayats were in place as units of governnce with government-defined judicial
and administrative functions. India's freedom fighters opposed this dilution
vehemently. Gram swaraj became an important agenda of the nationalist struggle.
During the quit India movement in the 1940s, village-based parallel governments
cropped up in different parts of the country to counter such panchayats. Many of
such villages are now declaring self-rule again. Kamyapeta is one of
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