Promoting Sustainable Development from the Grassroots Level: Indian Perspectives

Article excerpt

Most of the development challenges have local dimension in the developing countries; therefore grassroots initiatives are indispensable for promoting sustainable development. It has been felt that local institutions can be instrumental in stimulating economic growth, promoting socio-political development and protecting environment for achieving sustainable development at the bottom level of the society. Rural government institutions have been assigned new roles and responsibilities and flagship programmes of rural development have been also given environmental flavor for promoting sustainable development in India. Thus, capacity of local institutions should be enhanced to play a meaningful role in the promotion of sustainable development.


Threats of climate change loom large and have potential to alter the current course of development. It has been forecasted that developing countries, including India are more vulnerable to the climate induced vulnerabilities. In developing countries, poor and marginalised sections of the society are the hardest hit by the climate change because they have least coping capabilities with climate induced vulnerabilities. In addition, rapidly increasing world population that is expected to be around over nine billion by the middle of the century will accelerate persistent poverty, marginalisation of weaker sections of society, over exploitation of natural resources, ballooning high demand of energy and depleting resources, ever rising temperature of earth, increasing food insecurity, malnutrition, etc. These development challenges have local dimension. It has been observed that the most obvious causes of rural poverty, hunger and environmental damage in the developing world include racial and ethnic marginalisation, landlessness, gender bias, unimproved production technologies, and poor access to markets, roads, electricity, education or public health services. Such conditions tend to be highly localised. In villages in South Asia, for example, the female children of landless labourers will go hungry even while the local markets may have abundant supplies for purchase, and while most male children in the village are well fed. In many countries in Central America, commercial farmers in fertile valleys with irrigated land can prosper even while neighbours struggling to farm on the dry hillsides above the valley remain poor and hungry. The causes of outright famine also tend to be local rather than global (Paarlbergm, Robert L. 2005, 165) many causes of environmental degradation and underdevelopment also tend to be local rather than global, both in origin and impact.

The concept of sustainable development was introduced to provide a holistic approach to address these development challenges. Since most of the problems has local dimension, therefore, there is need to promote the sustainable development from grassroots level of the society. The rationale behind the approach that local people know how the optimum use of natural resources is possible. Secondly, the local community is generally associated with local environment. They generally do not harm the natural harmony without any crisis situation. Thirdly, decentralised mechanism is the best possible way to ensure the participation of people and make people aware of the natural problems. Local dimension of sustainable development is viable option for policy makers for conservation of natural resources. In this conceptual framework, paper attempts to analyse how sustainable development can be promoted from the grassroots level. Secondly, it would also explore the role of rural local government (henceforth panchayats) in promoting sustainable development from the grassroots level of the society.

The Concept of Sustainable Development: Defining a New Paradigm

Sustainable Development has emerged as one of the most important subjects in academia in the recent history. The growing popularity of the term indicates an increasing awareness of that seeds of self-destruction can be contained within shore-term achievements in development as it used be conceived; that is, economic-development-as-GNP-growth. Development should be perceived as over all improvement of human being. According to World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There has been a growing recognition of three essential aspects of sustainable development: Economic--an economically sustainable system must be able to produce goods and services on a continuing basis, to maintain manageable levels of government and external debt, and to avoid extreme sectoral imbalances that damage agriculture or industrial production; Environmental--an environmentally sustainable system must maintain a stable resources base, avoiding over-exploitation of renewable resources systems or environmental sink functions and depleting non-renewable resources only to the extent that investment is made in adequate substitutes. This includes maintenance of biodiversity, atmosphere stability, and other ecosystem functions not ordinarily classed as economic resources; Social--a socially sustainable system must achieve fairness in distribution and opportunity, adequate provision of social services, including health and education, gender equity, and political accountability and participation (Jonathan et al 2001, xxix). Thus, sustainable development demands that environmental protection, social development and economic development are addressed as a joint issue. At the local level, sustainable development refers to the creation of sustainable communities while protecting global common goods such as climate, water, soils, health or biodiversity.

