Samras Gram Yojna : An Experiment In Governance

by | Feb 13, 2022

Gujarat recently conducted their Panchayat and Local Bodies’ elections in December 2021. During this time, one phrase that I heard numerous times was, ‘Samaras Panchayat’. It intrigued me because I heard it in the context of how state government promotes it but there are a lot of NGOs and other organizations that oppose this concept.

With the objective of establishing ‘peace and harmony in the village’, the Government of Gujarat announced the ‘Samaras Gram Yojana’ (meaning ‘of common interest’ or ‘all substances submerged into one form’) through a government resolution in 1992. It encourages nominating representatives to the village Panchayats through consensus among members of the Panchayat, and not elected through elections (ostensibly to avoid bitterness between different groups). This is done in the pretext of creating a positive environment for development in the villages. Such panchayats that avoid elections are given financial incentives.

BACKGROUND

Gujarat happens to be one of the first states that implemented the Panchayati Raj (PR) system through the Gujarat Panchayat Act (GPA), which came into effect in 1963, a couple of years after it became a separate state in 1961 from present-day Maharashtra. Following the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, GPA 1963 was revoked to make way for GPA, 1993 with effect from 1994. It is creditworthy that the state had managed to continue with the PR system for a fairly long time when all other states were reluctant to devolve powers to the people at the Panchayat level and promote decentralized planning. Though the concept has existed for many years, it was aggressively implemented by Mr. Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002.

Since we are focusing on the electoral method adopted for electing people’s representatives to Gram Panchayats (GP) in Gujarat, it is important to mention that Gujarat is one of the fewer states in India that opted for direct election to the executives of GPs popularly called the ‘Sarpanch’. Under this system, the Sarpanch of a GP is directly elected by the people through First-Past-the-Post system.

Latest data about the presence of Samras allotments in panchayat elections point to a sustained prevalence of this practice in 12.5% of all panchayat elections. (1267 out of 10,118 panchayats were declared Samras) This figure varies.

Samras Yojana – Incentives Given as per the Population

Samras Panchayat declared based on populationGeneral panchayat, i.e., Panchayat body with men and women as members and financial incentive givenMahila samaras panchayat, i.e., All women panchayat and financial incentive given
Population of the village up to 5,000 and first time ‘unanimously elected panchayat’Rs. 2 LakhRs. 3 Lakh
Population of the village between 5,001 and 15,000 and first time unanimously elected panchayatRs. 3 LakhRs. 5 Lakh

The financial benefit increases by 25 per cent each time a gram panchayat becomes Samras, consecutively.

GOVERNMENT’S AIMS

The established aim of avoiding elections on the panchayat level is twofold. Firstly, the great bane of electoral politics, divisiveness, is sought to be avoided. It is envisaged that since elections are eliminated, enmity and plotting for positions of power will recede as well. Thus, preserving the fabric of rural life. This aim further solidifies its relevance in the face of party politics’ increasing influence on Panchayat elections throughout the country. This increases ideological division as well as limits access to power to party functionaries. 

Secondly, it is thought that the financial and administrative cost of holding elections is an avoidable strain for grassroots government. If the village leaders brought all the competing candidates to a consensus on who among them should be sarpanch, the costs incurred to hold elections could be used for the higher purpose of the welfare of the people. 

IMPLICATIONS

The design of this yojana necessitates that the sarpanch be decided by the leaders of a village instead of direct elections. This has been credited with making these leader members “king-makers” and wield power of the Sarpanch. Thus, providing avenues for the executive’s tenure to be destabilised since their re-elections is dependent on the few that elect them. Opportunities for corruption are also more manifold as it is easier and comparatively less expensive to bribe a few electors than an entire village’s electorate. Having said that, the real reason that motivates Panchayats to become Samras is to avoid the animosity and maintain peace.

However, given that in Samras Panchayats the leaders are solely responsible for choosing the sarpanch, his/her actions while in office reflect on them as well and this spurs them to attend to their duties more attentively and ensure collective development. On paper, this guarantees greater and more equitable accountability when compared to a system in which the opposition GP members share no responsibility for governance at all. 

Such collective decision making also ensures that caste-linked decisions are not taken by a Sarpanch that is trying to secure his/her voting block (usually members of his own caste in the village). The Sarpanch belonging to a minority is prevalent in those Panchayats where there is a reservation for particular castes. In those cases where there are no reservations, it will mostly be seen that the Sarpanch or Panchayat members nominated are of general category.

This setup has also been found to be prone to hijacking by one family. Thus, several members of the same family (often upper caste) may serve as the sarpanch consecutively. Such a situation is likened to the socio-economic environment of a feudal society, where the ruled are permanently disenfranchised by power holders within a single family. Protesting against such a system is made more problematic due to the government incentives reaped through continued adoption of Samras.

This narrows the accessibility to power since such families are usually upper caste (unless the panchayat seats are reserved for SC/ST candidates). The lower caste families of the village are automatically robbed of their aspiration to contest for office which serves as a setback to their communal progress. 

This scheme provides an increased incentive to Mahila Samras Panchayats as compared to other Panchayats which may be Samaras. At times, this incentive works as a motivation for some villages to nominate an all-woman body (with or without reservation), which looks good theoretically. One downside in this case this is that there is no way to ensure whether the members of this Mahila Panchayat will themselves be active or they will be represented by a male member of their family. A recent example of accomplishment for this scheme is how, Lohariya GP in the Kutch district of Gujarat became a Mahila Samras Panchayat without any form of women reservation.

Common people are no longer contributing in the selection of their sarpanch. This can be attributed to the fact that due to Samras, they have delegated all decision-making to a few members and do not want to invest time to form opinions especially when they are unable to express them by voting.

CONCLUSION

This fundamental concept of the Samras Yojana challenges the basic tenets of universal adult franchise, a value on which our nation is founded. Therefore, to see its advantages requires a nuanced understanding of rural society. Ranging from its effects on rescuing panchayat elections from pestering hostility in the villages to fostering an environment where caste-linked decisions are rare. This unique policy has its advantages.

However, its systemic susceptibility to corruption and malpractice along with its tendency to limit the growth of leaders in backward and oppressed communities is a cause for worry. Considering the patriarchal nature of our society, it is mostly improbable that a woman representative or members will be chosen, unless reservation exists. The incentive driven adoption of this yojana among Gujarati GPs overshadow its many controversial consequences.

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