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The Information Deficit: Use of Media in a Deliberative Democracy

This study of more than 40 gram sabha proceedings in West Bengal finds that villagers use information on people's entitlements to challenge local governments. The media is a significant source of information: out of 27 meetings in which villagers speak up, the media is cited in nine. But the "thinness" of information on entitlements in the media makes it easy for gram panchayat members to refute legitimate claims. The information deficit in the public sphere, arising from media apathy and political collusion, translates into inability of the poor to assess local governments. While the role of the media in strengthening the functioning of electoral democracy is acknowledged, media indifference to deliberative democracy limits poor people's capacity to translate immediate demands for goods and services to aspirations for a good life.


The Information Deficit: Use of Media in a Deliberative Democracy

Swati Bhattacharjee, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay

This study of more than 40 gram sabha proceedings in West Bengal finds that villagers use information on people’s entitlements to challenge local governments. The media is a significant source of information: out of 27 meetings in which villagers speak up, the media is cited in nine. But the “thinness” of information on entitlements in the media makes it easy for gram panchayat members to refute legitimate claims. The information deficit in the public sphere, arising from media apathy and political collusion, translates into inability of the poor to assess local governments. While the role of the media in strengthening the functioning of electoral democracy is acknowledged, media indifference to deliberative democracy limits poor people’s capacity to translate immediate demands for goods and services to aspirations for a good life.

The transcripts used in this research were collected for a study by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo (2004). The authors wish to thank Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo of ALJ Poverty Action Lab, MIT, for sharing the transcripts. Swati Bhattacharjee is grateful to Banerjee for academic advice. Prasid Chakraborty and his team provided excellent support in field research.

Swati Bhattacharjee ( is with the Ananda Bazar Patrika, Kolkata and Raghabendra Chattopadhyay ( teaches at the Public Policy and Management Group, IIM Calcutta.

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n India, access to information has come to be linked with poverty reduction. First, with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan movement starting in the mid-1990s, access to information among the poor shifted to the question of right to life and livelihood, from the previous context of free speech and free press (Jenkins and Goetz 1999). Second, there is a feeling among theoreticians of both the Right and the Left that people should participate more in administration of welfare schemes (Kymlicka and Norman 1994). Better information may make the poor aspire for better services and motivate them to work towards getting them (World Bank 2004). Finally, access to information helps an individual to protect her interests against administrative discrimination and social injustice.

While the Right to Information Act, 2005 is often seen as the primary tool for access to information, the village assembly – gram sabha – is also designed to ensure citizens’ access to information on governance. The gram sabha, an assembly of all voters of a gram panchayat (GP), was introduced as mandatory by the 73rd Constitution Amendment. Members of a GP must disclose reports on its income and expenditure, progress of public works, rationale for decisions taken and follow-up action on previous gram sabha decisions (Jain 1997). Of course, traditional casteridden politics aims to subvert the ambitious picture of direct democracy upheld by the Constitution. Many village councils do not convene the gram sabha at all (Rao and Sanyal 2009) and adopt many strategies to ensure that villagers do not turn up or speak out (Matthew 1999). Attendance in village assemblies is usually low and women remain at the margins (Nambiar 2001).

Nevertheless, studies show that villagers routinely confront and challenge elected representatives and government employees in village assemblies. They often embarrass members of local self-governments and force them to admit their mistakes (Ghatak and Ghatak 2002). The village assemblies are embedded in electoral politics and local politicians risk alienating vote blocs if they suppress voices. The gram sabha, therefore, briefly releases Indian villagers out of the “inequality trap” and gives them the freedom to speak (Rao and Sanyal 2009). Even in West Bengal, where political parties have largely replaced traditional and social organisations (Bhattacharyya 2009), the meetings of the village constituencies (gram sansads) cannot be entirely scripted by political leaders (Corbridge et al 2005).

Do village assemblies bring results for the poor? Researchers believe they do. In four south Indian states and in West Bengal, studies find that where the gram sabha meetings are held regularly and the poor participate in large numbers, more state benefits are targeted towards the poorest and the lower castes (Bardhan et al 2007; Besley et al 2005). It seems that where participation is better, public forums can put pressure on governments. As Pranab Bardhan and his co-authors (2007) write, village meetings form “a channel of accountability” of local governments to the poor and low caste groups.

