Neighbourhood Parliaments as the Integral Solution

Grassroots Participatory Communities and Networks

    The Predicaments

    Among the predicaments in the modern socio-economic and political scene we note the following: A sense of helplessness among people:

    People feel cheated, pushed around, let down. They don't know whom to approach and how to effectively get things done.


    A sense of alienation:
    Not just economical alienation but also socio-political and cultural, wherein one feels one is a nobody, but a chaff pushed around by forces over which one has no control - a feeling like: “Anything could happen to anybody in this world without I being able to do anything about it"; Or a feeling where he says, “It is not my world; it is someone else's. It is the world of big shots."

    A sense of depersonalisation:
    People feel they cannot afford to be persons. To be a person is more than just to be human. To be a person is to be somebody. It is to be counted, to be taken into account, to be taken seriously, to be consulted, to belong, to be integrated, and to find one's place as someone of worth. To be a person is also to be a giver and contributor and not just be a recipient. To be a subject and an agent rather than be just an object and a faceless unit of a vague crowd. To be a person is also to claim to be a participant, a participant in everything that affects oneself.

    Growing loss of credibility of political parties:
    An unsettling question that raised its head in various ways during the elections that just got over was: Can we continue to trust political parties to ensure the health of the nation? Or, to put it differently: to ensure the well being of the people of India? We saw unimaginable types of criss-crossing, alliances and betrayals of trust by parties and party leaders of various hues. Even "ideologies" were thrown to winds. The situation made political thinkers wonder if there was any more any relevance left in the very concept of political parties. Some called it, "The End of the Party". Wrote Amrita Abraham in Indian Express commenting on '96 elections: "It seems likely to go down in history as the terminal phase of the party system we have known since 1957".
    The answer is not, yet another party. Not even another ideal leader taking reins from the existing parties. Given the present structure and arrangement of things, every party runs the risk of encountering the same problems. And every leader, of getting submerged by the pressure of ground realities in the parties.

    Loss of control over market forces:
    Letting the market "liberalised" ends up with a situation where no market is left for the vast majority of people. A market controlled by a few could also mean poverty and loss of personhood for the vast majority.

    Loss of faith in democracy itself:
    Democracy appears in the minds of many as a road that leads nowhere. It is not seen so much as the scope given to people to exercise their will to self direction, but as a wasteful exercise that ends up bringing power to the big and the rich leaving the rest weakened further and further.
    o Inadequacy of panchayat structures:
    Panchayats , no doubt, are a step in the right direction. A step towards decentralisation. It brings quite a lot of power to forums supposedly more accessible at lower levels. But as forums of participation they are not small
    enough for "small" people to handle. And as along us the participatory forums continue to be big, only the big shots will have their say and their game. The small and the poor could really continue to feel alienated.

    Lack of adequate channels to ensure:
    Lack of adequate channels to ensure that helps reach those who need them most rather than those who influence most. Influence, of course, takes various shapes leaving those without the wherewithal to influence desperate, o Disorientation among NGHOs:
    Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organisations (NGHOs) too seem, of late, to develop a tendency to empower themselves rather than empower the people. They too, in growing number, tend to become another set of middlemen dividing people and slowing down people's process of empowerment.

    Over-dependence on bureaucrats:
    In the absence of people's own viable structures for participation in decision-making, a good lot of the decisions are left to bureaucrats and politicians. But even the well-meaning bureaucrats who initiate relevant programmes and processes leave themselves and people frustrated when they get transferred and someone not sharing their ideals and commitments succeeds and turns the whole process upside down. And they get transferred often enough depending on the whims of the various politicians.

    Inadequacy of trade unions and similar organisations:
    Though such advocacy organisations have indeed played and continue to play and will continue to play a great role you cannot expect them to handle the ordinary nitty-gritty of day-to-day decision-making that living as a people involves. Again, each such organisation with its specialised emphasis and being open only to special interest sections could neither be universal in its concerns nor speak on behalf of all.

