India follows a Quasi Federal system. We restrict the powers of Central government to extend laws to States without the approval of the State’s representatives. The assumption is that each State knows best for itself. This process transfers some important powers to the local level rather than concentrating power at the Center, also known as ‘de-centralisation’. So far so good!
We are all invariably and unknowingly, affected by centralization in some capacity. Over 9000 speeches from the Andhra Pradesh Assembly were heard (and rejected) before Telangana was formed. Kashmir was made a Union Territory by the Center in violation of the constitutional provision for Jammu and Kashmir’s Assemblies to have their voices heard. With the Interstate River Water Dispute Bill 2019, the Centre has the power to reject a State’s request for a tribunal to arbitrate their case. The concerned entities did not have a major say in their own matters. Representative participation was denied.
I had read about this phenomenon in academic papers and heard scholars theorize about it on a national scale but only during my field visits to Thoor, a village in Udaipur, Rajasthan did I gain an understanding of the effects of centralization on whole villages, communities, and individuals. My team (of co-fellows) set off to complete certain tasks as a part of our Induction Training at India Fellow. Over the next 5 days, I would witness the importance of representative participation in local politics. On our first day, we spoke to a few people and largely observed our surroundings. The sights were everything you’d expect — dust, makeshift tent houses, cattle, saaris and chulhas, kachcha roads, and snotty naked children.
On the second day, we moved beyond stereotypes and began conversing with residents. Purdahs and Pagdis became story-tellers, for themselves and for their neighbors.
The many castes in Thoor have certain underlying personas that colour how everyone discusses them: Meghwals and their government jobs, Patels and their landholdings, Ghaanchas and their kachche makaan, Ghametis, Khatiks, Suthaars, Lohaars, Bhil Adivasis and the one-odd ‘Momedan‘ family. The name ‘Thoor‘ comes from ‘tthor‘, which means ‘thorn fence’. The fences in today’s Thoor aren’t made out of thorns but of norms. Individual mohollas are not physically cordoned off from one another, yet are occupied only by castes of similar rank. For instance, an entire stretch of road that leads to the fields is occupied by kachcha houses of Daangi families and one Vaishnav family. The former makes up for 50% of the population but have little wealth, while the latter are a minority. “Yeh sab aadivasi log hain,” whispers the Patel woman while walking us to her 8-bigha farm.
Thoor straddles on either side of a main road, meeting at Thoor circle bus stop. Meghwals live on the half that leads up to the mountains, while every other caste lives on the side that slopes down into the fields. The Meghwal (SC/ST) locale is referred to as ‘khulli zameen wali side‘ while the non-Meghwal side is referred to as ‘Gaon‘, subliminally excluding the former from the village
Given this segregation, Thoor’s Panchayat system in theory would allow for representation of a variety of people. It is divided into geographical ‘wards’, with each ward electing one ‘Ward Panch‘ to represent them in the Panchayat. The Sarpanch is elected directly but selects the ‘Mukhiyas‘ of their Panchayat, and thus in theory has the option of creating a representative governing body. Why then did so many we spoke to, agree that “Yeh panchayat waale toh bade logon ke liye hain, chhote logon ke liye thodi!“?
Reality is riddled with nuances that theory cannot capture.
The current Sarpanch is from the Daangi caste. She stood for elections under the women’s reservation category, and now her husband is the acting ‘Sarpanchpati‘. Here itself, a provision to allow for the representation of women has been circumvented to keep power centralized in the hands of men. Some upper-class women are quite content with the Sarpanchpati’s operations. One Patel seamstress tells that she attends all the workshops organised by the Panchayat. “Bohot kuch sikhaatein hain,” she says, while discussing the informative sessions that help her manage her family’s farm.
But the mothers of Thoor have complaints, which they never take to the Panchayat. All deliveries and all major illnesses require a journey to the city hospital. There is one dispensary and a minimally active ASHA worker available. Malaria is rampant all year round and gets especially intense among children during the monsoon season. While no one has died from the disease, mothers waxed eloquently about the nuisance. An old woman rushed out of her house to join our conversation, fixed her ghoonghat and proclaimed with clear disdain, “But who will listen to us in the Panchayat?”
Given the traditional norms regarding male-female interaction, it would be difficult to expect Thoor’s mothers to freely communicate their concerns to an all-men Panchayat.
