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Participation In Rural Governances Martin Poras Economics Essay

The call for a paradigm shift from a top-down planning approach to the bottom-up planning approach, marked by participation and collaboration among different stake holders necessitated the introduction of 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, providing opportunities to the historically marginalized sections of society in the rural governance process. Earlier studies on people’s participation in rural governance have concentrated on individual factor such as interest and motivation; social factor such as class, gender and economic factors such as income, and occupation as influencing people’s participation. Of late social capital has become paramount in empowering intervention with the marginalized communities. This study attempts to examine the role of social capital in eliciting dalit communities’ participation in rural governance.

Keywords: social capital, participation, rural governance, dalits

About the author

S. Martin Poras is a social activist, having a strong inclination towards rural studies. After obtaining his Master’s Degree in Social work, from College of Social Work, Mumbai, he worked in West Champaran District, Bihar on the issues of Non-Formal Education, Panchayati Raj, Self-Help Groups and social equity. Presently he is pursuing his Ph.D. at University of Madras.


“While the range of institutions that play important roles in poor people’s lives is vast, poor people are excluded from active participation in governance. State institutions are often neither responsive nor accountable to the poor and they see little recourse to injustice, criminality, abuse and corruptions by institutions even though they still express their willingness to partner with them under fairer rules”

Deepa Narayan

This above quote reveals the horrifying dichotomy that exists between the poor and the institutions of local governance, which affect their lives. This dichotomy is the result of government’s continual failure “to deliver on its mandate and act in the interest of the society” (Esau 2008: 357); conflict between “people’s demand and government’s supply” (Saito 2008:3); “lack of citizen-government interface from one election to another” (Goel 2007:167); and above all viewing individuals and institutions of local governance in isolation from one another rather than as interacting and dialoguing with one another. This ever growing ‘institutional void’ (cited in Fischer 2006:20) has not only added distrust between the marginalized people and institutions of local governance but also vastly reduced their ability to participate actively in the governance process.

Attempts to reduce these gaps and to build synergies between local institutions of governance and the poor, led to a series of experiments all over the world. This wind of change had its impact in India too, with the Government of India having decided to give a visible expression to Article 40 of the Indian Constitution, which says, “the state shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-governance.” This was made possible through the enactment of 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, promulgated by the Parliament in December1992, received the President’s assent on 20th April 1993 and came into effect on 24th April 1993. It was introduced with the assumption that it would enlarge citizens’ space in the political system; reduce the existing socio-economic inequalities, to address the issue of exclusion of marginalized communities in rural governance structures and to fulfill their quest for active participation in rural-governance.

Rural governance basically refers to a process by which institutions of rural governance are made responsive to people’s felt needs, accountable to people, transparent in their functioning and efficient in delivering their services to people. According to Dahl (1971), ‘representativeness’ and ‘popular access’ are core to rural governance. Representativeness assumes that the elected representatives exercise power on the basis of people’s support. Popular access refers to the people’s ability to get their grievances addressed. Therefore, sustained people’s participation is considered a compulsory element of rural governance. Mathew (2005) views people’s participation in rural governance as consisting of four machanisms, namely (1) exercising voice, i.e., ability to express opinion, ideas, grievances and problems, and seeking information; (2) exercising choice in the election of their representatives and services; (3) acting as pressure groups to ensure accountability, transparency, and responsiveness; and (4) access to information regarding services, and the ways and means of obtaining those services. Therefore, participation in rural governance is not an invitation, or a special concession given to the poor, but it is an inalienable right of every citizen. That is why Gaventa (2003:5) claims that the “right to participate is a prior right, necessary for making other rights real.” Establishing an egalitarian society is the goal of participatory approach. The values ingrained in the participatory approach are primacy of people, inclusivity, equity, justice, and equitable power relations.