    Monopolising and alienating trends of the media:
    Media tend to be more and more monopolistic accumulating vast communication power in the hands of just a handful. Traditional values of media ethics, based on right to information and the role of public opinion, are giving way to commercial considerations.
    Of equal seriousness is the media-created situation where people are made to be more passive recipients than agents of communication. They become so to say objects on the receiving end of "messages" aimed at them by those in or with power, rather than subjects who decide together in partnership. The Media communication, in addition, tends to play the role of an escapist ritual preventing them from facing up to the painful fact that the world is slipping from under their feet and lulling them to inaction.


    1. The dream

    We need to bring the world back to people. And by people, we mean not just the moneyed and the powerful, but also the vast majority of those who are poor and voiceless. They too must feel that it is their world. And the world, being theirs, must respond to their needs. This means the poor, the people at the grassroots, must have their say and what they say must carry weight. And when decision-making power is shared or decentralized this way, the people will be able to circumvent the various problems listed above and live with dignity and peace.


    1. The Why and How But how to bring this about?

    Our assumption is that people do not have their say because they do not have adequate and viable forums to express themselves.
    The present participatory forums are too big. And this seems to be the crux of the problem.
    And, the bigger the forums, the bigger the voices you need to have to get you heard. Bigger in terms of volume, back up provisions, etc. When the forum on the other hand, is small, any small person can express himself and be heard. He will also feel at home there. The forum, being small, can afford to listen to his
    problems however small they might be. He will feel that he too is somebody. He will also feel competent to affect the course of decisions made there.
    The forums we have now, i.e. parliamentary constituencies and assembly constituencies, are so big that you need to be really big, even to be seen throughout the constituency let alone be listened to.
    And thus "big people" with big voices get elected for parliaments and legislative assemblies. And end up having governments of "the big", by "the big", and for "the big", leaving the small and the poor helpless. Even the panchayat wards for that matter, as we mentioned earlier, aren't small enough for such small people and are thus inadequate.
    The solution then lies in going beyond panchayats2 and setting up forums that are even smaller ensuring that the small do talk, and in networking them in such a way that what they talk matters.
    And the participatory provisions should be such that they talk not just once in five years but throughout, having a constant monitory and directive role over the course of affairs that affect them.

