One of the livelihoods interventions we work v with is the Pudhu Vaazhu Project or PVP in the state of Tamil Nadu, India – a project, which focuses directly on increasing women’s income and generating employment by inducing participation from the beneficiaries themselves. In our impact evaluation of this project, we found that project had positive effects on its core goals of improving economic welfare, and that it had also empowered woman – both in the private and public sphere.

In the public sphere, women in PVP villages were participating much more than non-PVP villages in their local Gram Sabhas, which is the village-level deliberative forum of the local government.  PVP women were 60% more likely to participate in deliberate forums of this government; and they reported a total participation rate of 90%. Compared to previous evidence on this topic (Besley, Pande, & Rao, 2006), this finding points to an important change in the representation of poor rural women in local governance processes in rural South India. This is an impact we were therefore keen on unpacking – does greater participation simply mean arriving at the Gram Sabha, or are women engaging in the deliberations as well? If so, what kinds of issues do women in PVP areas raise in Gram Sabhas? What kind of narrative styles do they employ? Is ‘increased political participation’ simply a bump in attendance, or is there a qualitative shift in the nature of deliberative democracy in PVP villages versus non-PVP villages?

At this time, the project has already been on the ground for 5 years. We designed a propensity score based evaluation that covered 100 villages. Data would come in the form of audio-recording transcripts of Gram Sabhas and from a “phase” sheet that would use a standardized format to record key characteristics of issues raised, by whom, and responses to these issues. Collecting this data would require at least 200 enumerators on a single day- a number larger than any survey firm could provide. 

We decided to train 300 Community Professionals (CPs) from across ten districts of PVP. Community Professionals are the frontline cadre of PVP who facilitate the community-level meetings. These professionals have a better understanding of the context than outside surveyors and being locals to the area. 

They would also be able to record the Gram Sabha proceedings without the disruption of having an “outside” observer. To maintain independence from the data collection process, each community professional was assigned to collect data from a village in her neighboring district. 

The training was led by PVPs District Project Managers (DPMs) and Area Project Managers (APMs) and was facilitated by the SO team.

We went over the phase sheet which was designed to collect basic information about how many women attended the Gram Sabha meeting, nature of issues raised, number of issues raised by women etc.

The CPs were also trained in how to use dictaphones to audio record the proceedings from beginning to end. They were simultaneously encouraged to note down their qualitative inputs on the seating arrangement – where men and women were seated during the proceedings, hierarchy in arrangement, etc.

The training lasted two days, and was held in a school in Madurai. There was a lot of interesting back and forth – the CPs raised questions, and provided several inputs on the phrasing of the questionnaire design based on their knowledge of the context.

The training was also an exciting opportunity for the CPs – they shared with us how much it helped build their survey and ‘reporting’ skills. They particularly enjoyed the role play aspect of the training where they were asked to do a mock Gram Sabha proceeding. Even the shyest of women assumed a stance of authority and power, and took the opportunity to mock the male-dominated narrative structure of the Gram Sabha. 

On 26th January, 2014, our CPs recorded the Gram Sabha meetings across eight districts and one hundred villages.

Each meeting was recorded by two CPs who placed themselves in two different corners of the gathering – one up front recorded the proceedings on the dictaphone, and the other filled up the phase sheet and took notes in the back.

We were able to follow one of the Gram Sabha proceedings ourselves in the Tiruvannamalai district - the participants brought up many interesting issues. They complained about the conditions of stagnant public drains, asked PVP office bearers about why some households were excluded from the  jobs training and placement intervention, and submitted applications for a government run housing subsidy. 

Finally, these questionnaires and recordings were all brought back to the PVP capital office in Chennai. They were transcribed and translated by a survey firm, GFK, and are now being analyzed.   

Related to forthcoming paper: "Is there an Equity / Efficiency Tradeoff in Deliberative Forums?" by  Nethra Palaniswamy, Ramya Parthasarathy and Vijayendra Rao.