But what strategies people use to make the “channel of accountability” operational in the gram sabha is not well understood. At the centre of the idea of deliberative democracy is the idea of the informed citizen – an individual who is aware of her entitlements and knows how these could be achieved through the processes of governance. She may develop such awareness in various ways, such as through her participation in activities of a political party, or in social movements, or through participation in programmes which aim to “build capacity” of villagers in participatory planning and execution of local area development projects.1 But even when she has one or more of these opportunities (most rural citizens do not), she benefits from access to a public sphere which provides information on her entitlements, thereby acknowledging them and upholding her right to claim them. Media is an important part of this public sphere. When media is rich with discussions, debates and critique of the state – particularly examining the state’s relationship with the poor – it may provide the rural citizen the frame for her understanding of her encounters with the state and put her immediate grievances in a broader perspective. Though studies show limited access of the poor to media (Bardhan et al 2007) television and newspapers may have wider influence on the poor since they shape the political discourse on public platforms, to which the poor are exposed. It is well known that media influences public discourse and electoral politics by flagging certain issues, such as starvation deaths, and ignoring others, such as chronic under-nutrition (Moeller 1999). Studies have shown that the poor do use information from media to assess their representatives, rewarding politicians who gave importance to people’s preferences (Banerjee et al 2010).

But do people use media in deliberative democracy? Do platforms of direct democracy such as the gram sabha show any evidence that people get information on their rights and entitlements from media, and use such information to put local governments under pressure? Further, does use of information from media bring them results? This research analyses transcripts of 44 gram sabha meetings held in the Birbhum district of West Bengal in 2002-03 (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004). It finds that villagers do have access to media and quote media to claim their entitlements. However, the “thinness” of the information in the public sphere – such as government advertisements on schemes of social assistance which say nothing beyond benefits and basic eligibility criteria – put villagers at a disadvantage when negotiating with local governments. GP members can easily dismiss information on a wide range of entitlements (subsidised food, housing grants, maternity benefits, pensions, support price for crops and so on) as “incomplete” or “misleading”. Most frequently, GP members quote procedural rules, such as quotas, to justify why legitimate claims from the old, widows or the poorest cannot be honoured. An examination of the exchange serves to highlight the limitations on information campaigns in media in the actual realisation of people’s rights. The fact that journalists and editors do not challenge many of the claims made by the state on public schemes and services to reveal inconsistencies and uncertainties seriously compromises the capacity of the poor to claim their entitlements. This is one of the factors which explain why, even when people follow the prescribed norms of participation – attend village assemblies, exercise “voice” and use information to challenge authorities – their efforts may not bear fruit.

For the purpose of our research, the gram sabha proceedings were recorded and transcribed, gender and caste of participants were noted, but speakers were not identified by caste. This study, therefore, does not throw any light on the comparative discourses of different social groups. It is also restricted to one district, Birbhum. The aim of the study, however, is not to find recurrence of a pattern, but to identify strategies villagers and GP members use to challenge one another. Some of the practices are likely to be common across districts, as was found by Ghatak and Ghatak (2002).

Table 1: Subjects on Which Villagers Asked the Most Questions

Topic No of Gram Sabha No of Villagers Gender
Roads 11 23 M=22, F=1
Water 11 22 M=20, F=2
Education 11 12 M=12
Electricity 6 12 M=8, F=4
Culverts/drainage 6 8 M=8
Irrigation (pumps) 5 8 M=7, F=1
Housing (Indira Awas Yojana) 4 5 M=4, F=1
Subsidised food under different schemes 4 4 M=4
Public toilets 3 3 M=2, F = 1
BPL list 2 6 M=6
Loans 2 2 M=2
Sports/playgrounds 5 6 M=6
Maternity benefits 2 2 M=2

Attendance was low in the Birbhum gram sabha meetings, as in most places in the country. While the total number of voters in the 44 GPs ranged from 4,850 to 16,500 (it was above 10,000 in at least 18 GPs), the attendance ranged between 21 and 50 villagers in 18 meetings, and 20 or less in seven meetings. Only in five meetings, were above 200 people present. The highest attendance was 1,427, and the lowest attendance was one – only the pradhan turned up in Kirnahar-I and read out the work plan to an empty field.