Despite having multi-layered institutions of rural governance, attempts to involve the poor and the marginalised sections of society in the rural-governance process met with little success. Though a number of reasons have been cited for the non-participation of dalits in rural governance, now it is widely accepted that lack of social capital among dalit communities is the main reason for their non-participation. Marginalised communities in rural areas of India lack connections and networks that provide them with information and other benefits, which are essential for reclaiming spaces in the rural-governance process. “The potential of participation will be realized, when we learn to harness social capital” (Human Development Report 1993:193)

Social Capital

A review of the voluminous literature that has been produced on social capital in the last two decades reveals that there is no single and explicit definition of social capital. But there seems to be a general consensus among scholars to use the term to refer to connectedness and the positive benefits that spring from social relationship. So “social capital is a capital that is captured through social relations” (Lin 2001:19). It is social because it involves relationship between individuals, groups, and communities and it is capital because certain economic resources spring from these relationships. According to Dash (2004: 3) “social capital refers to societal capacity in working together through networking in communities, in associations with each other based on norms, procedures, traditions, memories, culture and similar features that makes possible the subordination of individual interests to those of the larger groups of the society.”

Though the term ‘social capital’ is of recent origin, its application in society is very old. Even in most primitive societies, individuals came together and formed associations to fulfil their basic needs, to cope with problems that could not be handled individually, to learn new skills or to achieve higher purpose in lives. John Dewey argued, “society means association; coming together in joint intercourse and action for the better realization of any form of experience which is augmented and confirmed by being shared” (cited in Farr 2004: 14). Alexis de Tocqueville stressed that civic associations had an important role in eliciting co-operation and civic skills among people, bringing the public together for common purposes (cited in Welzel et al. 2005). Emile Durkheim considered community life “as an antidote to anomie and self-destruction” (cited in Portes 2001: 44). Max Weber emphasised on social networks influencing economic activities (Trigilia 2001). Karl Marx’s distinction of `automized class in itself’ and `mobilized and effective class for itself’ (cited in Portes 2001: 44) is an attempt to emphasize on the communitarian aspect of human life.

Lyda Judson Hanifan was the first one to use the term ‘social capital’ in 1916, in the context of community involvement in education. She used it to refer to “goodwill, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among individuals and families who make up a social unit.” (cited in Knight, Chigudu, and Tandon 2006:73-74). Jane Jacobs used the term `social capital’ to refer to people’s capacity to organize themselves to deal with the day-to-day problems they faced. But the credit of popularising the term social capital goes to Robert Putnam, who emphasized on the role of civic associations in promoting effective governance and economic development. He observed, “citizens in civic communities demand more effective public services, and they are prepared to act collectively to achieve their shared goals” (Putnam et al. 1993:182). Since then social capital has been viewed by social workers and activists as an instrument for effective implementation of development programmes, government performance, and for the empowerment of the marginalised sections of society. So, communities with greater social capital will be better equipped to deal with the local problems in an amicable manner. That is why the concept ‘social capital’ has gained recognition in political science, sociology, economics, management, governance, development and policy-related studies.

From the definitions we can deconstruct five main components of social capital, namely; associations, reciprocity, trust, solidarity and public spiritedness. People’s ability to form formal and informal associations and networks for common purposes inculcates in them a sense of reciprocal norms, values, and beliefs, which in turn increase the trust among the members. The presence of trust facilitates collective actions, which in turn strengthens the bond among the members. Krishna and Uphoff (2002) divide these components into structural and cognitive social capital. Structural elements refer to membership in associations, networks, rules and procedures that contribute to co-operative activities. Cognitive elements refer to norms, values, trust, and beliefs. While the structural elements are visible, the cognitive elements are invisible. But both are interdependent. The major difference between these two is that the cognitive elements are extremely difficult to change with external interventions, whereas it is possible to change structural elements through external interventions (Dasgupta and Seregeldin 2000).  According to Paxton (1999), while associations and networks are the objective existence of social capital, trust and reciprocity are the subjective parts of social capital.

The structural and cognitive aspects of social capital work through collective action to have impact on people’s development, health, education, housing, etc. So, there exists a close relationship between social capital and social development. Communities with greater social capital have improved their social development index better, than those which lacked social capital. Kenneth Arrow argues that “much of the economic and (social) backwardness in the world can be explained by the lack of mutual confidence” (cited in Hoyman and Faricy 2009:317-318). The presence of low social-development index among the dalit communities is an indication of their low social capital. The social resources such as connections, networks, etc. of dalit communities are fewer compared to those of other communities both at the national level and at the regional level. Looking at this from a historical point of view, dalits have been excluded from social relations. From the economic point of view, they have been denied access to economic resources such as land, houses, etc. This has considerably hampered their socio-economic and political development. In the absence of adequate economic, social, and political resources at their disposal, ‘social capital’ is the only ‘capital’ that dalits can use to better their economic and political situation (World Bank 2001). Social capital exposes them to new information and resources and provides them with opportunities to enhance their participation in rural governance. Any effort on the part of the dalit communities to reclaim spaces in the rural-governance process calls for the building up of a social capital. The factors responsible for the formation of such social capital among the dalit communities are; social consciousness, mass political mobilization, socially conscious youths, self-help organizations and mass-based activities (Islam 2003: 164).

