A true democracy is one where citizens can participate directly in the process of decision making. While voting is the tried and tested way of doing this, for the process to be consultative, it should involve the direct participation and engagement of citizens. In India, citizen groups have emerged both organically and otherwise through which citizens conscientiously engage with the government and their own governance. However, they remain local, informal, fragmented and thus unsustainable as they are not linked to the formal process of decision making of any urban government.
To solve this problem Janaagraha proposed the concept of Area Sabha. This formal platform for participation at the neighbourhood level will be part of the government’s decision-making system.
The figure illustrates the solution being suggested and describes the proposed structure in detail. It can be understood in terms of platforms and participants.
Platforms: There are three, at the level of the municipality (A), at the level of the ward (B), and at the level of the polling station, called the area sabha (C). There shall be a ward committee in every ward, irrespective of the size of the ward or the municipality.
While the first two are well known, it is the area sabha that is being newly introduced. The footprint of every polling station could be the smallest unit in such an architecture; this
could be called an area sabha. Each of these is a legitimate, formal space, which will be defined in terms of constitution, composition, functions, duties and responsibilities.
Participants: Every registered voter of a polling booth (boundaries of the polling booth will be defined by the election commission) shall be a member of that area sabha. This creates an urban equivalent of the grama sabha, retains a reasonable level of intimacy, and recognises the unique features of urban dwellings. At the next level of the ward committee, the current practice of nomination to the ward committee can be replaced by a nomination of an area sabha representative from the area sabha. The benefit of this structure is that it automatically adjusts for the size of a municipality or ward, rather than have a prescribed single size being defined for a ward committee. Large municipalities would have wards with greater population, more polling booths, and hence more area sabhas, resulting in larger ward committees. Smaller municipalities would have smaller population in each ward, hence fewer area sabhas and fewer members in each ward committee.
The structure above solves many problems of urban governance:
1. It will give formal voice to every voter to participate in issues of local governance, removing the lopsided treatment of the rural and urban voters that has prevailed since the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments were passed.
2. This three-tiered municipal governance structure will also create accountability of the municipality directly to the citizen and expose citizens to the need to participate, rather than stand on the side lines and complain. While participation cannot be expected to be widespread, this process of political engagement will bring citizens closer to government, and seek solutions to public issues from our public institutions rather than outside them. In some sense therefore, area sabhas are as much about government accountability to citizens as they are about citizens’ accountability to themselves.
While rural participation is embedded in the Constitution, citizen involvement in urban areas is still very indirect. This needs to be urgently corrected. In the context of urban decentralization and the need for citizen participation, area sabhas offer a solution that can be embedded into law at the state and municipality levels, without having to change the Constitution.
Prachi Sinha works as the RAMP Associate with Janaagraha.