Neighbourhood Parliaments and Governance by People
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Neighbourhood Parliaments and Governance by People

Participation on the way-out? The much-touted word, “participation”, is fast loosing its glamour among social change agents. True, the concept had its heyday. In a world where only a few people determined the destiny of the world and where a vast majority of people felt alienated – socially, economically and in various other ways – the concept of a world where everybody is an equal partner in decisions that affect one, held its appeal. The dream is still valid. But the problem is one of the meanings and connotations the word evoked in the minds of certain people. And the meaning, theoreticians of semantics would say, is not in the word, but in the minds of the people - Right? The word, participation, itself tended to give, in the minds of certain people, a secondary role to people at large. “Participation for what?”; “Participation with whom?” Such were the questions they asked. Certain ill-oriented governments too could walk away, giving people just a token role at nearly the fag end of the implementation of programmes, and still boast that they ensured the participation of people! Such aspects of participation as getting the people themselves identify the problems and solutions, involving them in decision-making, etc. could easily be overlooked. Hence, the search for a more powerful word that would represent with more impacts the all-inclusive ideal of a participatory world.

Governance in!

The incoming ruling deity in this regard is the word governance. Here, the people - especially the presently disadvantaged - are not just to “participate”. They are rather to “govern”. That reminds me of a dictum of Thomas Moore, who once served as the chancellor of the British Government and authored the much-maligned Utopia. Utopia represented the vision of a more just and humane world, which for those not adequately concerned about such values were too idealistic. Thus, the word, utopian, became along the process a synonym for the impractical. Thomas Moore, had a very thought provoking statement when it comes to governance.

Government: plot of the rich Governments, in his view, are a plot by the rich. Nobody needs to ask, “Against whom?” Naturally, it could only be against the poor. What really is the modus operandi of this plot? Or the trick on which the plot is based? It is simple: just make the tools of governance unreachable to the poor. The tools of governance in a democracy are the various decision-making forums like parliaments – House of Lords, House of Commons, Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha, Legislative Assembly, and Legislative Council etc. – where the fate & rights of the people are mostly decided. A clever plot ept refusing accessibility to those who needed most the backing of the decisions of such forums.

Big constituencies for big voices The plot was to make the electing constituencies too big to be handled by the poor and get elected. Thus governments ended as governments by the rich, of the rich, and evidently for the rich. It is not hunger, nutrition, health, clothing, and such basic issues of the poor that preoccupied such governments of the rich but rather the concerns of the rich. Like making profits, more comforts, status in international realms, the most up-to-date gadgets, and the like. And the plot was so effective that the people could be kept poor even after years and years and centuries and centuries of “democratic” governance. What if instead the hungry and the poor are made to govern? Naturally, the first issue they will address will be the hunger of the people. Would it be possible to make the hungry and the poor govern? Is it possible to bring them too to parliaments, so that what they talk matters? This would need redefining the scope of parliaments. Parliaments must come to where people are, rather than make the people go to the parliaments. Parliaments should come to the grassroots, to neighbourhoods in streets where people live. They must also be of the right size for the "small" people themselves to participate. The bigger the forum the more difficult the small voices would find to get across.

Forums for direct democracy These parliaments at the base, again, should allow scope for direct intervention by people. The pity is people talk only indirectly in the existing parliaments. That is, except for a token intervention during elections, people do not have parliaments where they can talk directly. This is not enough. People must have the scope for intervening directly at least in some forum on an on-going basis. The gram sabhas as provided in the Panchayat Raj Act are supposed to offer this scope for direct participation by people. But gram sabha as provided in the above mentioned Panchayat Raj Act is supposed to be normally an inter-village affair, where “all the eligible voters” are to participate and as such it is unwieldy for participation by people. Suppose a panchayat has 6,000 voters or even 500 voters for that matter. How do you get all of them to discuss together seriously in a gram sabha? It could end up as a mere token exercise. It could even lead to violence and bloodshed in unmanageable crowds.

Neighbourhood Parliaments A better option is the neighbourhood parliament system as has been promoted now in some 215 panchayats in Kerala, India. Here the parliament begins at base in the neighbourhood sabha or "ayalkoottams" of 50 families each. Each of these neighbourhood sabhas offers scope for participation. In each of these neighbourhood forums, people come together to assess their situation, to prioritise their problems, to make goal statements, to evolve micro-plans, to budget, to fix monitoring standards, etc. They also involve in the social auditing of the programmes launched by panchayats and other government structures. These neighbourhood parliaments are networked through their elected representatives at the village parliaments called "village sabhas" (and they in turn, could be networked at the level of panchayat parliament). And panchayat committee is supposed to be accountable to these parliaments. Beginning from the neighbourhood parliaments, eachThe Predicaments level has its own office bearers. Strengthening this provision is the Kerala government’s effort to converge as much as possible all its action at the level of these neighbourhood sabhas. In one district in Kerala i.e. at Malappuram, there was also an effort at having such parliaments at the levels of block and the district. Kerala government has further made it a point to integrate the self-help groups that are promoted throughout India, within these neighbourhood sabhas. In fact, in Kerala they are called Neighbourhood Groups rather than by the usual term, self-help groups, thus emphasising the territorial orientation of these groups.

Children's neighbourhood parliaments Kerala has also started, by way of bolstering these structures, parallel parliaments for children or "Kuttikalude Sabha" in some panchayats, beginning from the level of the neighbourhood. These children, who include adolescents below 18 years, have been showing greater involvement, turning out with sharper analysis and more concrete and specific proposals and steady monitoring. Similar experiments by children are undertaken in other countries too with remarkable achievements.

Elections as if people matter Mr. M.P. Parameswaran of Kerala Sasthria Sahithya Parishath has called for new election system that involves such various levels of parliament. For him the election should start at the neighbourhood parliaments. Those elected at the neighbourhood parliaments will form the village parliaments. These in turn would send elected representatives who will form elected parliaments at the level of the Panchayat. Thus, it will go on at the levels of the block, the district, the state, and the nation. The parliaments elected this way at each level are not to have more than about eighty persons at any level. Such parliaments could turn out to be face-to-face communities where members will be known for their worth and where it will be pretty difficult to go on cheating for long. Parliaments of such size could also make viable a call back facility wherein if more than half the number of people at any level find that their elected representatives are not functioning properly they can be called back and new representatives elected. Being small in number, members can meet together more easily. The election this way would be economical too. When such structures are evolved, we can definitely look forward to a situation where people are really in governance not just indirectly but also directly. (2001)