Devolution, at ground level
- Democratic decentralization is barely alive in India. Over 25 years after the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments 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.
Is design weakness responsible for the failure of Local government?
- Devolution, envisioned by the Constitution, is not mere delegation.
- Devolution is the statutory delegation of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to govern at a subnational level, such as a regional or local level. It is a form of administrative decentralization.
- It implies that specific governance functions are formally assigned by law to local governments, backed by adequate transfer of financial grants and tax handles, and they are given staff so that they have the necessary resources to carry out their responsibilities.
- Above all, local governments are to report primarily to their voters, and not so much to higher-level departments.
- Yet, none of this has happened, by a long shot. Where did we go wrong? Was the system designed to fail?
So, then what are the Key Issues?
- 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. This is regarded as a design weakness, but on closer look, is not one.
- Given diverse habitation patterns, political and social history, it makes sense to mandate States to assign functions to local governments.
- 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 of water supply, sanitation, roads and communication, streetlight provision and the management of community assets to the gram panchayats.
Downside of centralization
- Design of funding - 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.
- Lack of staff - 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 for the latter; they function as part of a vertically integrated departmental system.
- The lackadaisical response of States - In violation of the constitutional mandate of five-yearly elections to local governments, States have often postponed them
Are local governments as corrupt?
- The current Union government has further centralized service delivery by using technology, and panchayats are nothing more than front offices for several Union government programs.
- Union program design for cities detrimental to decentralization. The ‘Smart City’ program does not devolve its funds to the municipalities; States have been forced to constitute ‘special purpose vehicles’ to ring-fence these grants lest they are tainted by mixing them up with municipality budgets.
- Also, most common people do not distinguish the level of government that is tasked with the responsibility of delivering local services. Therefore, there is no outrage when the local government is shortchanged; citizens may even welcome it.
- Doubtless, criminal elements and contractors are attracted to local government elections, tempted by the large sums of money now flowing to them.
- Thus, 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 decentralization.
- Decentralized 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.
- First, Gram sabhas and wards committees in urban areas have to be revitalized. 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 gram sabha meetings are held and pretend that we are strengthening democracy.
- Consultations with the gram sabha could be organized 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 the gram sabha.
- Second, local government organizational 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 programs 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.
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- India’s efforts in decentralization represent one of the largest experiments in deepening democracy. Decentralization 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 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.