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Dalits and decentralisation—Why is it important?

Gurusaravanan M and Thol Thirumavalan
Gurusaravanan M hands over Decentralization Manifesto 2021 to VCK chief Thol Thirumavalan

In a federal set-up, decentralisation can be defined as the powers that are transferred or taken away from the Union Government and State Government and given to local self-governments. 

The concept of decentralisation is not new to India and it has been practised since ancient times in several parts of our country. One such example can be found in the stone inscriptions from Uttiramerur temple in Tamil Nadu during the Chola period, which showcases how some villages acted as local self-governing units in the 10th century. 

The inclusion of Article 40 in the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) in the Indian Constitution officially paved the way for infusing the spirit of decentralisation in our country. Article 40 states, “The State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” 

The Constituent Assembly had a heated debate on Article 40 before its inclusion in the Constitution since it was not part of the draft constitution and was added later as a new amendment on November 22, 1948. 

It has been projected that B R Ambedkar was against the idea of decentralisation and devolution of powers to the local-self governments, however this view is incorrect. In the debate on the Bombay Village Panchayats Bill, 1927 in Bombaly legislative assembly, Ambedkar clearly pointed out that he was only apprehensive about the existing functioning of panchayats since caste-based atrocities and discrimination against Dalits were prevalent in the villages. He demanded reservation for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Minorities in the local government. He said, “Speaking for the depressed classes … I can never accept the principle of self-government for India unless I am satisfied that every self-governing institution has provisions in it which give the depressed classes special representation in order to protect their rights, and until that is done, I am afraid it will not be possible for me to assent to the first part of the Bill.” 

During the period of 1950–1991, most of the states enacted their own panchayati raj acts but these acts did not make provisions for reservations for Dalits. During this period, states also didn’t have much political will to empower the local government bodies since they were fighting for their own rights in the federal set-up. 

Political representation to Dalits

With the enactment of 73rd and 74th constitution amendment acts in 1992, India created a third tier of the government called local self-governments apart from existing Union and State Government. Both these amendment acts mandated the establishment of village panchayats, municipalities, etc, to function as local governments. Provisions have been made for the reservation of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women in all local self-governments, thereby reiterating the vision of Ambedkar. 

This is an important political breakthrough for Dalits, which ensures their participation in the process of decentralisation and for the welfare of local socio-economic development. It is to be noted that the highest number of political representatives from among Dalits are getting elected in the sphere of local self-government. 

Caste discrimination

Although political representation has been given to Dalits, one still sees the prevalence of caste-based atrocities in village panchayats. In two recent incidents in Tamil Nadu, an elected Dalit woman representative was not allowed to sit on a chair at meetings in the panchayat office while another was not allowed to hoist the national flag on Independence Day

The elected Dalit members are routinely sidelined from the day-to-day affairs and development works in the village panchayats. Even when they report these cases, the police often don’t register cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. 

Why oral histories matter

As a Dalit youth hailing from a small rural village in Tamil Nadu, the schools didn’t teach me about the caste discrimination faced by Dalits nor the emancipatory work done Ambedkar. But, I have been discriminated against in my school and even during my master’s. Once when I had gone to the registrar to explain my project in order to get funding, the first question he asked me was, What is your community?  At that point, I didn’t have the courage to question him; I instead became tearful. 

Moreover, my parents also didn’t share their struggles and the discrimination they had faced with me until I recently initiated the conversation. I came to know about the discrimination they had gone through and also about my grandfather who had independently contested in local body elections and fought for the rights of Dalits.  

I would like to point out that, in their own struggle for survival, Dalit families forget to share their stories of the past with their children. However, if these histories are shared with the new generation, they will be very helpful in the political empowerment of the youth. These oral histories will be very effective in politicising the youth and society in general.

VCK on decentralisation 

A civil society collective consisting of a number of organisations, including Institute of Grassroots Governance, Thannatchi, Voice of People, Arappor Iyakkam and Thozhan Iyakkam, which is working for the empowerment of local-self governments, prepared a Decentralization Manifesto for Local Governments 2021 at the time of recent Tamil Nadu assembly elections. This manifesto was shared with all political parties in the state to instil a strong political will, thereby iterating the importance of decentralisation and to address the problems faced by elected Dalit representatives. 

On behalf of the Institute of Grassroots Governance (IGG), I happened to meet the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) president Thol Thirumavalavan in Delhi who patiently listened to my narration of the problems faced by elected local government representatives and promised me that he would take appropriate action. The VCK later released its manifesto for the state assembly election, which had a separate chapter on local administration. Following are some of the points from the manifesto:

  1. Conducting proper Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) in all village panchayats.
  2. Actions will be taken to ensure elected Dalit, Adivasi and women representatives are able to exercise their rights without anyone’s interference.
  3. ₹10,000 as salary for elected village panchayat presidents instead of the existing honorarium of mere ₹1,000.

The VCK’s emphasis on decentralisation in its manifesto sets a right example for political parties across the country and needs to be replicated in other states. Political parties like the VCK must work towards creating a strong political will from the present state government to devolve more powers to local-self governments in Tamil Nadu. 

Decentralisation is social justice

The provisions in 73rd and 74th constitution amendment acts specify the powers given to local governments to legislate and implement plans for local economic development and social justice. Through Gram Sabhas and Ward Sabhas, local governments are empowered to make their own development plans where the active participation of Dalits is very important to ensure social justice. States like Karnataka and Gujarat have formed social justice committees in all the local governments, an initiative that could be emulated in Tamil Nadu and other states and union territories to address the issue of caste-based discrimination and for the empowerment of Dalits, Adivasis and Minorities.

It has been almost three decades since the 73rd and 74th amendment acts were passed by the parliament but how far they are being implemented is still a question. No proper study has been conducted to assess whether they have helped the cause of Dalit political emancipation. My purpose behind writing this article is to sensitise people about the importance of decentralisation for Dalits and to connect with like-minded Dalit researchers, activists, development practitioners and volunteers who would be interested to contribute for a proposed Dalits for Decentralization project, which will strengthen our vision of building a local-governance movement in India. 

Decentralisation is social justice and to achieve the real fruits of decentralisation, the contribution of Dalits and Dalit movements is vital. 

Gurusaravanan M is the chairperson of the Institute of Grassroots Governance (IGG).

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