AgBioIndia Mailing List
30 September 2002

Subject: Village Republics of India -- A Global Lesson in Governance (2)

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 applicable globally.
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:

By Richard Mahapatra with Prabhanjan Verma, Nidhi Jamwal and Kazimuddin Ahmed

Down to Earth
Aug 31, 2002.

A Republican Paradise Mendha, Gadchirolli, Maharashtra.

Defied the Forest Act. Every resident
Contributes part of annual income for
community works. If somebody bribes
a government official, the same
amount to be given to the gram sabha.

Heaven: miles and miles of forest without any forest-guards.
Hell: miles and miles of forest without any mahua trees.

    -- Leaves From The Jungle, British anthropologist Verrier Elwin's conversation with a Gond member in 1936.

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.

Mendha 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 also.

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 village.

"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, Rajasthan

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 livestock.

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 dan,
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 Pradesh

Reminded India of its constitutional mandate for village
autonomy. Fought bauxite companies for not getting
gram sabha consent. Has inspired a new generation
self-rule movement.

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 month.

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 Day.

In Birsa'a Land Horomocho, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand.

A coal mine to own and manage. Sustainability
not profit as a principle. Revival of an ancient
Santhal system of governance

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.
The 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?

The 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 market.

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 in Hazaribagh.

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.

So 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.

Probably 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 entities).

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 them.

[To be concluded...]

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