As a background to the study, it may be interesting to note the subjects on which villagers asked the most questions (Table 1). This largely follows the usual pattern, with roads and water getting the most mentions, followed by education, electricity, drainage, irrigation and housing. The number of women in this table is very low, because many women who spoke in the meetings asked for help without specifying a service or a benefit (“Please do something for me”).

‘Incomplete, Misleading, Bluff’: Media and the Market of Information

A study on media use in rural West Bengal by Bardhan et al (2007) found that television news exposure is related to land status, ranging from 31% among the landless to 72% among big landowners. The less educated villagers, women, scheduled

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castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) watch less television. About 33% listen to radio news.

Media emerges as a significant source of information in the Birbhum gram sabhas. In the 27 meetings in which the villagers spoke, media is mentioned in nine. Media here seems to be playing the role designated to it in a democracy – reaching out to people with information on the goods and services that should be available to them. People quote television, radio or newspapers when they ask for their entitlements. The gram sabha meetings of Birbhum seem to be prime examples of the World Bank’s prescription for participation: where information raises people’s capacity to exercise their “voice”. GP members have to cope with the expectations raised by these reports. They do so mostly by claiming that news in media is misleading and inaccurate.

It may be interesting to look at some of the instances of such exchanges: In Rudranagar (Murarai II), a villager says he has learnt about the support price of paddy from radio, but does not know where to sell at this price or who will pay the price. The upa-pradhan could not provide the information, and replied that messages in media were “incomplete”, “misleading” and gave false hope.

In Dakshingram (Mayureshwar I), a villager (Braja Gopal Mandol) said,

We hear on the television, that the unemployed are being provided with loans. But we do not get that type of response from our elected members. For the loans provided under DRDA or other loans, the bank is saying that those are not being recovered. So the bank is not providing us loan.

Sunil Pal of Panchra (Khayrasol) said, “We see on television that many schemes are being provided by the government through the panchayat, such as Sarak Yojana or Indira Awas or sanitation. But in reality we are getting nothing from the Panchayat….” In response the pradhan said,

It is being advised on television to contact the panchayat for old age pension. But we want to reveal the actual fact. The government is telling us to deduct 10% from the quota and prepare the list accordingly. New ones are not coming up; instead the ones which were there are being deducted. So those which are announced on television are bluffs more or less. Even the scheme for providing latrine at a cost of Rs 2,000 is a bluff.

In another meeting, a GP member said, “You have seen on television that all those who are above 65 years will get old age pension. But in our panchayat, only 78 persons get old age pension. Now even that 78 has been reduced to 70.”

In Alunda (Siuri 1) a male villager, who is possibly a political worker, speaks against news on television: “After watching television they (common people) think that by going to the panchayat, a house under Indira Awas can be obtained. But do we get so much (funds)? When it comes to the panchayat, we find that the quota is three to four. But seeing on television, it (seems like) a very great matter. The same thing can be said about Maternity Benefit.”

GP member: “We may send a budget of Rs 35,00,000 but through the year we may not get even Rs 1,00,000. The people think that lakhs of rupees come to the panchayat. But we do not get so much money.”

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Villager (Female 1): “I am saying that it is being shown on television about rice being given under Annapurna Yojana, but in reality this is not so”.

In Margram I (Rampurhat II), a GP member said: “Old Age Pension, Annapurna, Antyodaya Anna Yojana – all those we are seeing on television and hearing over the radio… in reality we are not getting those”.

Troubling Picture

The picture that emerges from these exchanges is troubling. Villagers are unable to hold the GP members accountable, clearly because the information they have is incomplete and inadequate. Exercises in “information dissemination” and “transparency practices” by governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), often through media, provide information that can be seen as “thin” and “brittle”. Such information raises people’s aspirations but cannot support them. GP members are able to push away people’s challenges with relative ease. They lump all news on entitlements together and reject them as false. What is more, they dismiss media itself as “unauthentic”.