    1. The Proposal

    Our proposal along this line is: Grassroots Participatory Communities and their networks.
    We need to know what we mean by the words.
    What is a community? Or what are the characteristics that make a mass of people into a community? We need to have consensus on this. Some of the guiding principles are:
    o A community is not a crowd. It is not a transient aggregation of passers-by. Community has a certain amount of permanency.
    o A community presupposes commitment to one another. And this commitment is actually the most identifying factor.
    o A community has a shared vision. Consensus on objectives holds the community together. In this sense, a community works together.
    o A community means its members feel with one another. A community, devoid of feelings, is not yet a community. It may be just a task force, o A community celebrates together. It brings imagination, feelings and art to play in the collective affirmation of persons and events and mysteries of life, o A healthy community heals not only by the explicitly therapeutic programmes it offers, but also by its process of affirmation and the strength of relationships. Community is an antidote to alienation, loneliness, insecurities, and the resultant psychosomatic problems, o A liberating community, consequently a healing community is a participating community. Participation in decision making is what makes a mass into a people. When people decide together they become conscious of their dignity as partners in progress, as subjects and equals and not just objects and the ruled, o A community that is empowering, hence liberating and healing makes its members not only to decide on the choice of various solutions proposed but also to see the problems together. Knowledge is power. A community that has been enabled to identify the problems and constantly to evaluate them is an empowered community. Few will dare to exploit that community, o A community that is effective is necessarily small. This follows from our earlier principles. A big community can neither offer powerful relationships nor scope for participation, o A community that intends to have wider macro level impact ensures linkage with other similar communities through representative structures at various levels. This ensures not only the smallness of the community and the wider level effective action but also effective grassroots participation for the various campaigns undertaken.
    These communities have to begin from grassroots. We need to have small neighbourhood communities of about thirty families at grassroots that include all and leave out none.
    These communities are to be a kind of mini panchayats . And just as in panchayats, everybody who resides in a particular area will be considered a part of the community whether one is actively involved or not. And participation is to be the hallmark of these communities.
    Participation levels differ. One can be a participant just by being a recipient. Surely, this is not the type of participation we aim at. We rather want people to be agents of their well being.
    Levels of this agent-participation can also differ.
    We can have people participate just at the level of implementation while a few others do the planning.
    Or, a step further, we can have people participate at the level of decision-making, while someone else has offered the various alternative solutions.
    A step or two still further, we can have people begin participating at the searching for various alternative solutions to the problems identified and presented by others.
    We have the ultimate level of participation when the people are involved not only in finding solutions to problems but also in the very process of identifying problems. When people involve themselves in the very process of identifying the problems they will tend to be more equipped, thus more empowered, to handle vicissitudes that arise while implementing a decision, than those who just hop in to make a decision while alternatives have already been found.
    The same way those who were associated with the very process of identifying the problem tend to be more capable of coming up with further creative and still more relevant solutions than those who were limited to what others have reported about the problem.
    And Networking should be at various levels: Neighbourhood Sabhas lead to Gram Sabhas and successively to panchayat, mandal , district, and state, national and global links.
    Such a network could be an alternative political structure that could demand that the government provisions be routed through them. Such a network could also mean -
    Structures for people's response to and co-operation with government programmes.
    Structures for people to help themselves.
    Answerability and fixing of responsibility by people themselves.
    Infrastructures where benefits go to those who need them most as per the high-risk scores concerned.
    Effective functioning of panchayats.4
    Scope for people at the base to derive utmost benefit out of every penny allotted for them by Government and other agencies.
    Better spirit of working together, better participation and better self-reliance.
    A permanent scope for watchdog role by people at various levels.
    Scope to undertake economic self-help programmes like thrift societies and income generation projects at various levels of the network5.
    Freedom for people from the middleman role of politicians, bureaucrats and even NGHOs.
    A new role for NGHOs i.e. as catalysts and empowerers and assistants at peoples' empowerment and liberation process
    Fortunately various efforts are underway throughout the world to bring about such a movement and structures of empowerment from below. Basic communities of Latin America are well known and they are being adopted in various other parts of the world.
    As joint efforts of the Government and UNICEF, programmes like Urban Basic Services for the poor (UBSP) Community Based Nutrition programmes (CBNP) Convergent Community Action (CCA) etc. are being promoted. So too the Prime Minister's Urban Poverty Eradication Programme. They are all along the lines of
    what we envisage. In Kanyakumari District too we have more than 10,000 such grassroots groups in various stages of formation and networking.
    Mr. M.P. Parameswaran of Kerala has even called for a new electoral process based on such networks.
    And so too are initiatives like the resource mapping efforts by people at the base as done recently in Kalliassery panchayat in Kerala by KSSP.
    Said recently an Urban Poverty Eradication (UPA) official in Kerala: "We must get in the next five years a constitutional amendment to integrate these neighbourhood communities in the national civic setup".
    We shall wish all such efforts Godspeed and hope for a world that is in people's hands.
    End notes:

      • Keynote address by Edwin M. J. at the National Consultation on Grassroots Participatory Communities held at Chunkankadai,Kanyakumari District, south India on 22nd July 1996.
      • Panchayat, in India, stands for an inter-village governance unit.
      • Mandal stands for an inter-panchayat block.
      • Recently, a whole lot of planning from below process was implemented through neighbourhood community networks in the half of the panchayats of Kerala.
      • It provides also scope for an alternative marketing network where the communities themselves become sale outlets.

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