What type of social capital is beneficial for dalits’ participation in governance? Given the current situation of dalit communities, securing their full participation in rural governance is fully contingent upon their ability to organize themselves and engage in collective action at different levels. In a diverse context, we need to build structures that promote social cohesion among different groups and communities, which will eventually address the problems of inequality. And the best way to promote social cohesion among diverse sections is to provide a platform for interactions and collaborative actions, using bonding, bridging and linking social capital of different groups and communities. A multiple system of network and action will break dalits’ dependency and silence. According to Woolcock (1998: 186):

Development outcomes are shaped by the extent to which basic social dilemmas at the micro and macro level are resolved. Positive outcomes are attained to the extent that both embedded and autonomous social relations prevail at both levels. This happens when people are willing and able to draw on nurturing social ties (i) within their local communities; (ii) between local communities… (iii) between civil society and macro-level institutions; and (iv) within corporate sector institutions. All four dimensions must be present for optimal developmental outcomes. This successful interaction within and between bottom-up and top-down initiatives is the cumulative product of an on-going process that entails ‘getting the social relations right.

At the micro-level, dalits can make use of social capital to build and strengthen connections among themselves. Trust and reciprocity among the dalits at the micro level can increase their connectedness, and promote strong solidarity among the dalits which can further lead to collective actions to solve their problems at the local level. Social capital is elixir to bring together a segment of society based on castes, classes, languages, and ethnic groups (Islam 2004). At the meso-level, they can use social capital to establish connection between different communities and non-dalit organizations, which share similar goals. According to Woolcock (1998) poor communities must extend their social ties beyond their own community to obtain greater developmental outcomes. This is vital for the dalit communities. They need to forge ties with other groups and communities to meet their goals and to neutralize the negative role. Their social capital can make them challenge the corrupt officials. And at the macro-level, they can network with the political process.

Some oppose the move to build relationship between the poor and institutions of rural governance, saying that it would harm people’s initiatives. This study assumes that locally-elected governments, in partnership with the poor can chart out policy decisions and qualitatively change the development outcome in rural areas. Secondly, dalits have to rely on government, which provides a number of services. Therefore, the concept of social capital must also include the relationship between people and the government officials who work in the rural areas. Highlighting the positive impacts of the synergy between the poor and institutions of rural governance, Heller (2001: 158) says; “it creates new associational incentive and spaces; allows for a continuous and dynamic process of learning; promotes deliberation and compromise; promotes innovative solutions to tensions between representation and participation; and bridges knowledge and authority gap between technocratic expertise and local involvement.”


The state of Bihar constitutes the universe of this study. Bihar presents an interesting context for the study because the trajectory of the rural governance has been the most uneven and most chequered. Secondly Bihar was one of the last states to implement the provisions of the 73rd Amendment Act. From 1978 to 2001, no elections to the PRIs were held in Bihar. Bihar has three distinct linguistic regions, namely Magadh region, Bhojpur region and Mithila region. From each region one district was chosen for this study. From each district two gram panchayats, one headed by a dalit and the other by a non-dalit were to chose to carry out the study. From each panchayat, 60 respondents were selected through a random sample, stratified by sub-castes, alternating between male and female. Respondents from different sub-castes were selected in proportion to their share of village population. In addition, the dalit elected representatives in the 2006 PRI election were purposefully selected. Thus, a total of 360 respondents, 180 males and 180 females were covered. The rationale behind the use of stratified random sampling strategy was to accommodate the divergence among the dalit communities.