But are villagers easily rebuffed because of their limited ability to derive and use information from media? Or is it because of dearth of useful information in media? Following Jenkins and Goetz (1999), one could say that the latter is certainly a reason – most information made public is of very little utility in practice. Information on entitlements put out in the public sphere by governments and NGOs is deficient, as they do not seek to equip people to engage in confrontation. Details of government schemes, basics of eligibility requirements or “public works signboards” which indicate the name of the concerned contracting firm, amount of funds sanctioned or quantity of materials purchased cannot provide groups of citizens with the in-depth information required to verify whether funds have been misappropriated. Villagers would need access to documents which would indicate how individual applications under anti-poverty schemes were assessed, and how and to whom funds were disbursed. Without these details, villagers have little scope of finding out whether there has been bias in beneficiary selection. But disclosures of this nature would essentially imply a direct confrontation with the authorities, both to gain access to documents and to demand explanations from officials for discrepancies. The forms of participation in decentralised governance, as institutionalised by governments and by international development agencies, do not accommodate or encourage such confrontations.

In none of the Birbhum meetings did the villagers actually ask to see documents reducing beneficiary quotas, or how much money was allocated for any of these schemes or whether any amount was lying unutilised. Nor did they question the norms according to which beneficiaries were selected or how the waiting list of candidates was prepared. This may be because of their desire to avoid political or social confrontation, but it may also be because they did not have the right clue on what questions to ask. This serves to show that costly information campaigns on “rights” or “entitlements” may be of little use to villagers.

What is equally clear is that media did not ask the questions which villagers could not. West Bengal held panchayat elections in 2003, and the state government was clearly publicising schemes on individual benefits, without making public the limitations on entitlements such as “quota”. Media investigations rarely expose such hypocrisy by state governments and typically ignore these (a search of the websites of The Telegraph and The Statesman, two Kolkata-based dailies, showed no news reports on reduced quotas for old age pension or widow pension during 2002-03). Nor do they examine claims of non-supply or short-supply made by village-level providers of goods and services, working up the rungs of supply. The widespread corruption in diverting foodgrains from subsidised food schemes were brought to light by a series of public attacks on public distribution scheme (PDS) shops in West Bengal in 2007. The process of social monitoring that the panchayat was supposed to conduct over the PDS was virtually absent in the state, and the distributive system was highly corrupt and insensitive (Bhattacharyya and Rana 2008). Personal interactions with PDS shop owners in 2007 in several districts of West Bengal found that shop owners routinely denied the quota of grains to people above the poverty line (APL), and showed a blank on display boards against APL entitlements. Despite the enormity of the problem in terms of both money and its impact on the poor, mainstream media had mostly ignored such corruption, the collusion of local governments and non-functioning of village-level monitoring bodies. West Bengal’s off-take of rice and wheat for PDS for both below the poverty line (BPL) and APL categories was much beneath the national average of off-take over several years (Bhattacharyya and Rana 2008). Before the PDS anger erupted, there was little, if any, mention in media of this.

When “leakages” are publicised through the media, it brings results. In Uganda, Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson (2005) set out in 1997 to see how much of the grants to schools (for expenditures other than salaries) were actually reaching the schools. Comparing the amounts received by schools with what was sent from the central government, they found that only 13% of the amount actually reached the schools. The results, when released to media, caused uproar and the central government started publishing month-by-month information on how much money was being sent to schools. By 2001, a repeat survey found that schools were receiving 80% of the grants.

In recent years, the media in India has shown greater interest in stories on waste of foodgrains in PDS, and reported on largescale food scams such as in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (Viswanathan 2011). But while such stories do set the context for people to assess the performance of governments and may have important electoral impact, district-level or block-level data on allocations and allotments are rarely provided. This limits people’s ability to hold local governments accountable.

Another problem is a lack of comparative analysis of the entitlements provided by different state governments. While rural politics in West Bengal revolves around granting BPL cards, media in the state hardly ever highlights that PDS in Tamil Nadu is universal, or that the Kerala government adds its own “quota” of BPLs to that of the central government. The lack of critical examination of “quotas” and other controlling mechanisms allows state governments to create uncertainties around entitlements, and local governments can easily shift blame for non-availability of goods and services to higher rungs of government. The poor cannot usually cut through the confusion, unless political actors, social movements or media reports reveal the true picture.

