The pursuit for citizens’ participation in governance to unravel the democratic deficit in India has been resolved with the implementation of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. The acts for decentralising the governance devolved functions and powers of decision making to local governments and provided for constituting Ward Committees in local bodies. Complying with the 74th Amendment Act, the Kerala Municipality Act was enacted in 1994. As per the Act, every municipality where population exceeds one lakh shall constitute a Ward Committee for each ward and every municipality where population does not exceed one lakh shall constitute a Ward Sabha for each ward. Ward Sabha is the smallest administrative unit consisting of all electorates living in the ward. Ward Committees comprise an elected councillor and few representatives of the ward and their important tasks are preparing and supervising ward-level development schemes, identifying beneficiaries of welfare schemes, among others. In Kerala, Ward Sabhas and Ward Committees have demonstrated a history of bridging the gap between citizens and the municipal government and played an inevitable role in ensuring participation of citizens in decision making processes. For reaching each and every citizen of various social status, the State has a total of 21,908 wards in which 12,915 wards are reserved for the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Women (Department of Panchayats 2020).
Decentralisation of power uplifts peoples’ participation and subsequently increases the efficiency of governance. With the constitution of Ward Sabhas in Kerala, administrative power from the State government was transferred to local-level administrative institutions and elicited people’s participation in development. Participation, transparency and efficiency are fundamentals of decentralised governance. The responsiveness and accountability of Sabhas can be recognised when they function actively. The Sabhas of Kerala were initiated with a huge support of citizens and around 10 per cent of the total population of the State participated in it in 1996. In the subsequent rounds, it witnessed a decline in participation. Now, the declining attendance in Ward Sabhas is a matter of great concern as it is the very rationale of decentralised planning. Initiatives like conducting massive training for members of Sabhas could not find much results as there were less initiatives from the elected representatives to follow up. The Ward Committees of Kerala are still witnessing participation fatigue, particularly from the State’s educated upper and middle income groups who are apathetic to these meetings.
Taking the examples of wards having higher participation, people who are in need of beneficiary schemes are the active participants. Nowadays, activities of Ward Sabhas and Committees are more about identifying beneficiaries and allocating beneficiary schemes. Majority of people participate in Ward Committees for personal benefits rather than the desire to be part of governance. Over the years, their role has been contracted to mere allocators of beneficiary schemes. As a result, the actual powers and responsibilities of Sabhas and Committees could not be completely realised by citizens, along with their role in the development process.
Under Section 43 of the Kerala Municipal Act, the members of Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) and resident welfare associations, among others, are provided membership of the Ward Committees. The representation of civil society members in Committees is open to all residents of the Ward, irrespective of their economic or social backgrounds. Therefore, one finds middle income and lower income representation in Ward Committees through resident welfare associations and NHGs. The Ward Committees let citizens to raise their fundamental issues regarding poverty, unemployment and resource allocation. Bringing broader issues of development in Ward Committees set high expectations which the elected councillors may not be able to deliver due to administrative, financial and legal constraints. An Urban Governance Study by Praja, on devolution of powers and capabilities of cities, reveals that in Kerala, out of 18 functions as per the 74th Constitutional Amendment, 6 functions are under city government control, 10 are administered by multiple agencies and 2 are directly under the State government. The dispersion of responsibilities for the delivery of urban services means that it is far more difficult, especially at ward level, to fix accountability on any of the institutions. This implies that the Ward Committees have many constraints in raising issues with service delivery of critical urban services like water supply, sewerage and highways. This reduces the effectiveness of the outcomes that can be achieved by these Committees.
The Kerala Municipality Act, 1994 empowers municipalities to prepare a development plan every year for the succeeding year considering the issues and needs submitted by the Ward Committees or Ward Sabhas and further direct it to the District Planning Committee. Over the years, the councillors find it difficult to integrate the needs and demands of people at ward level; moreover, development plans failed to meet their expectations. This has made people believe they are not part of the decision making system, which is a reason for the present participation fatigue. Along with quality and magnitude of participation, translation of participatory inputs into actual institutional outputs play a key role in decentralised planning. For deepening democracy, Ward Kendras came into being, which was envisaged as office of the Ward Sabhas and its substructures. It came as a part of institutionalisation of decentralisation and supposed to ensure service delivery and integration of development activities. Ward Kendras which are supposed to be offices of Ward Development Committees and to be started in each ward are spotted only in a few wards of the State.