Centralization is not only restricted to gender but extends to caste and class. This manifests in surprising ways. The Sarpanch Pati has played small parts in a couple of TV shows, but he is the star of his own story. He pats himself on the back for making roads, lighting the streets, and never siphoning off money from the Panchayat but only for it. A striking incident was one where he demanded that corporate factory operators in Thoor provide two-bedroom apartments for their Bhil workers. He lamented that these negotiations never amounted to anything, “Bhil logon ko mere pe trust nahin tha. Abhi unko lagta hain ki galti ho gayi toh mere paas aatein hain ki ‘yeh kar do, voh kar doh” Self assessment final grade: A+. The economically privileged caste members we spoke to, corroborated that the Panchayat was helpful. A pujari told about how the Sarpanch Pati had allowed some unused government land to be incorporated into the Hanuman Mandir as a Prashaad kitchen. Patels often said, “Yahaan sab achcha hain, sab ka sochtein hain.“
These locals beamed and proclaimed, “Yahaan chhuut-achhut bilkul nahin hai“. Yet, no one mentioned whether there existed inequalities of wealth across castes. Only a few talked about Panchayat working disproportionately for upper-caste/class individuals, and those who did were blind to their privileged position in the Panchayat’s functions.
For Thoor’s upper-caste/class, the yardstick of caste justice began and ended with untouchability. Others begged to differ. Those from the lower castes believed that the ones governing them were deaf and blind to their problems, which sometimes leads to apathy towards the Panchayat. A Muslim respondent said that she never attended Panchayat meetings because there was nothing in it for her or her family.
Often, it leads to resentment. A Ghancha grandmother showed us the unsold baskets she had weaved weeks ago. We sat on the floor outside her kachcha makaan, navigating the many large and small stones among the dirt. Narrating the perils of lower-caste occupations, she passionately criticized the Panchayat for sitting on ₹ 1.5 lakhs loan she had requested to make her makaan pakka. This is not a straightforward caste issue and class complicates the mix. Even Sarpanch Pati’s own community denied that he had given back much to his lower-class-caste-fellows. “Hume kabhi koi gorment scheme nahin mili,” says a Daangi father, smiling sadly at his 1-bigha farm, “Bas ek road bana diya (sarpanchpati ne), aur kuch nahin.” It is also interesting to note that he doesn’t live among the other Daangis, but in a two-story pakka makaan, much like those of the Patels.
We could not acquire information about the jaat composition of the Panchayat. Yet, it would be safe to say that there is little, if any, lower-caste representation. Its evidence is found in the fact that lower caste individuals are expected to take off their shoes and hold them in their hands before walking in the vicinity of and towards the Panchayat’s meeting. In addition, Thoor has 1 kabristaan and no masjid. Merely 4 out of 450 households are Muslim. Just the word ‘Momedan‘ is said with hushed caution. Given this minimal representation in the landscape itself, it is likely that there is no Muslim representative among the Panch.
Whether there is any lower-class representation too is questionable since the Mukhiyas have been selected by the upper-class Sarpanch Pati himself. “Voh sab apne mein se hi logon ko chunn lete hain,” confirms the Hanuman Mandir pujari, without moralising.
Centralization of power is not restricted to the Panchayat. The Sarpanch Pati shed some insight into the village’s MGNREGA situation. Rajasthan Government had mandated that the workers’ information be filed online. This left no room for gaps or discrepancies in details.
Many parts of rural north India subscribe to a system of multiple official names for the same individual. This leads to discrepancies in the information in different documents. Moreover, many are unsure of their birth dates or even birth years. Your age may be 60 on your Aadhaar card but 65 on your birth certificate — a difference which could determine whether or not you get your pension. Thus, Rajasthan Government’s decision to computerize the system without first consulting with Panchayats on feasibility is a form of centralization. In a participatory system, the Panchayats would be at the negotiating table before reforms were finalized. And as Rajasthan Government is to the Panchayat, so is the Panchayat to lower-castes/classes.
Upper-class, upper-caste, Hindu men are not the only stakeholders in Thoor’s governance, and yet they govern matters that affect every other demographic in the village. The consequences are evident in the prevalent wealth inequalities and the resentment/apathy of the lower-castes/classes.
Decentralization is not just a long word political theorists throw around (though it definitely is that too). On the community level, it is a more complex grassroots issue. Unrepresentative governance is everywhere. Participation on the ground level has innumerable hurdles, since power begets more power. For now, I hope that one day I will return to Thoor and sit in the Ghaancha family’s pakka makaan.