Local governments in a state of disrepair

Politicians have failed to keep their word on the true devolution of powers, responsibilities and accountability to local governments

August 15, 2022 12:50 am | Updated 02:16 am IST

People waiting to cast their votes for the panchayat elections in Jabalpur district of Madhya Pradesh.

People waiting to cast their votes for the panchayat elections in Jabalpur district of Madhya Pradesh. | Photo Credit: PTI

One cannot strike a cheerful note when contemplating the state of India’s panchayats and municipalities, 75 years after Independence. True, the local government system obtained constitutional status only through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, which mandated panchayats and municipalities, devolved a range of powers and responsibilities and made them accountable to the people. Some say that it was lucky that those amendments were passed at all; they were tabled in Parliament on the day that the Babri Masjid was attacked by a mob on December 6, 1992. The mind of the country was somewhere else then.

These amendments, which came into force in 1993, were revolutionary; they changed the scope and extent of India’s democracy. From a mere 4,000 MLAs and MPs, the number of our elected representatives exploded to nearly 3.2 million. We progressed from being representationally sparse to one of the most intense democratic participatory systems envisaged. Scope was provided for the participation of women and the marginalised sections of society in government. These reservations were not merely extended to the elected seats but to the leadership positions as well.

In the nearly 30 years since these amendments were incorporated into our Constitution, politicians have mouthed the rhetoric of power to the people, but failed to keep their word on the true ‘devolution’ of powers, responsibilities and accountability to local governments.

While many scoffed at enabling women, SCs, STs and OBCs to occupy leadership positions, politicians of all hues were alive to the significance of these measures.

Nitish Kumar, in 2006, enlarged women’s representation in Bihar’s panchayats from the minimum mandated level of one third to half of the elected seats and leadership positions. Other politicians quickly followed suit; such provisions exist in the majority of States now.

Say of bureaucrats

Bureaucrats, insulated from political compulsions, remain steadfastly opposed to strengthening local governments. That is natural; they would lose their pre-eminent positions of power over where, how and when government money is spent, if they actually devolved power to local governments.

“Local governments have no capacity,” they proclaim, waving their hands at the lakhs of elected members who had stood for elections and won them — something no bureaucrat had the capacity to do.

There is a cabal forged between top-level politicians and such bureaucrats. The strategy is simple: let’s spout the talk, but let’s not walk it. Let us starve local governments of staff and money. That is exactly where we stand at the moment.

A three-pronged strategy is used to cripple the local government system.

Every local government needs to have organisational capacity, by way of staff such as engineers, office staff and social mobilisers. Staffing of local governments is scanty. In some States, many panchayats share a single secretary, who operates from a shoulder bag, a jhola, carrying all the books. The sub-district staff are still controlled by the Collector, seen as the head of an anachronism, the district ‘administration’.

The line departments are loath to allow their local institutions — schools, anganwadis, primary health centres, veterinary hospitals and so on — to be placed under the control and supervision of panchayats. Yet, in a delicious paradox, one cannot hold any higher-level bureaucrat to account for the abysmal quality of local services.

Second, local governments are starved of money. The Union Finance Commissions have made desirable recommendations, but the pitifully low finances that are devolved to local governments, not more than 5% of the divisible pool of Union taxes, come with conditionalities that bind them to specific uses.

Furthermore, these funds are tied down by restrictive procedures that give officers control over local government expenditure decisions, through cheque signing conditionalities.

While local governments have their own tax resources such as property taxes, in many States, there is no emphasis given to their collection. Where they are collected, officers exert control over how local governments use their funds, by committing these to aggregate purchases tendered and arranged at higher levels. Last, in a diabolical twist of the public finance system, funds meant for the mandated duties of local governments are diverted to parallel corporate structures that perform these duties without accountability to, or consultation with the people. The Smart City ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ is a particularly ill-reputed example.

Third, technology is a much-loved tool of bureaucrats to centralise the delivery of local services, much to the detriment of local decision-making. Guess why centralised beneficiary selection, payments and location decisions of public utilities are so popular with bureaucrats? They take away from local, nuanced decision-making and put enormous powers in the hands of higher-level officers and politicians. Thus, beneficiary lists prepared through gram sabhas are subverted by MLAs acting in concert with higher-level officers who, in spite of their claims to professional neutrality, are unable to resist political pressure from above.

The new battleground

What of the coming years, in the light of these dismal practices which have eclipsed the constitutional vision? I see a few trends emerging. First, urban governments will be the new battleground. The 74th amendment was the poor cousin of the 73rd, with weaker provisions, particularly regarding the enabling of peoples’ participation in governance. However, the continuous breakdown of urban services is igniting interest amongst urban citizens — most have been indifferent in the past — to engage with and combat bad governance. Over the past decade, urban NGOs have sprung up, which educate and exhort urban citizens to take a greater interest in urban governance. There are many good examples of local action in practice.

Second, there is a growing failure of local services being delivered by line departments. Earlier, in many States, line departments were unwilling to devolve decisions on location of new infrastructure — that is where the powers of patronage existed. However, as India closes the infrastructure gap, line departments seem more willing to hand over the day-to-day management of local services to local governments. One of the outcomes of the pandemic lockdowns was how panchayats rallied around to keep local institutions going, even as higher-level officials were unable to supervise and manage them. That phenomenon, hopefully, has assured line departments that local governments have the capability to manage their own essential services, if they could be treated with less condescension and greater respect.

In the final outcome, local governments cannot be ignored. For us, the Indian people, our independence for the most part lies in strong local governments that are responsive to our needs and wants. Local governments are much more than our garbage collectors and street-light managers. They are our most effective vaccines against the pandemic of big government.

T.R. Raghunandan is former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India

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