Sustainable development implies two basic assumptions; first is the reconcilability between humankind and nature. After a period during which people in the West had felt themselves profoundly and irremediably divorced from nature, the idea of sustainable development has revitalised the possibility of a balanced relationship between people and their environment. The second assumption concerns a revival of the myth of progress. This myth dominated western civilization at least since the scientific revolution. It entered a crisis both because of the environmental question (the sense of limits) and because of disillusionment with the teleological view of history (the progressive emancipation of humanity). The urgency of resolving the problems of the Third World induced revision of the catastrophist doctrine that had come to predominate in the West. The conservationist model congealed the great disequilibria between the North and South of the world. Sustainable development is an attitude, a mode of addressing reality rather than a criterion that discriminates among uses of the good environment. It is to generate solidarity among generations and rejects the consumerist and promethean idols of western culture (Giorgio, 1997, 180-181).

Promoting Sustainable Development from Grassroots Level

There are four fundamental arguments for promotion of sustainable development from the grassroots level of the society; first is the neo-ruralism model, where the progress of an area is driven by the presence of people with strongly cultural motivations, who embrace the ideals of rurality (communitarian life, simplicity and sobriety, spirituality, and so on). It is to harmonise the way of life with nature and local community. Second, extremely powerful ideal in mountain areas, is that of endogenous development which embodies the goal of political autonomy and the enhancement of the economic and entrepreneurial resources of the residents. The more recent concern for the natural environment, as local resources that should be appropriately exploited by local residents, also derives from this model. Third is the relationship between the center and the periphery. In the local areas lower costs of housing; good roads to centers; and good quality of environment is available. Finally, there is a model of productive decentralisation, which offers less costly work force. That would not only provide employment to local people but also an impetus to local economy and businesses (Giorgio, 1997, 185-186).

Realising the significance of bottom up approach, Government of India has adopted a decentralised strategy based on the principles of subsidiarity and on more active and area-based approaches to development in rural areas. Since panchayats are the institution of local governance as well as nodal agency for development in rural India, their role and responsibilities are of immense importance to promote all three aspects of sustainable development, namely economic, social and environment.

Panchayats and Sustainable Development in India

By the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, Indian constitution has provisions regarding local government at the grassroots level of the society: at the lowest rung is the gram sabha and the gram panchayat; at the highest rung is the district panchayat at the district level; at the intermediate level is the intermediate panchayat between the district panchayat and the village panchayat. Gram sabha is the name for the body of persons who are registered in the electoral rolls relating to a village. Gram panchayat is the elected executive of the village. The panchayat is elected directly. At the village level the chairperson is elected in such a manner as may be provided by state law. It is generally by direct election. But at the two higher levels the chairperson is elected by the elected members from amongst themselves (Sharma, 2005, 250-51).

Powers and Functions

The 73rd constitutional amendment gives panchayats a wide range of powers and functions to deal with local issues and to play a leading role in promoting development in the rural area. The Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India provides 29 subjects related to rural development that panchayats can act upon. These subjects range from agriculture development, public health, education, road, water, to poverty reduction programs. The 73rd constitutional amendment has got a greater responsibilities and functions to transform the rural society in many dimensions. This amendment put the provisional seal of approval on the paradigm of "development-cum-devolution" and has translated an idea into reality, bringing more powers to people. First aim of these institutions is the mobilisation of limited and finite resources and to allocate it in such directions which are beneficial for the people at the local level. Now the entire rural development programme can be coordinated at the local level in a decentralised way. The planning should be done by local institutions with the participation of the local people. Article 243 (G) provides powers to district planning to panchayats and at every district level, a district planning committee would be constituted. Second, for the proper use of all kind of resources namely, natural, financial and human for instance, land improvement, forest conservation, agriculture development and so on need to mobilise from the ground level through local institute (The Constitution of India).

Third, local institutions are of crucial importance for providing services to the local population, such as drinking water, irrigation, transportation, marketing facilities, credit, fertilisers, health services and elementary education system. Fourth, panchayats can play a crucial role in employment generation in rural areas. Unemployment is a major problem that needs to be tackled in various ways. In this context, the role of the panchayats is critical in the implementation of central and the state development programmes. These institutions can also be instrumental in generating employment in rural areas. Fifth, rural marketing is an important aspect of rural development, and a very crucial role is conceived for panchayats in Eleventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Sixth, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Rights to the Forest) Act 2006 provides an opportunity to put forest and biodiversity resource management on a devise flexible, knowledge intensive and participatory systems of management. It is only possible when we institute such a "share and inform, promote and facilitate" approach in place of the current "control and command" approach, that we would be able to do justice to India's rich heritage of biodiversity resources and associated knowledge and in this context, panchayats seems to be an appropriate institution (Gadgil, 2007, 2067- 2071). Last but not least, these institutions are also important in rural welfare. The term "rural welfare" is used in broader sense which implies welfare of dwellers such as health, providing nutrition, health education and creating the conducive environment.

