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Empower local self-governance model

| | in Oped

Being one of the youngest countries in the world, India has come to reject past ideas and notions. This has led to a demand for a better administration which makes us hopeful that our citizens will soon demand true decentralisation, where all levels of Government will work in congruence and consonance

The village administration system has been a fulcrum of decentralised power for centuries in India. Since the time of the Rig Veda, Manu and Shukra, Nitisara villages functioned as fundamental units of administration where village officials were elected by the village community. The importance of village administration was such that even the Mauryan empire brought the office of the village headman under royal control but still did not interfere in the selection process. True, decentralisation works efficiently towards the betterment of the people with a capable leader who works and builds capacity of their local leaders.

With the advent of the Panchayati Raj system in India, it became critical to have capable and accountable leaders at every stage of the administration as power is now accessible to the smallest units of the Government to use or abuse. It has always been completely left to the democratic electoral process to ensure capable governance. Fame and popularity are mistaken for the capability to govern. To substantiate this mandate of the people, there has never been any institutionalised incubation process to build their capacity. This has led to incapable local leaders who do not possess a vision for development of their area and the nation. These are people with innate understanding of the locale and the community. Their understanding, if coupled with capacity-building in governance, could lead to an organic and sustainable change at the village level.

While the Governments at the Centre and the States have gradually shown an upward trajectory  to build the capacity of local leaders, the immediate fix to this challenge has always been to allocate money to facilitate development. Throughout history, we have seen economic empowerment has not always led to effective policy implementation. The quantum leap in funding has been colossal as opposed to the actual implementation of Government programmes, which has not seen a proportional jump.

For example, in Tamil Nadu, the jump in funding allocation to Panchayati Raj Institutes (PRI) has been 532 crore between 2007-08 to 2015-16, yet we never experience the benefits of this allocation at the village level.

This among many cases of increasing allocation of funds raises a pressing question: If money cannot guarantee development, then what can? The answer just lies one step ahead — in the effective and judicious assignment and utilisation of these funds.

But how will that happen? By empowering the people through socio-political tools that are available with the Government. In Kerala and West Bengal, ever since the British era, for the purposes of collection of taxes, local leaders were empowered politically to effectuate policy implementation. Specifically, local representatives were selected by the British to do their bidding, both politically and socially. This was a necessary act to derive legitimacy from the people of a country they were colonising. It was famously recognised by the British that they could not rule a vast and diverse nation such as India without gaining legitimacy from the villages. The local representatives were not only influential community members but also integral part of the political machinery and shared the vision of development of their region with all the stakeholders.

India, as a political entity, has always identified the need of decentralisation of power to put an end to its accumulation. But there has been no cultivation of local leaders and their vision of a developing nation. This has led to widespread corruption as these smaller units of administration have become check posts of “red-tapism” and made life Kafkaesque for the people. For example, Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA)  workers are the backbone of community health services and, hence, are incentivised through various packages by the Government. The power of selecting these workers rests with the gram panchayats. This is where the potential of abuse of power comes and we see it in a lot of cases. These gram panchayat members collude with candidates in a quid pro quo fashion, where favours are sought from selected workers when the time and the situation arises.

While the States are free to make specific laws as per the state of affairs in their respective States, they are more often than not guided by an overarching umbrella policy. This is where the importance of a central authority comes in to act as the pole star for the masses. This is manifested in the form of division of subjects within our Constitution, between the Centre and the State. For example, in the issue of Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, the power was vested in the hands of the States to make specific laws in their respective States as road transport is a state subject. Yet the Centre formulated a policy for the entire country where broad metrics were laid out to keep different State policies streamlined to a certain extent. This will help the States in formulating different States that are in some consonance with each other.

Due to the sole ambition being winning the elections, the true essence of democracy, that is serving the people while being their representatives in the political system, is completely overlooked by the local leaders. Such a direct correlation between the intentions of the higher forms of the Government and the Panchayati Raj system exists on paper only and not in practice. For example, the politically-charged Uttar Pradesh, for all its political empowerment, has never been counted as very well governed in terms of their PRIs. The reason has purely been that of vote bank calculations. Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, highest in the country and a total voter population of, as per 2014 elections, over 13.45 crore.

The leaders, picked on the basis of their popularity and the promises of development, are voted in by the people at the Assembly, in both municipal and panchayat level. But what follows is always a failure on delivering on their promises. Regardless of the political party, this has always led to denuding the  capacity of local leaders.

From the above example, we can deduce that political awareness percolates to the absolute fundamental levels of society. Yet, the social responsibility of the people has not been developed or cultivated for them to be able to act as accountable leaders. Through this incubation, they could act as a guiding light towards reminding the people that the larger goal is that the entire country is upgraded so that everyone has a dignified life at the least.

Let us take the example of West Bengal, where after decades, a different party came to power. There is a tonal shift in how matters are being handled at the grassroot level by the State Government. There is an unprecedented participation of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her workers in panchayat level matters. While that has led to cases of corruption, there are instances of actual accountability being created through such intense participation. What it has also done is that it has given the local leader a sense of direction. That is precisely what we, as a nation, have to work towards.

This becomes more pressing as India is a fast growing and rapidly evolving economy and society. With information becoming more easily available, the expectation of accountability has increased tremendously for the youth. Thus, the aforementioned challenges should serve as a light at the end of the tunnel and motivate us to encourage our Governments to move in that direction and also make us hopeful that our citizens will soon demand true decentralisation, where all levels of Government work in congruence and consonance.

