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Inclusive, Participatory Democracy

Seva Mandir undertakes all work at grass-root levels through community institutions called Gram Samuhs (GSs) or village groups, of which households of a village or its hamlets can be members. The groups are formed and facilitated by Seva Mandir to be the primary platforms for discussion and decision-making. The samuh members democratically elect the Gram Vikas Committee (GVC, or village development committee), which has equal representation of men, women and children and of all hamlets and community groups within the village. All members of the samuh sit on the same jajum (carpet), literally and symbolically, to deliberate and decide on matters related to their development.

Villages in our work area have for years been dealing with segregation and deprivation. In some cases, different areas of a village or hamlet are home

to different caste or tribal groups, with tensions sometimes existing between them. It can therefore be challenging to ensure that the poorest of the poor are brought onto the platform and their voices heard. Women have historically been denied any access to such spaces at household and community level, but, at Seva Mandir’s insistence, this has changed for thousands.

The GSs form the bedrock of all development activities in the villages we work with and are at the root of our constructive work. These institutions discuss local issues and problems in order to arrive at democratically agreed, just and inclusive solutions.

Each committee also manages a village fund, known as the Gram Vikas Kosh (GVK), which is built up through villagers’ contributions. The GVK is augmented by voluntary contributions from the community, for example a percentage of villagers’ wages earned for labour during a project, fines collected from those encroaching on pasturelands, or token amounts from activities such as grass cutting and village functions. This contributes to community cohesion and ensures village-level sustainability as well as a degree of financial autonomy. The GVK funds are used only with the agreement of the entire institution and for development activities of benefit to the whole community.

To further empower the Gram Samuhs and spread the impact of local-level self-governance, the committees have been amalgamated into federations, which are multi-layered, self-governing community institutions created by Seva Mandir to address larger-scale issues. The federations work on social as well as financial issues and liaise with various government as well as non-government agencies to arrange support in relation to the issue at hand. In addition, they support and strengthen the village-level groups and the committees in their regions, encouraging leadership and spreading knowledge about government schemes. Federations also help villages which are newly part of Seva Mandir’s development process to understand the values of village groups and committees.

‘Thirty years ago, we were asked to sit outside the village meeting space where discussions were held. Speaking in these meetings was prohibited for us, but with Seva Mandir’s intervention, today I am one of the senior members of the federation.’ Lakshmi Devi, Badgaon.


Impact

At present, there are over 735 village groups (GSs) and 600 Gram Vikas Committees with a membership of over 67,500 men and women, and they have formed 32 zonal federations spread over six different areas, and two larger regional federation bodies. They have helped improve the attendance of staff in Anganwadis and school teachers, and government’s handling of adolescent and child protection issues.  These GSs have a total GVK of approximately INR 68 million (nearly a million USD).

The regional federations have helped improve the quality of government facilities like toilets and clean drinking water systems by meeting government officials, holding multiple village meetings and mobilising communities to take action. They have recently started helping GSs form links with farmer producer companies, such as Udaipur Urja Initiatives ensuring that farmers obtain the best prices for their produce.

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