A second reason for the inadequacy of information available to citizens has been pointed out by Stuti Khemani (2007). According to Khemani, there is a deficit of information on public services like health and education in the political market. People do not know village-level or block-level targets, or budgets, for schools and health centres and, therefore, cannot assess the performance of governments. Most of the information in the political market, says Khemani, is on individual entitlements. The Birbhum proceedings show that though roads, water, electricity and education were the top-most subjects brought up by villagers, they quoted the media most on matters on individual entitlement – old age pensions, loans, latrines (for households), supply of subsidised rice and housing grants. This indicates that media also plays by the rules of the “political market” of information. If rules are modified so that disclosing figures on important development goals (such as on school dropouts, number of days meals are given in schools and preschools, malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, credit linkage of self-help groups in gram sabha, etc) become mandatory, such information can trigger discussions of different dimensions. Village-level disaggregated data on targets and achievements could put a lot of the failures in providing public goods and services at the door of the GPs.

Media undoubtedly plays a major role in ensuring government responsiveness to local needs. Besley and Burgess (2002) had analysed data from 16 Indian states over three decades to show that where newspaper circulation is higher, governments show greater responsiveness to flood damage and food shortage. But such onetime “shocks” like floods – which can be easily captured in pictures and in figures, highlighting human suffering – are easier to portray by media. They also have immediate impact on electoral politics by highlighting efficiency, or failure, of governments. In “government by discussion” (Sen 2009), on the other hand, it is not the catastrophic events but the daily nitty-gritties of governance processes, particularly processes of decision-making, which need to be laid bare and examined. At the same time, local targets and achievements need to be made public. It is paradoxical that a lot of data on health, nutrition, educational infrastructure and so on are routinely collected by different government departments from villages (such as by anganwadi workers, auxiliary nurse midwives and schoolteachers), which could be easily used to construct indices of local development. But these data are only reported upwards, and do not percolate down to people through channels of governance or politics, or local media.

‘A Clean Certificate’: Media and the Politics of Collusion

Media is keener on news of corruption in panchayats and sets the frame for some exchanges in gram sabha. In Ruppur, a GP member said, “I can swear that the things which come up in papers or we hear about different panchayats are (untrue). After my five years’ experience I want to give a clean certificate to Ruppur Panchayat”. In Deucha (Siuri), the panchayat secretary similarly

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said that news reports on corruption in panchayat were no longer true, since panchayats now presented accounts twice a year before the villagers. The information deficit, in the case of accounts, is different. Villagers often show considerable initiative in questioning accounts, but (as the exchanges below show) have a low capacity of examining and questioning the accounts presented. While part of this – villagers admit – is because of low literacy, an important part is also due to the fact that the institutional mechanisms created for examination of accounts do not work properly. While media often publishes excerpts from audit reports on misappropriation or non-utilisation of money for public works, it rarely ever exposes the political collusion at the state or district levels which makes institutional mechanisms dysfunctional and allows corruption to flourish. This frustrates villagers’ attempts to hold their governments accountable.

Awareness of Funds Use

An examination of the Birbhum transcripts shows that villagers have considerable awareness on allocation and expenditure of funds at the local level. In Mallikpur (Siuri), a villager asks what happened to the funds for work on a pond, which was twice returned. The job assistant admits that the work was left incomplete and unspent money sent back, and ends with the assurance, “We have noted it down in today’s meeting; this has been approved”. In Kundala (Rampurhat), a villager says, “A large amount of funds was released by the District Primary Education Programme for distribution among the primary schools. What happened to the money? ...Why is it not being allotted for Bhabgati Primary School?” The upa-pradhan replies, “Surely we will take some measures about it”. Villagers closely questioned income-expenditure reports, clarifying the opening and closing accounts according to calendar year and financial year, pointed out mistakes in the income expenditure report, wanted to know about the amount of rice received under food for work programmes and debated whether the money given to old age pensioners instead of rice matched with the market price of rice, demanded to know not only the name of SC grant beneficiaries but the amount of money given to each, in which places the programmes for which the GP showed expenditure (such as sports events or repair of tube wells) had taken place, and so on.

In some of the villages, people show a genuine interest in understanding the accounts, and show frustration when they cannot do so, protesting at the manner in which the incomeexpenditure report is presented. In Rajnagar, Siuri, a villager said, “The secretary placed the account but we were unable to understand it. But we have to speak in favour of the panchayat because in future we or any one of our children or brothers may be elected to the panchayat.” In another place, people asked for photocopies of the documents read out. One man, after several questions on expenditures, gave up and said, “We have nothing else to say. We are not literate so how can we comment on these figures? They must be correct.”