(Ranjan Bhattacharya is a trustee at Swaniti Initiative. Soham Maheshwari is a Senior Analyst at Swaniti Initiative)The village administration system has been a fulcrum of decentralised power for centuries in India. Since the time of the Rig Veda, Manu and Shukra, Nitisara villages functioned as fundamental units of administration where village officials were elected by the village community. The importance of village administration was such that even the Mauryan empire brought the office of the village headman under royal control but still did not interfere in the selection process. True, decentralisation works efficiently towards the betterment of the people with a capable leader who works and builds capacity of their local leaders.

With the advent of the Panchayati Raj system in India, it became critical to have capable and accountable leaders at every stage of the administration as power is now accessible to the smallest units of the Government to use or abuse. It has always been completely left to the democratic electoral process to ensure capable governance. Fame and popularity are mistaken for the capability to govern. To substantiate this mandate of the people, there has never been any institutionalised incubation process to build their capacity. This has led to incapable local leaders who do not possess a vision for development of their area and the nation. These are people with innate understanding of the locale and the community. Their understanding, if coupled with capacity-building in governance, could lead to an organic and sustainable change at the village level.

While the Governments at the Centre and the States have gradually shown an upward trajectory  to build the capacity of local leaders, the immediate fix to this challenge has always been to allocate money to facilitate development. Throughout history, we have seen economic empowerment has not always led to effective policy implementation. The quantum leap in funding has been colossal as opposed to the actual implementation of Government programmes, which has not seen a proportional jump.

For example, in Tamil Nadu, the jump in funding allocation to Panchayati Raj Institutes (PRI) has been 532 crore between 2007-08 to 2015-16, yet we never experience the benefits of this allocation at the village level.

This among many cases of increasing allocation of funds raises a pressing question: If money cannot guarantee development, then what can? The answer just lies one step ahead — in the effective and judicious assignment and utilisation of these funds.

But how will that happen? By empowering the people through socio-political tools that are available with the Government. In Kerala and West Bengal, ever since the British era, for the purposes of collection of taxes, local leaders were empowered politically to effectuate policy implementation. Specifically, local representatives were selected by the British to do their bidding, both politically and socially. This was a necessary act to derive legitimacy from the people of a country they were colonising. It was famously recognised by the British that they could not rule a vast and diverse nation such as India without gaining legitimacy from the villages. The local representatives were not only influential community members but also integral part of the political machinery and shared the vision of development of their region with all the stakeholders.

India, as a political entity, has always identified the need of decentralisation of power to put an end to its accumulation. But there has been no cultivation of local leaders and their vision of a developing nation. This has led to widespread corruption as these smaller units of administration have become check posts of “red-tapism” and made life Kafkaesque for the people. For example, Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA)  workers are the backbone of community health services and, hence, are incentivised through various packages by the Government. The power of selecting these workers rests with the gram panchayats. This is where the potential of abuse of power comes and we see it in a lot of cases. These gram panchayat members collude with candidates in a quid pro quo fashion, where favours are sought from selected workers when the time and the situation arises.

While the States are free to make specific laws as per the state of affairs in their respective States, they are more often than not guided by an overarching umbrella policy. This is where the importance of a central authority comes in to act as the pole star for the masses. This is manifested in the form of division of subjects within our Constitution, between the Centre and the State. For example, in the issue of Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, the power was vested in the hands of the States to make specific laws in their respective States as road transport is a state subject. Yet the Centre formulated a policy for the entire country where broad metrics were laid out to keep different State policies streamlined to a certain extent. This will help the States in formulating different States that are in some consonance with each other.

Due to the sole ambition being winning the elections, the true essence of democracy, that is serving the people while being their representatives in the political system, is completely overlooked by the local leaders. Such a direct correlation between the intentions of the higher forms of the Government and the Panchayati Raj system exists on paper only and not in practice. For example, the politically-charged Uttar Pradesh, for all its political empowerment, has never been counted as very well governed in terms of their PRIs. The reason has purely been that of vote bank calculations. Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, highest in the country and a total voter population of, as per 2014 elections, over 13.45 crore.

The leaders, picked on the basis of their popularity and the promises of development, are voted in by the people at the Assembly, in both municipal and panchayat level. But what follows is always a failure on delivering on their promises. Regardless of the political party, this has always led to denuding the  capacity of local leaders.

From the above example, we can deduce that political awareness percolates to the absolute fundamental levels of society. Yet, the social responsibility of the people has not been developed or cultivated for them to be able to act as accountable leaders. Through this incubation, they could act as a guiding light towards reminding the people that the larger goal is that the entire country is upgraded so that everyone has a dignified life at the least.

Let us take the example of West Bengal, where after decades, a different party came to power. There is a tonal shift in how matters are being handled at the grassroot level by the State Government. There is an unprecedented participation of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her workers in panchayat level matters. While that has led to cases of corruption, there are instances of actual accountability being created through such intense participation. What it has also done is that it has given the local leader a sense of direction. That is precisely what we, as a nation, have to work towards.

This becomes more pressing as India is a fast growing and rapidly evolving economy and society. With information becoming more easily available, the expectation of accountability has increased tremendously for the youth. Thus, the aforementioned challenges should serve as a light at the end of the tunnel and motivate us to encourage our Governments to move in that direction and also make us hopeful that our citizens will soon demand true decentralisation, where all levels of Government work in congruence and consonance.

(Ranjan Bhattacharya is a trustee at Swaniti Initiative. Soham Maheshwari is a Senior Analyst at Swaniti Initiative)

 
 
 
 
 
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