The data were collected by using a well-designed interview schedule consisting of several closed and a few open-ended questions. The interview schedule consisted of three sections. The first section covered respondents’ demographic, social, and economic information such as age, sub-caste, education, land-holding, occupation, and family income. The second section covered five conventional dimensions of social capital.

Dimensions of Social Capital


Associational features

Membership in formal and informal associations

Closeness to a political party

Closeness to PRI leaders

Associations with development-oriented leaders

Presence of community council

Dealing with natural calamities and epidemics

Taking initiative during natural calamity

Taking initiative during an epidemic

Respondents’ reaction

Expressions of trust

Ability to work together

Informing others when going out

Public spiritedness

Presence of selfless leadership

Maintaining public property

Engagement in common works

Expressing solidarity

Correcting children who stray

Concern for others’ welfare

The third section dealt on participation in rural governance. It consisted of 92 items. The first aspect deals with people’s participation in the process of rural governance, which includes respondents’ awareness about PRIs, participation in democratic process, participation in collective action, transparency mechanisms present in PRIs, inclusiveness of the dalits in PRIs, and power sharing in PRIs. The second aspect refers to the outcome, which includes the statutory requirement fulfilled, decision-making in PRI, and social, political, economic and, institutional benefits obtained by the respondents through their participation in PRIs. The third aspect deals with respondents’ levels of satisfaction with the works of PRIs, the benefits they have received from PRIs and their individual and community participation in rural governance.


Social Capital

About 61.39 per cent of the respondents had no membership in any kind of association; while all the elected representatives had membership in more than one association. This highlights the fact that only those with access to networks and political connections are successful in contesting in the local elections.

About 41 per cent of the respondents said that they had no community councils in their respective villages; 52.78 per cent said that they had community councils in their villages but were dysfunctional. This has increased frictions within the community, and reduced their collective bargaining power to a large extent.

About 52.22 per cent of the respondents expressed the desire to deal with natural calamities individually; this is an indication of their lack of community cohesiveness.

Among the different dimensions of social capital, expressions of trust had the lowest mean score of 2.99.

Just 22.78 per cent of the respondents shared that they occasionally came together for common work in the village. This indicates the presence of low public spiritedness among the respondents.

Nearly 51 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement that people in their respective villages were concerned with their own welfare than the welfare of the entire village.

Respondents’ characteristics associated with low and high social capital

Low Social Capital

High Social Capital




Type of panchayat




Land holding

Participation in Rural Governance

Almost 64 per cent had no knowledge about the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act; 70 per cent did not know that gram sabha had to be held four times in a year; and nearly 95 per cent had no knowledge about the funds received by their panchayats and the details regarding their utilization. With regard to awareness about their elected PRI representatives, 68.33 per cent were able to mention the name of their mukhiya; 71 per cent their ward representatives. For most respondents, PRI was synonymous with mukhiya as they had very little information about the higher tiers of PRIs.

About 25 per cent of the respondents expressed that they received no prior information about gram sabha. Respondents’ participation in the gram sabha was very poor with 56 per cent never attending it and nearly 34 per cent attending it sometimes. It showed that the dalit communities’ participation in gram sabha was not a common phenomenon in Bihar.

In gram sabha the voices of the dalits are continued to be muted by the vested interests in the village.

Nearly 27 per cent of the respondents stated “never” and 38 per cent stated “rarely”, when asked whether other caste members welcomed dalits’ inclusion in the governance process. Only 7.78 per cent stated that other caste members often welcomed the participation of dalits. The findings showed that the entrenched interests in rural Bihar resisted the move to achieve inclusive rural governance.

Of three panchayats headed by dalits, covered under this study, two mukhiyas were proxies of the local elites. Thus, the culture of putting up proxy candidates among the dalits by the rural elites to perpetuate the status quo is a common experience in Bihar. Dalits contesting in general seats is a very rare phenomenon in Bihar.

Dalits are not able to influence the decision making in the gram panchayat. Decisions are solely guided by the whims and fancies of the mukhiya

It was observed that 38 per cent of the respondents had received the full benefit of the Indira Awas schemes; about 29 per cent had received the benefit of hand pumps in their locality, about 26 per cent had received the benefit of road connecting their village and about 44 per cent had received the benefit of aanganwadi centres. Most of the respondents seemed to favour the working of aanganwadi in rural areas.

