In such a large country like India, one would think that giving a voice to villagers would be a far-fetched dream. However, this dream is a reality through the Panchayat Raj Institution (PRI, a local governing body). The Jassur Panchayat of Nagrota Block has brought democracy to the simple villagers and given them power over the affairs of their own village. A model of fairness and empowerment, the Jassur Panchayat serves as an example of democracy at its best. The active participation of the villagers ensures that their voice is heard and the requirements of the village are met.
The PRI operates through two main meetings, the Upgram Sabha and the Gram Sabha. The Upgram Sabha takes place in the different wards of a Panchayat and it is here that villagers are able to sit and discuss problems of the ward and the development work that needs to be done. A list is made based on the priorities that the villagers designate to each concern. All members of the ward participate resulting in cooperation and positive changes.
The Gram Sabha takes place at the Panchayat level four times a year. Before, government policies were created at the central level and then implemented at the village level. This resulted in inefficiencies because many of the specific problems of the village were not addressed. However, after the creation of the PRI and Gram Sabha, needs were determined at the village level rather than from ‘above.’ The Gram Sabha allowed the common person to participate in the development of the village and gave them responsibility for the changes that they wanted to see take place.
The Jassur Panchayat has utilized these forums to make changes in their village. However, this was not always the case. Before, many of the villagers did not see the need to participate in these meetings. Many of them could not see why they should stop their work in the fields or in their homes to attend a Panchayat meeting. There was no response from the women of the village as they were normally not given any leadership roles or even allowed to leave their homes. Jassur remained fractioned and undeveloped. This would soon change when CORD workers came to the village and saw how inefficient the PRI was running.
Through the Mahila Mandals and the Yuva Mandals, CORD was able to bring awareness to the women and youth about the importance of the Upgram and Gram Sabha. Without the support of these village level institutions, a meeting of the size and importance of a Gram Sabha would not be possible. Therefore, the mobilization of these groups was critical. At first, there was resistance to the information that CORD workers were bringing to the villagers. However, in due time when the villagers saw that CORD was not there for its own benefit but for the benefit of them, they started listening to what CORD workers had to say. CORD workers showed them that these forums were for their benefit if used properly. CORD workers also helped to empower the women to attend the meetings and start a new tradition of women participation. Training was provided for the members of the Panchayat on how to run a proper meeting and the member’s roles and responsibilities. However, the Jassur Panchayat did not stop at the participation of women in the meetings. The villagers elected an illiterate woman, Amro Devi, as their Up-Pradhan (Vice-President). This bold woman received votes from all villagers, male and female, because they believed in her and trusted her leadership. Through CORD, Amro Devi has traveled to Dehradun and received higher, more specialized training on PRI.
The Panchayat, with the help of the villagers, has made changes not only in the physical appearance of the village but also in the hearts and minds of the villagers. The developmental changes that they have implemented include building roads to make the village more accessible, numerous bowries and wells, and a cremation ground. However, the villagers themselves have been affected by this entire process. They have come to know about their rights and they have improved their relationships among each other. The relationship between the Panchayat and the Mahila Mandal has also improved which has led to higher participation by women. The interest that the villagers take in the meetings reflects the responsibility they feel in their hearts and can be seen by the high attendance of men, women, and youth. Also several handicapped people attend the meetings and are given a voice to reveal their concerns.
The dedication of the Panchayat members can be appreciated by seeing their hard work and commitment to the betterment of the village. Amro Devi often goes from door to door reminding the villagers of an upcoming meeting. She reminds them that this meeting is for them and is not some kind of formality.
Today, the members of the Panchayat take pride in the fact that they are maintaining a democracy and not a dictatorship. During the meetings, the Pradhan leaves the villagers to solve each others problems. By keeping the system transparent, the Panchayat members have gained the trust of the villagers and given them autonomy over their own issues and concerns.