Presenting the audit report, though mandatory, was probably a more risky business. In only 10 meetings was it presented, and in two of these, the explanations were met with repeated uproar, interrupting the proceedings. Under pressure to explain the

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irregularities, the panchayat secretary of Mohammadbazar revealed that interest from the housing (Indira Awas Yojana) fund was used to buy tea and snacks, instead of utilising it in mandated ways. Other irregularities revealed in different meetings included excess cash in hand of the pradhan at the end of the financial year, buying materials without approval of the purchasing committee, purchasing without tender and so on. Only minor, procedural irregularities were read out in the panchayats, and GP officers explained these more as departures from the “word of the book” or as “clerical fault”, and even alleged that some of the rules were unreasonable, as they delayed work. Even in those meetings where no one asked questions on the audit report, the GP members or employees explained the reasons for irregularities in some length.

The picture which emerges from these meetings – villagers struggling to make sense of the income-expenditure reports in an attempt to check misappropriation – indicates an information deficit arising out of democratic deficit. What is not disclosed in meetings needs to be demanded, a role assigned to the opposition. What is disclosed in the gram sabha needs to be assessed against the internal audits by the panchayat accounts and audit officer, statutory audit done by the examiner of local accounts, as well as scrutiny by the district vigilance and monitoring committee of the district council (zilla parishad), which is headed by the leader of the largest opposition party. In 2008-09, not a single meeting was convened by three of the 18 district vigilance and monitoring committees (Government of West Bengal 2009). Five district councils did not meet even once. Clearly, politicians of the opposition are abdicating their responsibilities.

A fact that could give much leverage to villagers is the amount of unutilised funds with GPs. In an audit of West Bengal GPs for 2006-07, 1,189 were found to have spent only 57% of funds from the Twelfth Finance Commission (Comptroller and Auditor General of India 2007). GPs are often unable to spend large parts of their “own fund” as well. Yet this information, which opposition political parties could easily publicise as failure of the party in power in the GP, could also give considerable negotiating power to villagers to push forward their demands. They could challenge the rhetoric of “lack of resources” put forward by GP members by raising questions on efficient management of resources. The demands for entitlements, then, would not halt at the boundaries of schemes and quotas.

Why should the media ignore these serious deficiencies on the part of political parties? One reason, as already noted, is that media generally ignores processes of governance, or views them only in the light of outcomes such as achieving targets of polio eradication or total sanitation. The practices of deliberation are not taken seriously, or viewed (sometimes justifiably, perhaps) with suspicion. A further problem is the disinterest of mainstream media in rural life (Sainath 2004). Only serious cases of violence or natural calamities induce media organisations to send reporters to villages. Journalists, therefore, have little scope of developing an understanding of the nuances of the processes of direct participation. Yet these processes have the potential to change traditional power relationships by creating new possibilities of coalition and new forms of claim-making (deSouza 2003). Media is oblivious to one of the most potent struggles in democracy in India today – the battle between “the field and the fence” at the grass roots, where citizens tend to use platforms like the gram sabha to expand the arena of accountability of the state, while political actors tend to limit it to the narrow confines of administrative procedures.

As a villager (Dwarka G P, Labpur) said “Gram sabha is the place from where the people will know about the total works of the area. Decisions would be taken after openly discussing with the people. This is gram sabha as far as we understand”. A pradhan (Illambazar G P, Illambazar), on the other hand, started his welcome speech in this way, “Residents of this area, you all know that there is a government rule by which we, the people’s representatives and the government employees of the panchayat, are bound to hold this gram sabha”. He went on to explain the functions and agenda of gram sabhas. While many GP members and staff encourage people to be critical and offer their views on the performance of the GP, they adopt various strategies to limit the gram sabha to its mandated functions of approval of projects, budget and beneficiaries.

An amusing example of this is Ruppur G P (Bolpur- Shantiniketan), where a zilla parishad member, Rabindranath Pal, said in an introductory speech, “You can speak up unhesitatingly whether partiality has been done, whether opinions of the people have been taken, whether any illegal work has been done…The opinion of people have the most acceptance. This honour the Left Front government has given you.” When the secretary invited questions, a villager asked, “How did the bridge at Kamalakanta Board break within three months of its construction? Have you enquired about it?” To which Rabindranath Pal replied, “Taking the permission of the president, I wish to say that this meeting is for the gram sabha. The accounts of the last six months and of plans taken up have been placed over here. Nothing can be said outside six months.” Not another word was spoken on the bridge, which had broken down over a year ago. People respond to such hypocrisy with silence or with sarcasm. As the pradhan invited suggestions for work, a villager replied, “We do not want anything. We want to love our country.”

