Voices from the margin

Print edition : November 13, 2015
A bottom-up view of the development process using the concept of community participation.

IN the 1980s and 1990s, a long-haired British professor was invited to several development sector meetings in India. He had stayed so long and travelled so extensively in the country that he was considered almost an Indian.

Professor Robert Chambers from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, had a messianic zeal in promoting the concept of participatory rapid rural appraisal (PRRA). It was a process through which villagers could be supported to map out their village, identify their needs, and plan and implement their development activities. He hoped to correct through the PRRA the skewed power structure of decision-making in which an outsider decided what the development needs of a village were and how they should be delivered.

The Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, an Indian development organisation, has been practising participatory decision- making for development for the past two decades. Participation Pays: Pathways for post-2015 is born out of this experience.

The editors, Tom Thomas and Pradeep Narayanan, the chief executive officer and director of Praxis, claim that the book is drawn from their experience of using people’s participation “to subvert for good, in the continued struggle for a democratic basis for state power, without which addressing structural cause of poverty would be a near impossibility”.

They call participation a process of powering knowledge from the margins by challenging dominant data, tackling myths and showcasing alternatives. They cite Chambers’ philosophy as the inspiration for their organisation. While rural development institutions started using the concept of participation in their projects, it became just another item in the checklist for programme implementation.

“A good part of participatory approaches got pushed back into the fold of knowledge for its own sake, with no particular accent on dialogue to raise critical consciousness or probe deeper into structural causes of poverty,” Thomas and Narayanan write.

Even the political Left could not break the social and political hierarchies when it used participation in its People’s Plan Campaign in Kerala. “It failed to go beyond the party’s attempt at community outreach.… It also almost completely failed to reach out to the poorest—the Adivasis (tribal communities) of Kerala.”

Through Praxis, the Left wanted to break that and give new life to participation. In 2008, Praxis undertook an exercise, along with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Ekta Parishad, in 38 villages in multiple districts of Bihar to involve representatives from the most marginalised communities to map out land ownership in their villages.

The Bihar experience

In Bihar, there is constant violence over land disputes. The land into which the Himalayan rivers descend in torrents ironically is not always fit for cultivation. Around 30 per cent of the land in the State is uncultivable. At 91.06 per cent, the percentage of marginal holdings is much higher than the rest of the country. The average size of landholding is also sub-critical at 0.39 hectares, against the national average of 1.16 ha. Aggravating these limitations is the fact that there is inequity in land ownership. While there is a higher concentration of the landless, the landed own vast swathes.

Those living on the margins of this agrarian system—sharecroppers and landless labourers—were identified to make the maps. The chapter authors note: “It was when the maps were brought to a public location within the village that the subversive potential of the exercise was at its height.” By involving the larger group of villagers to endorse the accuracy of the maps, a certain bottom-up legitimacy and understanding was created.

“The villagers use the maps in various ways. In a number of villages, they have been tools for lobbying for the distribution of unused public lands. In villages such as Mircha Kodasi in Jamui district, the maps gave credence to campaigns against illegal occupancy of land above stipulated ceilings. In Bagaha block in West Champaran and other locations, the mapping exercise facilitated the identification of households without homestead lands. These households were eligible to be granted four cents of land as per State government’s policy.”

In short, the authors claim that the land-mapping exercise gave a greater data-based bargaining power for the land-poor. And, it is not as if the people’s voice went totally unheard.

The government’s attitude towards women jointly owning land became more positive. Two laws proposed in 2009, the Bihar Land Tribunal Act and the Bihar Land Disputes Resolution Act, helped in speeding up the resolution of cases linked with land disputes.

It has been proved over time across the world that when empowered with appropriate data ordinary people can deliver results disproportionate to their socio-economic status. And when the marginal groups themselves collect the data, their understanding of the fundamentals of political, social and economic inequities become clearer. Their ability to articulate their problems and persuade policymakers and administrators becomes stronger. Thus, the Bihar exercise would have had a positive impact, even if one were to discount the fact that these claims are made in a book published by the project-implementing organisation.

Similarly, Praxis worked on a five-State audit of people’s access to infrastructure facilities in 2011. The study covered 124 villages in nine districts of undivided Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Odisha and Rajasthan. The infrastructural facilities assessed were panchayat offices, post offices, health sub-centres, schools, fair price shops, community centres, integrated child development centres, road connectivity, power connectivity and drinking water.

The findings reiterated the fact that access to infrastructure was iniquitous in Indian villages. “A substantial share of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and minority habitations were left out of official coverage.” The service providers’ attitude to these communities was different from what it is to others. Since the facility is located in an area where people belonging to the other castes live, it is not just the social distance but also the geographical distance that separates the marginalised from it.

This reality, however, does not get reflected in development discussions in which the focus is restricted to providing infrastructure. “The framing of policy itself also warrants some scrutiny,” the authors write. “The language of the flagship programmes [of the national and State governments] is typically goal oriented and not barrier focussed.”

Development goals

Real participation from the grass roots brings these issues into focus. It throws these perspectives into the local, national and international discussions and gives a view that is different from that of external experts.

What makes Participation Pays topical is that it talks about getting people involved in their own development at a time when the international community is transiting from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs were launched at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit held in New York in September. Prime Minister Narendra Modi represented India at the highest level at the summit.

The preparation phase for the SDGs was different from that of the MDGs. When the MDGs were prepared, there was no space for people’s direct participation in framing goals and indicators. For the SDGs, the U.N. opened the space for civil society interaction. Praxis facilitated the involvement of communities through ground-level panels (GLPs).

In 2012, the United Nations formed a high-level panel (HLP) of 27 eminent individuals to draw up the goals for the post-2015 agenda, co-chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Meeting this process from the other end, the participate initiative of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, created the GLPs in Brazil, Uganda, Egypt and India.

Praxis coordinated the GLP process in India. The Indian GLP brought together a team of 14 persons who had deprivation, poverty and marginalisation as a common theme in their lives. Using their lives as an experience, the GLP identified issues and development goals, while reviewing the HLP goals.

Interestingly, the 15 GLP goals from India included establishing a corruption-free world; establishing accountability mechanisms; ending discrimination and stigma; abolishing traditions and practices that sustain discrimination in society; promoting the interests of agricultural labourers, farmers, tribal people and slum dwellers; protecting the environment; protecting workers’ rights; and promoting gender equality and safety in public spaces.

The view from the bottom can obviously not be the same as that from the top. The concerns and priorities are different. It gives strength to people’s voices and vibrancy and robustness to a democracy. Although Participation Pays records the experience of a single NGO, it does not lack in diversity of stories.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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