Nearly 74 per cent of the respondents expressed very low satisfaction with the personal gains they received through PRIs.

An overwhelming 82.5 per cent expressed very low level satisfaction with regard to participation of their community members in rural governance.

With regard to the constraints to participation, lack of awareness (agree 39.2 per cent, strongly agree 55.5 per cent); lack of enabling environment (agree 36.7 per cent, strongly agree 49.4 per cent) lack of interest (agree 41.1per cent, strongly agree 39.2 per cent); lack of leadership among dalits (agree 32.2 per cent, strongly agree 38.6 per cent) conflict between the dalit communities (agree 22.5 per cent, strongly agree 39.7 per cent) and lack of time (agree 43.6 per cent, strongly agree 29.4 per cent)

Correlation between social capital and participation

Strong positive correlation was seen between membership in associations and the awareness about PRI (r = 0.69, p = 0.000); participation in democratic process (r = 0.64, p = 0.000); participation in collective action (r = 0.67, p = 0.000); transparency in PRI, (r = 0.68, p = 0.000); inclusiveness of the dalits in PRI (r = 0.69, p = 0.000); and power sharing (r = 0.62, p = 0.000). This suggests that membership in different associations helps the respondents to participate in the rural governance process. The study by Huntington and Nelson also proved that the participation of members belonging to an association in governance activities was five times greater than members without any affiliation to an association (cited in Dash, 2004).

Dealing with natural calamities and epidemics was positively correlated with all the dimensions of participation, namely, awareness about PRI ( r = 0.53, p = 0.000); participation in the democratic process (r = 0.51, p = 0.000); participation in collective action (r = 0.46, p = 0.000); transparency in PRI (r = 0.48, p = 0.000); inclusiveness of the dalits in PRI (r = 0.50, p = 0.000); and power sharing (r = 0.34, p = 0.000).

Expressions of trust was also positively related to participation variables-awareness about PRI (r = 0.47, p = 0.000); participation in democratic process (r = 0.45, p = 0.000); participation in collective action (r = 0.41, p = 0.000); transparency in PRI (r = 0.41, p = 0.000); in inclusiveness of the dalits in PRI (r = 0.40, p = 0.000); and power sharing (r = 0.25, p = 0.000).

Public spiritedness had a positive correlation with the entire participation variable namely, awareness about PRI (r = 0.55, p = 0.000); participation in democratic process (r = 0.52, p = 0.000); participation in collective action (r = 0.48, p = 0.000); transparency in PRI (r = 0.52, p = 0.000); in inclusiveness of the dalits in PRI (r = 0.52, p = 0.000); and power sharing (r = 0.38, p = 0.000).

Expressions of solidarity had a high positive correlation with awareness about PRI (r = 0.52, p = 0.000); participation in the democratic process (r = 0.50, p = 0.000); participation in collective action (r = 0.50, p = 0.000); transparency in PRI (r = 0.50, p = 0.000); inclusiveness of the dalits in PRI (r = 0.48, p = 0.000); and power sharing (r = 0.40, p = 0.000). This table (see Annexture 1) vividly makes it clear that all the social capital variables contribute to the participation variables.

Chi-Square Test for Association between Social Capital and Participation in

Rural Governance

Social capital

Levels of Participation

Row Total











































Column Total





Note: The value within ( ) refers to Row percentage

The value within [ ] refers to Column percentage

Table 4.5.5 depicts the influence of social capital on respondents’ participation in rural governance. The statistical analysis shows that there is a significant association between respondents’ levels of social capital and their participation in rural governance with P value being 0.000. Therefore the statistical analysis validates affirmatively that, the higher the social capital of the respondents, the greater will be their participation in rural governance.


The real test of good rural governance lies in the ability of the marginalized communities to actively participate in formulating policies and programmes to enhance their quality of life. For that to happen, the dalits need to increase their social capital. They need to form associations at the panchayat, block, and district levels, to increase their bargaining power and to project their common interest. Harnessing of social capital among the dalit communities will facilitate their participation in rural governance and add to the transformative processes at the grass-roots level and thus change the lives of the marginalized communities in the rural areas of our country. And it will ultimately lead to the realization of Gandhi’s vision of dynamic and self-sustaining rural India.

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