Community participation is no longer a buzzword in development. Decades ago it was something that you spoke about and wrote into proposals submitted to donor agencies. Gradually, as many development NGOs began to understand and internalise the power and potential of this paradigm, they made it an integral part of their programs.

The Government also did not lag behind, and has been providing legitimate and official space for different forms of community engagement in many programs. So much so, that today many anti-poverty programs of the State necessarily includes a major role for communities to participate and partner. But are things happening as envisaged? Are communities actually participating to the desirable extent? Can the extent of this participation be measured and if yes, what could be the metric? Will a mere program output being accomplished mean that communities actually participated in the program?

Empowered on paper

I have been grappling with these questions over the last many years. Many years ago the Government of Karnataka had announced with a lot of fanfare the introduction of the Joint Forest Protection and Management Program. This involved setting up Village Forest Committees (VFC). The Government had prescribed how the committee had to be populated and how many members would be in the committee. I even remember that the then Chief Minister Veerappa Moily had showed keen interest in this program. The officials overseeing the program became overzealous, and made an announcement that 3000 VFCs would be set up within three months.

There is now a tension between elected representatives who genuinely believe that they are the chosen ones to articulate the aspirations of the communities that they represent, and the neo-groups that are emerging under various Government programs.

 •  Community conservation growing
 •  Strengthening communities
 •  The vanishing commons All that happened was the local forest guards (who were the point of first contact for the community) ended up just writing names of people they knew and submitted the same to the department. Three thousand VFCs did emerge on paper, but how many of them were 'true community' groups, is anybody's guess. Sadly, today virtually none of these groups have survived and JFPM has remained a wasteful reminder of how things should not be done.

We now have the National Rural Health Mission, that has tried to emulate many success stories across India, especially in the NGO sector. Many of us NGOs have been able to give credible and functional space to communities and our programs reflect their aspirations. In an attempt to recreate this 'good practice' (pun intended), the health ministry has mandated the formation of Village Health & Sanitation Committees (VHSC).

Once again, however, all that the Government has managed to do is some excellent 'isomorphic mimicry' and have failed to bring in the processes that happened behind the scenes in the programs of the NGO sector. We today have VHSCs formed where membership is offered as political favours and the untied funds are seen as another readymade opportunity to siphon off.

I am not implying that all the groups formed till date have problems, but then groups need to be allowed to organically evolve and not be imposed from the top. Community engagement is a subtle and long drawn phenomena and one cannot enforce or expect them to perform in a pre-determined manner. While fully understanding that equitable representation in these groups is important, one cannot insist on particular combinations and then hope that the dynamics within the group will have no negative impact on its functioning.

Vigilance Committees of the Public Distribution System provide another example of a wonderful initiative that has failed due to improper preparation. These VCs were to be monitors and watchdogs of the Fair Price Shops set up under the PDS. They were to be populated by the users and were set up to ensure that the distribution of the food grains was both qualitatively and quantitatively as prescribed. While most of these Committees are defunct, the relatives and friends of the shop owners populate many. In a few places, I even know that the members have started demanding a share of the 'spoils' and are regularly supplied with a few kgs of rice and a few litres of kerosene to let the system function as it today is.

It is indeed ironic that these Vigilance Committees now need Vigilance committees to monitor them. Could this have been avoided if more attention had been paid to the structure and function of community participation? Could adequate training on the roles and responsibilities ensured more active and ethical engagement?

Some positives

The School Development & Management Committees are an example of the other side - showing how communities can be associated with a program that positively impacts their lives on a daily basis. Having the experience of working with thousands of such groups across Karnataka, it would not be wrong for me to mention that these groups can be made to work if one pays attention to the selection of members, their training, staying engaged with them continuously and developing a stake for them in the program that goes beyond mere token participation in meetings. I know of many active groups that have gone beyond their stated mandate and take pride in participating to make sure that their schools are some of the best in the local areas.

Another kind of community engagement that now has the legislative mandate is 'Social Audit' in the Employment Guarantee program. Again something that no other program or scheme has hoped to achieve. Already there are rumors that the powers that be are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the extraordinary tool in the hands of the communities and are planning on re-working this process. As communities increasingly get used to the idea of demanding accountability, the implementing partners (Govt or non-govt) will start getting nervous and jittery. There is also the potential for communities to go beyond the NREGA program and start to audit other government programs and schemes. Social audit is an excellent manifestation of community empowerment and participatory democracy. This also needs enormous preparation and communities need to be mature in handling this powerful instrument.

Getting things right

While all this community-based action is indeed a welcome development, there is also confusion at the grass root level. Panchayats were seen as one of many ways in which communities could engage in Governance and there is now a tension between elected representatives who genuinely believe that they are the chosen ones to articulate the aspirations of the communities that they represent, and these neo-groups that are emerging under various Government programs. While there have been some attempts to reconcile these tensions, I am afraid that this again cannot be government-led, but needs to organically emerge as a community-led process.

In summary, I feel community engagement needs to manifest as a spontaneous and legitimate manifestation at the grass root level, and not be introduced to fulfill a requirement under some scheme or program. One needs to allow for social dynamics to play out in the formation and functioning of these groups rather than insisting on rules of engagement as construed by bureaucrats sitting thousands of miles away. One also needs to pay adequate attention to both the structure and the functioning of these groups and invest in training them to meet their logical ends.

Finally, we need to understand the underlying processes that are complex and time consuming and allow time for these groups to mature in order to perform effectively. Setting time frames and pushing the groups to achieve program outputs may end up being counter productive and wasteful. For in the end, it would indeed be easy for the System to dismiss this very concept of community engagement and go on with business as usual. Community engagement should be born out of respect for the participating community members and their capacities rather than as tokenism needed to fulfill a program requirement. Only then will it be sustainable and be instrumental in ushering in 'inclusive growth'.

We can ill-afford to sacrifice 'empowered engagement' in our attempts to usher in 'enforced engagement'.