'Customary village councils' (CVCs) are widespread in rural India. They are generally believed to be disappearing vestiges of a pre-democratic, hierarchical socio-political order. In the Indian media, they are represented as instruments for the harsh enforcement of 'traditional' norms of caste and gender inequality. However, research in Karnataka state reveals a very different picture. CVCs are found in almost every village. While continuing to resolve local disputes and exercise limited judicial authority, they are actively taking on new roles, especially developmental and electoral roles; becoming more pluralist and democratic; and providing a wide range of services that are positively valued by villagers, especially by women. CVCs often interact closely and synergistically with the formal, elected local councils (Grama Panchayats ). This closely parallels other findings from empirical social science research in India: an informal, 'traditional' institution, believed by intellectuals and elites to be disappearing into the dustbin of history, turns out to have considerable staying power, to be enjoying something of a revival, and to be adapting to the democratic element in India's modern, formal political institutions.
Analysis of data from a sample of 30 villages in Karnataka state collected over a four-year period shows considerable inter-village variations in the activity levels of CVCs. The most important single factor explaining this variation is the closeness of their relationship to the formal, elected Grama Panchayats (GPs). The greater the interaction between the two, the more active CVCs are. The paper concludes with some speculations about why CVCs are so buoyant and active in this context, while elsewhere similar 'traditional institutions' have been viewed as bulwarks of inequality and hierarchy, and have generated considerable political opposition. One major reason may be that CVCs operate in a relatively democratic and pluralist environment in which the formal state provides many services quite effectively. CVCs have no monopoly, and have continually to earn the authority which they exercise.
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IDS Working Paper No. 282, Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies, ISBN 978-1-85864-648-0, 34 pp.