Ambiguous institutions: traditional governance and local democracy in rural India

Ambiguous institutions: traditional governance and local democracy in rural India

The contemporary role of village councils in India

‘Customary village councils’ (CVCs) are widespread in rural India but are generally  believed to be disappearing institutions of a pre-democratic, hierarchical socio-political order. This paper questions this assumption by exploring the current role of that village councils play in Karnataka state. It concludes that CVCs continue to play an active governance role in rural India and have adapted over time to India’s democratic political institutions.

The paper argues that CVCs not only continue to resolve local disputes and exercise limited judicial authority, but they are actively taking on new roles, including:

  • developmental and electoral roles
  • becoming more pluralist and democratic
  • providing a wide range of services that are positively valued by villagers, especially by women
  • interacting closely and synergistically with the formal, elected local councils (Grama Panchayats)

The study also found that the closer the relationship between CVs and elected Grama Panchayats (GPs), the more active village councils are.

The paper concludes by suggesting that one the major reason why CVCs continue to enjoy significant authority is because they operate in a relatively democratic and pluralist environment in which the formal state provides many services quite effectively. For this reason, it argues,  CVCs have no monopoly and must continue to earn the authority which they exercise.

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