The Field and the Fence: Why the Media Misses the Story

The media in West Bengal is dominated by middle class, urban journalists who tend to think of rural life as the sphere of “party politics” and petty corruption. This can make the media completely oblivious to significant wins and losses in the struggle between “the field and the fence” being fought in over two million village republics in India. The largest experiment in direct democracy in history stays below the radar of media attention. This became apparent in West Bengal in 2010.

There were incidents of violence in the gram sabha meetings following the 2008 panchayat elections, when the Left Front lost its majority to the opposition parties. This violence was used by the political elite as the reason to curtail the powers of two grass








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roots institutions, the gram sabha and the gram unnayan samiti (GUS). The GUS, formed in 2005 by a government order,2 was to act as an “executive arm” of the gram sabha and carry out its recommendations at the level of the constituency. The participants in the gram sabha could nominate candidates to the GUS in open voting. The GUS, which had its own bank account, could receive money devolved by GPs and spend according to resolutions adopted by villagers. Citing the violent incidents of 2008, the state government, in 2010, scrapped villagers’ right to nominate candidates to the GUS in the gram sabha (the winning and the nearest defeated candidates would nominate candidates instead). The GUS also lost its power of operating bank accounts on charges of “corruption”, brought by top-level leaders of political parties in two state-level all-party meetings (in November 2009 and February 2010). GPs lost the power of devolving money to the GUS “unconditionally”.3 Political violence in gram sabhas, therefore, seriously curtailed the powers of both GPs and gram sabhas.

Exploring ways in which the social elite manipulates the gram sabha, deSouza (2003) wrote on the use of violence to threaten marginalised groups as they stake their claim. In West Bengal, the political elite, which was largely responsible for the violence, also used it to curb the voices of the lower-level actors. In two all-party meetings, held in November 2009 and February 2010, top leaders voiced concerns on violence and corruption in gram sabhas. But the government order rescinding the power of the GUS to operate bank accounts was almost completely ignored in media. The top Bengali daily, Ananda Bazar Patrika, did carry the news with the headline, “State Wants to Curb Powers of Gram Unnayan Samitis” (Sengupta 2009) but the move was projected more as the Left Front’s attempt to drive a wedge between the two major opposition parties – the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. The report did not quote any villager, GP member or lower-rung political leader. Civil society groups are predominantly urban and focused more on human rights and freedom of expression. Except for a few groups which worked with panchayats, most were indifferent. There was practically no public discourse around the decision to curtail powers of the gram sabha.


The Birbhum meetings show that the poor do exercise their “voice” in platforms of participation, but the voice tends to come across as small and selfish. The clamour for cheap rice, housing grants, pensions or loans seem to push poor women and men deeper into the role of “beneficiaries”, far from the paradigm of concerned citizens deliberating on local development and monitoring the performance of local governments. Cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai (2004: 68), however, hold these small demands to be of great significance, as they raise the poor’s “capacity to aspire”:

The poor, no less than any other group in a society, do express horizons in choices made and choices voiced, often in terms of specific goods and outcomes, often material and proximate, like doctors for their children, markets for their grain, husbands for their daughters, and tin roofs for their homes. But these lists, apparently just bundles of individual and idiosyncratic wants, are inevitably tied up with more general norms, presumptions and axioms about the good life, and life more generally.

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The capacity to aspire, says Appadurai, is a navigational capacity – a capacity to link immediate opportunities to more general possibilities. Those social groups which have a greater capacity to produce “justifications, narratives, metaphors and pathways” through which bundles of goods and services are tied to wider social scenes and contexts will be better able to realise their aspirations. The poor, who lack opportunity to practice this navigational capacity, have a more brittle horizon of aspirations.

