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Insights into Editorial: Throttled at the grass roots
Democratic decentralisation is barely alive in India. Over 25 years after the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (establishment of panchayats and municipalities as elected local governments) devolved a range of powers and responsibilities and made them accountable to the people for their implementation, very little and actual progress has been made in this direction.
Local governments remain hamstrung and ineffective; mere agents to do the bidding of higher-level governments.
Democracy has not been enhanced in spite of about 32 lakh peoples’ representatives being elected to them every five years, with great expectation and fanfare.
73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments were passed by Parliament in December, 1992:
- A study for the Fourteenth Finance Commission by the Centre for Policy Research, shows that all States have formally devolved powers with respect to five core functions:
- water supply, sanitation, roads and communication, streetlight provision and the management of community assets to the gram panchayats.
- Devolution, envisioned by the Constitution, is not mere delegation.
- It implies that precisely defined governance functions are formally assigned by law to local governments, backed by adequate transfer of a basket of financial grants and tax handles, and they are given staff so that they have the necessary wherewithal to carry out their responsibilities.
- The Panchayats have been endowed with de-centralisation of powers and authority as may be necessary to function as institutions of self-government and social justice.
- Providing real functional autonomy at the village level is at the core of the amendment Act.
- There is a need for the state political leadership to accept the importance of PRIs, and devolve power to them as mandated in the Constitution of India.
- Building the capacities of the PRIs not as mere implementers of the projects but as planners and evaluators would help strengthen the institution.
- There is also a need for elected local leaders to come together with their constituents, and demand more control and autonomy as enshrined to them by the Constitution of India.
- Above all, local governments are to report primarily to their voters, and not so much to higher level departments.
Key issues need to address in Local-self governments:
The Constitution mandates that panchayats and municipalities shall be elected every five years and enjoins States to devolve functions and responsibilities to them through law.
- The constraint lies in the design of funding streams that transfer money to local governments.
- First, the volume of money set apart for them is inadequate to meet their basic requirements.
- Second, much of the money given is inflexible; even in the case of untied grants mandated by the Union and State Finance Commissions, their use is constrained through the imposition of several conditions.
- Third, there is little investment in enabling and strengthening local governments to raise their own taxes and user charges.
- The last nail in the devolution coffin is that local governments do not have the staff to perform even basic tasks.
- Furthermore, as most staff are hired by higher level departments and placed with local governments on deputation, they do not feel responsible to the latter; they function as part of a vertically integrated departmental system.
Corruption at Lower Levels of Hierarchy:
Given diverse habitation patterns, political and social history, it makes sense to mandate States to assign functions to local governments.
However, A market chain of corruption operates, involving a partnership between elected representatives and officials at all levels.
Yet, there is no evidence to show that corruption has increased due to decentralisation.
Decentralised corruption tends to get exposed faster than national or State-level corruption.
People erroneously perceive higher corruption at the local level, simply because it is more visible.
State governments are in Postponement of Local Body Elections:
In addition to above structural problems were not bad enough, in violation of the constitutional mandate of five yearly elections to local governments, States have often postponed them.
In 2005, when the Gujarat government postponed the Ahmedabad corporation elections, a Supreme Court constitutional bench held that under no circumstances can such postponements be allowed.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court rejected other alibis for election postponement, such as delays in determining the seat reservation matrix, or fresh delimitation of local government boundaries.
Yet, in Tamil Nadu, panchayat elections have not been held for over two years now, resulting in the State losing finance commission grants from the Union government.
Way Forward to eliminate Corruption at Local Government levels:
To curb these tendencies, first, gram sabhas and wards committees in urban areas have to be revitalised:
- The constitutional definition of a gram sabha is that it is an association of voters.
- Because of our erroneous belief that the word ‘sabha’ means ‘meeting’, we try to regulate how grama sabha meetings are held and pretend that we are strengthening democracy.
- Cosmetic reforms of the gram sabha by videography of their meetings, does little for democracy.
- Consultations with the grama sabha could be organised through smaller discussions where everybody can really participate.
- Even new systems of Short Message Services, or social media groups could be used for facilitating discussions between members of a grama sabha.
Second, local government organisational structures have to be strengthened:
- Panchayats are burdened with a huge amount of work that other departments thrust on them, without being compensated for the extra administrative costs.
- Local governments must be enabled to hold State departments accountable and to provide quality, corruption free service to them, through service-level agreements.
Third, we cannot have accountable GPs, without local taxation:
- Local governments are reluctant to collect property taxes and user charges fully.
- They are happy to implement top-down programmes because they know that if they collect taxes, their voters will never forgive them for misusing their funds.
- The connection between tax payment and higher accountability is well known, but we wish to ignore these lessons.
India’s efforts in decentralisation represent one of the largest experiments in deepening democracy.
Decentralisation is always a messy form of democracy, but it is far better than the operation of criminal politicians at the higher level who appropriate huge sums of tax-payer money, without any of us having a clue.
We can keep track of corrupt local government representatives; at the higher level, we will never know the extent of corrupt deals that happen.
We have given ourselves a reasonably robust democratic structure for local governance over the last two decades and more.
It is for us to give life to this structure, through the practice of a robust democratic culture.
Devolution of powers is important because it ensures that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses they affect.
Devolution will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning panchayats/municipalities can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.