Bihar is home to a unique village-level institution: the Gram Katchahry (GK), which co-exists with the Gram Panchayat (GP). The latter, chaired by a ‘Mukhiya’, looks after the village’s overall developmental activities. The GK is entrusted with judicial functions, involving resolution of disputes between villagers through arbitration and reconciliation processes. Just as with the GP, the GK’s head (‘Sarpanch’) as well his/her deputy (‘Up-Sarpanch’) and other members (‘Panch’) are also elected by the Gram Sabha or general assembly of the village.
Bihar currently has 8,392 GKs, with as many Sarpanches and Up-Sarpanches plus another 1,15,542 Panches. There is also provision for a ‘Nyaya Mitra’ (a person having a minimum three-year law degree from a recognised university) and a Secretary to assist the elected GK functionaries. Reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and women makes these bodies fairly representative as well.
The GKs are meant to handle offences of a minor nature, including those under the Bengal Public Gambling Act 1867, the Cattle Trespass Act 1871 and the Bihar Panchayat Raj Act 2006. The last-mentioned law specifically provides for the constitution of a GK in every GP area of Bihar to discharge judicial functions and having the powers of a Civil Court to entertain suits and take evidence. In India, where an estimated 3.3 crore cases are pending — 2.84 crore in subordinate courts, 43 lakh in high courts and nearly 58,000 in the Supreme Court — the GKs can be an effective forum, especially for poor rural folk, to seek legal recourse in quick time at minimal cost.
Unfortunately, though, things don’t quite work that way on the ground. This writer recently visited villages in Sitamarhi, Patna, Nalanda, Gaya and Nawada districts of Bihar to study the working of GKs. These courts broadly dealt with disputes concerning agricultural land, division of property amongst brothers and relatives, drainage and disposal of waste water, etc.
In Rampur Parori village of Sitamarhi’s Dumra block, there was a dispute between one Ramchandra Rout and his brother, who objected to the construction of a toilet on land belonging to the former. The matter was ultimately resolved by the GK to the satisfaction of both parties. The writer also met the Sarpanch, Panches, Nyaya Mitra and secretary of the GK at Ranjeetpur East village in the same block. While the GK was reported to be working properly, the complainants were, however, being charged Rs 250, when the fees on paper was Rs 100. When asked, the functionaries claimed that the extra Rs 150 was used to meet photocopying, travel and other incidental expenses. Discussions also revealed that a major stumbling block to the GK becoming a robust dispute-resolution institution was the local ‘Thana’ or police station, which stood to lose when cases were not referred to it. That, in turn, reduced the scope for rent-seeking through arranging “compromises” between the parties concerned. Nor were the dominant sections of the village interested in promoting an institution that primarily benefited those who couldn’t afford bribes or prolonged legal battles.
In Surajpur village of Nalanda’s Silao block, one Naresh Paswan had some land-related issue with his brother. He approached the GK Sarpanch to sort it out informally, but without success, which then forced him to go to the Thana. A similar complaint of “nobody listens here” was made by people from the extremely depressed Mahadalit SC category in Mahadewa village of Nawada’s Hisua block. The GK, according to them, existed only in name. Both the GK and the GP were controlled by powerful communities of the village. In Gonpura village of Patna’s Phulwari block, the Nyaya Mitra did not come regularly to the GK. Here, too, the complainants were made to pay Rs 100 extra, apart from Rs 1,200 having to be given to the Amin (inspector) for measurement of land. The GK Sarpanch himself did not want to displease anybody. So, he was hesitant to even send notices to the parties in dispute.
Satender Kumar Singh, who unsuccessfully contested elections for the post of Mukhiya in the Gonpura GP, felt that Panchayats should mobilise their own resources to ensure better running of GKs. Also, there should be some system to make the police responsive to the GKs. If a case is being heard at the GK and the latter seeks police protection in anticipation of altercation between parties, the same should be provided immediately. Right now, people are steadily losing faith in the GK system and considering the Thana as a better option for “settling” disputes.
There are encouraging stories too. Jitendra Kumar, Sarpanch of the GK at Usfa in Patna’s Fatuha block, says that as many as 72 cases have been registered since the court was instituted at the village in 2016. Out of the 72 cases, mostly land-related, 30 have been disposed of and the rest are being heard. But even he complains of “soutela vyavahar” (step-motherly treatment) meted out to GKs. The main problem was, again, with the Thanas. Fatuha block alone has 15 GKs and three police stations within its jurisdiction. The Thanas can easily assist the GKs, especially in cases where the rulings might provoke violence between the parties. Also, while the GP and GK are supposed to co-exist as executive and judicial bodies in the same village, the latter is, in practical terms, far weaker compared to the former. The Sarpanches are also not paid their honorariums on time, even when these have already been received at the block office.
The above anomalies should be eliminated by endowing the GKs with effective financial and administrative powers, and also infrastructure. Hardly 1,000 out of the 8,392 GKs in Bihar today even have buildings. A quarter of them have no Nyaya Mitras to provide proper legal advice to the elected functionaries. Also, the Sarpanch receives a monthly honorarium of just Rs 2,500, while it is Rs 1,200 for the Up-Sarpanch and Rs 500 for the Panches. The Nyaya Mitra and GK secretary, too, get only Rs 7,000 and Rs 6,000 per month, respectively.
The Bihar government deserves credit for creation of the institution of GK through its Panchayat Raj Act of 2006. But much more needs to be done to strengthen these institutions, which have vast potential for deepening democracy at the grassroots.