According to the Gujarat Panchayat Act it is mandatory for every Panchayat to set up Social Justice Committees (SJC). These Committees are statutory bodies meant to ensure the participation of weaker sections of society such as women, dalits and tribals in the decision-making process of the Gram Panchayat. The elected members of the Panchayat nominate adult representatives belonging to these communities to the SJC in every village. The SJC has a distinct identity within the Panchayat structure. It is empowered to identify developmental requirements in the village with particular emphasis on the needs of these marginalized communities and make recommendations to the Gram Panchayat to include these demands in its budget. The Panchayat has a duty to undertake the implementation of these projects upon receiving sanction from the administration. During the three decades since the passing of the Panchayat Act, these committees have at best remained inactive or at worst exist only on paper. In hundreds of villages these committees just do not exist at all.

A few years ago CHRI started working with a few rural communities in Panchmahals district aimed at increasing awareness about their rights and entitlements and the laws and procedures that relate to their everyday lives. The larger objective of this intervention is to make access to justice a reality for people who need it most. Some of the people we were working with emerged as natural leaders and decided to take on the work of spreading awareness in a similar manner. They are also assisting the larger community with everyday problem solving.

In the course of their work they realized that a large number of problems were related to the working of panchayats and could in fact be addressed at that level itself. So people sat together and brain stormed about solving village level problems. The solution in this case was to increase people’s participation in gram sabhas to make them aware of what welfare schemes were being made for them and what entitlements were available to them. During this period we learnt about the SJC, its roles and responsibilities and the powers with which the SJC members were vested. However we also learnt that these committees were nonfunctional almost everywhere. The brainstorming pointed to the need for activating SJCs mandated to work towards securing equality and social justice within villages.

We undertook a survey in 13 villages to ascertain the existence of the SJC and assess its working. The survey revealed that SJCs were formed only in four villages. In two villages the Talatis (revenue officials) informed us that the names of the members of the SJCs were not readily available with them. They promised to provide us with these names the following week. We collected the list of SJC members the following week. Believe it or not, in three villages, members of the upper castes had been nominated to the SJC in place of dalits and adivasis. In the remaining villages there was no SJC at all. Our curiosity did not end there. With the names of committee members in hand we quizzed them about their roles and responsibilities. It was no surprise that they appeared clueless about the existence of the SJC and had no idea that they were actually members of such a committee.

This survey prompted us to find out the status of these committees in the whole taluka. By this time the new Right to Info rmation (RTI) Act was in place. The easiest way of obtaining the above information would be to make an application under the Act rather than go to every village conducting a survey. Zakir filed the RTI application before the Taluka Development Officer (TDO) who is the designated Public Info rmation Officer (PIO). Zakir asked for the names and addresses of the SJC members in all villages falling within the Kalol Taluka. He also asked for copies of the minutes of the Taluka level meetings of the chairpersons of the SJC. Such meetings are required to be conducted once in six months.

Zakir received a response to his application a week later but not in writing. The TDO’s secretary telephoned Zakir and asked him to visit the office personally. This is contrary to the spirit of the Act which requires nothing more than an application (and fees) from the requestor to get information. Nowhere in the Act or in the rules is there a provision which requires the applicant to appear before the PIO to justify his application. Nevertheless Zakir decided to meet the PIO.

When Zakir met the TDO he was not in the least forthcoming or open. He told Zakir that the formation of the SJC was not the responsibility of the TDO. Instead Zakir was advised to collect the information from the talati of each village if he was so interested. Zakir however argued his case by saying that the Panchayat Act very clearly states that the overall responsibility of ensuring formation and smooth running of the SJC lies with the TDO. The TDO was taken aback. When he realized that the law required him to give the information requested, he agreed. However the information was not available with him so he asked Zakir to come back after a few days. He assured Zakir that he would issue a circular to all the talatis of the taluka asking them to provide him with the necessary information regarding the SJC and the meetings held so far.

After this circular was issued the talatis got busy. As expected the committees in most villages were not even formed. The talatis started forming the committees and completed the required formalities. A mere application under the RTI Act has brought these committees into existence - almost three and a half years after the last Panchayat elections.

Once the committees were formed and the names of members were available, the talatis provided the information to the TDO. The TDO, in turn, got busy compiling this information. He realized that he would not be able to provide the information within the stipulated 30 days. He informed Zakir that he was compiling the information and that it would take some time and requested him not to file an appeal against the delay. He guaranteed Zakir that the information would be provided to him.

After 45 days of filing the application Zakir got the list of SJC members across the taluka. However the minutes of the SJC meetings held at taluka level were not provided. What was in fact provided was merely a copy of the concerned pages of the Panchayat resolution book. This contained a list of names of people who attended the meeting and the dates when these meetings were held. This information definitely did not qualify as minutes of the meetings. However the TDO was in no position to provide the minutes because in reality these minutes did not exist. This was simply because meetings of the SJCs had never taken place. The entries in the resolution book were a mere formality that was completed to show that meetings were held. When we asked the TDO about the meetings he said that the resolution book was all that was available with him. And for sure he was not lying.

Today across the taluka these committees have become functional. Of the initial 13 villages that we targeted we continue to work in those villages raising awareness amongst its members about the functions of these committees, the motive behind the creation of these committees and the roles, responsibilities and duties of committee members. It will take a long time before anything changes. It is going to be a long journey but we are glad it has begun.

Compiled by Sonal Thacker and Navaz Kotwal for CHRI, August 2006

{Zakir is one of 30 men and women in Panchmahals district, Gujarat trained by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to use the RTI Act since 2005.

RTI revives Panchayat Social Justice Committees in Gujarat

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