Participation cannot be seen as a process where many are involved in achieving a common agenda, it also demands accommodating diverse individuals with a sense of dignity and self-respect to realise their desires. Considering the negligence towards marginalised sections of the society like the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, women, elderly, children and differently abled, an operational manual for Grama Sabha or Ward Sabha for special categories has been released in 2015 by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration. For including their needs and issues in development plans, meetings for special categories are organised in selected municipalities at the initial stage. But no such meetings were reported in the following years. A further heave is required for the successful and effective operation of Sabhas for special categories. Women self-help groups and community-based organisations can play a vital role in giving wide publicity and providing encouragement to people to participate in meetings. Else, women representatives of such groups can form closed social media groups and bring collective opinions and needs of special categories in meetings. The issues raised by such groups should be included in the preparation of development plans.
Transparency could play a vital role in bringing back the spirit of active participation among citizens. Regaining the lost faith of people about their role in the decision making process is inevitable. The culture of public action in Kerala and density of active social and political organisations still provide an opportunity for furthering urban decentralisation and promoting an even greater participation of citizens in urban governance. Especially, making use of online platforms to inform and attract more people, ensuring transparency and providing portals for receiving issues and queries. Such initiatives will also guide the representatives to frame agendas for each meeting beforehand, so that it will not land up in mere distribution of welfare schemes. A voluntary movement for improving the quality of life in the Bengaluru city called ‘Citizens for Bengaluru’ played a vital role in making Ward Committee meetings transparent. Through an online platform, ordinary citizens can track Bengaluru Ward Committee Meetings. Also for the first time in the history of India, a Ward in the metropolitan city of Bengaluru conducted ‘Children Ward Sabha’ with the participation of more than 500 children.
Initiating online platforms for democratic participation will enable people to connect each other through their opinions and discuss their concerns. People can give suggestions about new proposals, where to spend money, track in real time how the selected projects are carried out and even vote for proposals which will ensure collective opinion in decision making. For instance, in Barcelona, Decidim is an online platform for democratic participation, where citizens can become more involved and decide what they want for their surroundings. It is a digital tool through which the city council can reach and take into consideration citizens’ opinions, views, concerns and needs.
As a part of institutionalisation of decentralised power, monitoring of functions of Ward Sabhas and Committees is required. Currently, Ward Kendras are supposed to coordinate the activities and Ward Development Committees are responsible for the effective and efficient functioning of Ward Kendras. Therefore, a special body with non-elected members, which can coordinate the activities of Sabhas and Committees, ensuring the delivery of information to people, ensuring the support of experts when required and integration of development plans is recommendable. Delivering the updates of ongoing projects and schemes to people will increase the efficiency of working of Ward Sabhas and Committees, which will further enhance people’s active participation with the help of online platforms. Wide publicity of such platforms is another requirement for deepening democracy, as there are chances of people being ignorant about such initiatives after their implementation. Therefore, any such initiatives should be preferably accompanied with extensive publicity though notice or mass media so that all voters of each and every Ward will be acknowledged about them.
Ayyapan, R. 2016. “Kerala: Decline and Fall of Grama Sabhas.” Deccan Chronicle, November 15, 2016.
Department of Panchayats. 2020. “Local Self Government Institutions.” Government of Kerala.. https://dop.lsgkerala.gov.in/en/article/158.
Gopika. G. G. 2019. “Kerala Economy : Features and Problems of Decentralised Planning in Kerala.” Centre for Development Studies:Trivandrum, Kerala.
Kerala Institute of Local Administration. 2015. Grama Sabha/Ward Sabha of Special Categories -Operation Manual. Thrissur, Kerala, India. http://library1.nida.ac.th/termpaper6/sd/2554/19755.pdf.
Kuruvilla, Yacoub Zachariah, and Smita Waingankar. 2013. “Ward Committees, Citizen Participation and Urban Governance: Experiences of Kerala and Maharashtra.” https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.5138.8804.
Local Government Commission. 2016. Institutionalization of Local Governments in Kerala – Report I.
“Urban Governance Study.” 2011. Praja Foundation. The Kerala Municipality Act 1994.
Vidyarthee, Kaushal K. 2006. “Ward Committee: Tool for Participatory Local Governance.” In Ward Power: Decentralised Urban Governance, edited by Parth J Shah, Makarand Bakor, 51-70. New Delhi:Centre for Civil Society.
This article was written by Liz Mariya Jacob under the guidance of Praseeda Mukundan .
Liz Mariya Jacob, Research Intern and Praseeda Mukundan, Former Senior Associate, Research at Centre for Public Policy Research.
Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.