This insight is useful in understanding the limitations of villagers in Birbhum to negotiate their demands. In the practice of participatory democracy, governments and NGOs try to equip villagers by making them “informed citizens”. They are provided with information on the functioning of local governments, usually through “capacity building” exercises such as participatory planning, mapping local resources, identifying local development needs and beneficiaries. But the “navigational capacity” – the capacity to see and traverse the pathway between contending claims, and from immediate needs to wider aspirations – remains undeveloped. The narratives of rights and entitlements, deprivation and desperation produced by the poor are blocked by contending narratives of rational and responsible citizenship produced by the political elite.

This inability of villagers, however, has to be put in a wider context. First, as the studies in south Indian states (Besley et al 2005) and in West Bengal (Bardhan et al 2007) show, greater presence of the poor in the village assemblies results in better targeting. Hence, negotiation skills need not be the only determinant, or even the key determinant, for securing entitlements. Just by turning up at village assemblies, the poor may exert an influence on local governments.

Second, the electoral choice exercised by the poor serves to make political parties responsive to their needs. Media plays a crucial role in highlighting the needs of the poor to the centre of politics in electoral democracy. Perhaps the most comprehensive research establishing the link between greater penetration of media and greater responsiveness of governments came from Besley and Burgess (2002). Examining data from 16 Indian states from 1958 to 1992, the researchers showed that where newspaper circulation was better, there was more public action in cases of drop in food production due to droughts, and greater relief expenditure in cases of crop damage due to floods. This confirmed their theory that an incumbent will respond more to a shock when media is highly developed.

Another study in India draws a closer link between the preferences of the poor and their use of media to reward political candidates who honour such preferences. In an experiment carried out before the Delhi assembly elections of 2008, an NGO produced “report cards” for each of the 70 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), published them in the Hindustan newspaper and provided it for free to slum-dwellers in a random sample of polling stations. The report card included information on a candidate’s attendance at legislative sessions, their work in committees and how they spent their MLA development funds. Voting patterns found that in areas where exit surveys had found price rise to be a major issue, candidates who formed committees to monitor the price of rationed foods got a significant boost. In areas where local development was a priority, however, incumbents who spent more of their discretionary funds in slums increased their voter share (Banerjee et al 2010). So it is clear that the poor can, and do use information on local development to hold leaders and officers accountable.

While the role of the media in providing information useful to the poor in electoral democracy is apparent, how it can be useful to the poor by enabling them to engage in direct, participatory democracy is still unclear. Three problems can be identified. The first, as already noted, is the quality of information campaigns which governments and NGOs may run in the media. Being essentially of the nature of advertisements, these do not provide people with the rationale of a programme, conditions for eligibility, allocations, guidelines for selection and so on. As we see from the Birbhum meetings, the presence of “quotas” in schemes was not publi cised, putting the villagers at considerable disadvantage while claiming entitlements. Governments also tend to spend huge amounts showcasing “achievements” of local self- governments before elections, rather than providing people with useful information on how to make use of programmes. Second, journalists tend to regard villages as spheres of partisan politics and political violence. They view villagers’ efforts to hold local governments accountable in public platforms of deliberation with suspicion, and ignore these meetings as the “results” are not immediately clear. Lastly, journalists typically do not produce


1 For example, the Department for International Development sponsored the Strengthening Rural Development Programme in West Bengal and the Madhya Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Project between 2005 and 2011.

2 110-PN-O/1/1A-1/20, dated 07.01.2005.

3 1284/PN/O/1/1A-1/04 (Part 2), dated 08.03.2010.


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content on processes of decision-making, local targets and achievements in education or health, efficiency and transparency of public services in villages or lapses in vigilance and monitoring activities. Particularly, they do not step in to clear uncertainties on entitlements or to fill the gaps in the information created by collusion among political parties. Media disinterest in the working of democratic institutions seriously compromises the ability of villagers to assess their local governments and to hold them accountable.

In a vibrant democracy, the battle between the field and the fence will shift shape and scope every year, drawing and re-drawing the boundaries of accountability. One contentious factor will be control over information. Political engagement, social movements, women’s movements and caste-tribe mobilisations will certainly play a crucial role, not only in enhancing access to information on entitlement and allocations, but in setting new contexts for information collection, analysis and application to development. But along with this, there is a need to think how mainstream media in India, as a determinant of public discourse, will address the largest-ever experiment with direct democracy. Do journalists have the skills and the will to produce content that will be rich and deep enough to increase the capacity of the poor to produce “justifications, narratives, metaphors and pathways” from their immediate needs to their aspirations for a good life?

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