Panchayats and Economic Development

Provisions have been made by 73rd Amendment for three prong development at the grassroots level of the society. Panchayats are entrusted with the task of preparation of plans for economic development and poverty reduction for rural areas. For decentralised planning to be truly reflective of the needs felt by the people, it is essential to initiate plan formulation at the local level. They are also assigned to diversify the agriculture sectors by promoting the horticulture, floriculture, pisciculture etc. The major strategy adopted at present for the poverty reduction is ensuring improvement in the growth with special focus on those sectors which can generate employment (Ummiti, 2007, 80). Panchayats play central role in the implementation of the anti-poverty programmes. For instance, in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, panchayats play a central role in the implementation. It is mandatory that at least 50 per cent of the works are to take place at the gram panchayat level. Other very crucial central government rural development initiative gives panchayats central role. Under NREGA, measures are incorporated to create durable asset creation and protect the environment in rural areas that are very crucial in promotion of value of sustainable development.

Panchayats and Socio-Political Empowerment

Social justice, political and social empowerment and social inclusion are also main planks of sustainable development. To promote social equality--panchayats are instrumental in empowering backward sections of the society and women. Empowerment of the women is one of the fundamental objectives of the panchayati raj movement. The Article 243 (D) of the Indian Constitution states that one-third of the seats will be reserved for the women in the panchayats. Now it has been increased to fifty per cent. Same provisions are also made for the backward classes and SCs and STs according to their population. Article 243 (G) provides to make plan for social justice and economic development. Panchayats are also implementing several programme of employment, health, education, etc. for women empowerment towards the construction of an egalitarian society (The Constitution of India and Kaushik, 2005, 92-93).

Panchayats and Environment Protection

Many of the problems as discussed above and their solutions have roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be determining factor in the environmental protection. As it has been acknowledged in the Agenda 21 (programme of United Nations related with Sustainable Development), ".... local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, and assist in implementing national and sub-national environmental policies. As the level of governance closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilising and responding to the public to promote sustainable development" (UNEP, 2001). In India, panchayats are also assigned to promote local environment in multiple ways. As discussed they are democratically elected institutions to protect and promote the environment, such as rational use of natural resources, forest management, water resources management, etc. They can also be instrumental in raising awareness about the global warming and mobilise people to adopt eco-friendly measures to promote values of sustainable development. To raise awareness about climate and facilitate adaptation at the grassroots level, panchayats are also considered to be useful means of information dissemination and spreading climate literacy among the dwellers. Therefore, their role has been explored in enhancing the coping capacity to climate change too.


To conclude, sustainable development must not be viewed in the isolation. Without the effective mechanism for socio-economic development; it would become a hollow logic to preach about environmental protection, particularly in developing and least developed countries. Poverty is the worst polluter, therefore effective measures should be placed to eradicate poverty and bring marginalised sections in the mainstream of development. The prudent observation of Bruntland is worth to mention that sustainable development is a participatory process. The spread of democracy and pluralism in the world, the greater emphasis on transparency and the people's right to know, is a necessary and highly welcome boost to our efforts. The broad participation of the scientific community, industry, trade unions, youth and environmental groups should be the part of efforts. Other groups, such as women's groups and religious organisations should be allowed to take part (Brundtland, 1991, 38). As discussed above, most of the development challenges have local dimension, therefore, local institutions can play very crucial role in promotion of values of genuine development without harming the nature. Panchayats are closet to local people and well aware of the local environment, therefore, their capacity in terms of finance, powers and functionaries should be enhanced to play a meaningful role in development process of rural areas in sustainable way and enhancing the coping capacity among poor and marginalised dwellers.


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Dinoj Kr. Upadhyay, Member of Editorial Team, Telecentre Magazine, International Development Research Center, Canada and Center for Science, Development and Media Studies, Noida, Email:

Vinod Sen, Assistant Professor in Economics, Sri Aurobindo College 'Eve' (University of Delhi) New Delhi, Email:

Wijeesh Ronit Saimon, Research Scholar, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Email: