Bottom-up approach to local self-governance

The model of centre delegating to state and state to local bodies must be reversed. This subtle shift in understanding local, state and central governments will place greater trust in all governments


Jayaprakash Narayan | March 2, 2010

It has indeed become clichéd to say that India is a land of paradoxes. However, the contradictions in Indian society and polity continue to baffle many scholars across the world. We are one of the few post-colonial countries that have witnessed successful functioning of democratic institutions over six decades. On the other hand, there are glaring deficiencies in our democracy and we have not experienced substantive democracy. India has handled the recent global recession better than many developed countries. And yet, our human development indicators are shamefully low. Our cities are emerging not only as engines of economic growth but also as cultural melting pots indicating the possible emergence of a highly cosmopolitan society. On the other hand, cities such as Mumbai have witnessed violence against migrants from other parts of India. While our security forces have successfully handled many insurgencies, various political actors are struggling to find lasting political solutions to many ethnic demands across the country. Given these contradictions, the question “Is this the republic we wanted?” will elicit an equally paradoxical answer – yes and no.

Our democracy is alive and kicking. There is genuine political competition; ruling parties and powerful candidates often lose the elections; there is constant change of players with half the incumbents being unseated in every election; the verdict broadly reflects public opinion; and there is constant political churning. But a closer look at our electoral scene reveals disturbing trends of violence, criminalisation, money power and deceit. Clearly the past two decades have witnessed heightened political contention and dramatic rise in violence and illegitimate money power in elections. And yet our democracy is resilient. A system of compensatory errors ensures that the malpractices of a candidate are neutralised by his rival! Added to that, the strength of Election Commission, neutrality of public officials, and a tradition of governments not interfering in electoral process have ensured some sanity in our politics. But the fact is politics has become big business. Often individuals and families with abnormal money power, acquired through political patronage or corruption, are unassailable in the electoral arena. In many constituencies these modern fiefdoms hold sway with money power, political contacts, caste mobilisation and criminal links. All major parties are forced to depend on such individuals to enhance their chance of success in the first-past-the-post system. Once such persons are elected, they seek multiple returns on investment through influence-peddling, state patronage and control over public purse. Parliamentary debate, rational public discourse and sensible policies are rendered largely irrelevant.

At an individual level we see tremendous asymmetry of power between the citizen and the public servant. In a largely poor country, with vast illiteracy, in a power-centred culture, even the humblest civil servant is more influential and powerful than 80 percent of the citizens. This asymmetry is further accentuated by a maibap government whose patronage is critical for the day-to-day struggle for survival of millions of hapless citizens. This makes accountability difficult and abuse of power easy and profitable.

Centralised governance system

The 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution have been enacted in 1993 with great hopes of decentralisation of power. However, the state governments, legislators and bureaucracy have become the biggest stumbling blocks to local government empowerment. The government in our parliamentary executive system survives with the majority support of legislators. The legislators have by now become disguised executives.  Over the past 60 years an unwritten compact has come into operation, making the legislator the de facto ruler of his constituency. In such centralised governance system, even if people wisely use the vote, public good cannot be promoted. As the citizen is distanced from the decision-making process, the administrative machinery has no capacity to deliver public services that are cost-effective and of high quality.

Thanks to over-centralisation, most public expenditure goes down the drain. The services and public goods we get do not account for even a fraction of the total public expenditure. All the basic amenities and services that make life worth living are in a state of disrepair. Look at education, health care, water supply, drainage, roads and myriad other public services. As a rule, if we can afford we choose private alternatives — like in education and health care, we opt for them at a high cost. Where private goods are not possible, like roads and drains, we suffer in silence and fume in impotent anger. The link between our taxes paid and services rendered is non-existent.

Today, many state governments claim that they have devolved several functions that have been enumerated in the 11th and 12th schedules of the constitution. In reality local governments in many states, with a very few exceptions, are functioning as an extension of the state government. Gram panchayats, anchal samitis and zilla parishads are being treated as minor appendages of the existing state government apparatus. Local governments in many states lack necessary functional domain, financial muscle and infrastructure to perform their duties as true local governments. In this context it is important to empower local governments in terms of functions, funds, and functionaries.

Empowerment of local governments – principles

Attempts at empowering local governments should be preceded by clear understanding of the functional domain of local governments. Any task that can be carried at the local social unit — beginning with individuals and families — should be performed by that smallest unit. It is only when the local social/political unit cannot perform the task that a larger social/political unit located at a distance should perform that task. Therefore, the local governments should perform functions such as sanitation as they are equipped to perform such functions. Local governments based on the principle of subsidiarity restrain unnecessary state interventions. As per the principle of subsidiarity the delegation of authority will not flow downwards — from the central government to the state government and from the state government to local governments. Rather the individual gives up those functions that he cannot perform to the community, the community to local governments, local governments to the state and the state governments to the central government. The principle of subsidiarity allows us to think about governments, not in terms hierarchy but in terms of their approachability or accessibility. This subtle shift in understanding the local, state and central governments will not only help us in assigning appropriate functional domain but also in placing greater trust in the local, state and central governments. As a consequence, a large number of functions will be assigned to local governments as they are closer to people and ensure greater participation of people.

District governments

As one can see, empowerment of local governments is not about complex formulas dealing with devolution of functions and finances. It is a simple process of bringing governance closer to people. We must empower people by ensuring a single and undivided government representing all sections at the district level — one district government, which represents all people in the district (rural or urban). As people perceive an elected government representing all, the idea of the third tier of the government will become real and meaningful. Every district should have a district government with all necessary powers:

Each district will have a directly elected premier who will head a cabinet of district ministers to administer the district.
District collector will act as chief secretary to the district government.
District ministers will be in-charges of various portfolios such as school education, health care, agriculture, animal husbandry, basic amenities in villages and cities, employment generation, social security for poor, civil supplies, social welfare and other local issues. Necessary funds will be devolved to local governments.
Substantial financial devolution: the state government should guarantee that 50 percent of the state’s annual planned budget will be transferred to district governments. In addition to the existing funds, every panchayat, town and city in the district should get Rs 1,000 per head per year for development works. 
In urban areas, to bring governance process closer to people, ward committees should be constituted in each municipality with a population of over 3 lakh (Article 243 S).

Addressing scepticism – institutionalising accountability mechanisms

There is scepticism that local governments are corrupt and empowerment of these institutions will result in more corruption. It is true that locally elected governments are likely to be as decent or corrupt as centralised governments. There is no greater morality in local governments. But as the government is local, and people understand the links between their vote and public good, and taxes and services, they will assert to hold the government to account and improve the quality of our democracy. It is with the intention to improve the quality of democracy that the 73rd and 74th amendments were introduced in the cconstitution.

Moreover, we must remember that there is corruption at all levels of governance in India. It would be unwise for the union government to appropriate various functions of the state government on the pretext that they are very corrupt. Similarly, it is imprudent for the state governments to appropriate functions of local governments on the pretext that they are very corrupt. Vibrant and responsive governance mandates that we empower local governments and also make them accountable. This can be done through full implementation of the Right to Information Act, accompanied by an overhaul of record-keeping and display, citizen’s charters with penalty for delay in services, transparent and verifiable processes in public procurement, independent, effective and integrated anti-corruption authority, convergence in delivery of services, independent district ombudsmen to investigate all abuse of authority and punish and innovative mechanisms to incentivise the public to fight corruption - for instance, a law similar to the False Claims Act of the US. Institutionalisation of these measures will go a long way in enforcing accountability, preventing abuse of office, and combating corruption at all levels including in the local government.

It is time to repair, not lament

It is futile to lament the rise of narrow and exclusivist regional feelings. Instead, it is important to recognise that people’s longing for better governance is being channeled through divisive ideologies. Therefore, the best way to combat the menace of many violent ideologies in the coming decades is to empower people. The constitution has provided us with a wide range of institutions, processes and tools to empower people. The best way forward is by creating accountable and empowered local governments. The quality of a ‘republic’ should be judged not merely by its international stature and GDP. Rather, the focus should also be on the relationship that a citizen has with the government. People in India either fear government or have contempt for it and we need to repair this unhealthy relationship. Empowered local governance is a significant step in repairing the relationship. Educated Indians, middle class and youth must step forward to re-engineer and take part in our governance processes. It is only through sustained civic action that we can strengthen the Indian republic. After all, it is our republic.



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