Right time to decentralise governance, decision-making

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AT A function celebrating Civil Services Day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, stressing the importance of strengthening local-level governance through panchayats and municipalities, said, “Our country is too large to be governed effectively from the Centre or even from the state capitals. We have to decentralise power, decentralise decision-making and decentralise the implementation of various development schemes. This is the only way to involve and empower people in shaping their own future.”
This really good news was soon made even better by a news item in The Asian Age on April 25 that on Panchayat Raj Day, April 24th, the secretary, Panchayat Raj, had appealed the Prime Minister saying that the 11th Plan had not been “friendly” to the panchayats and that the NAC should take this up as the issue. It suggest that he thought that Congress president Sonia Gandhi, known for her progressive views, might bring in her power to set this error right.
There is then a strong likelihood that these sentiments will ensure that the outcomes of development assistance, the implementation of schemes which has been a bug bear in India’s development experience, can at last be tackled. It would certainly make development “inclusive” — the current buzz word of Indian macro-economists.
There has been a sliding backwards from the heydey of the idea of local self government in the 90’s. Apart from a lack of political champions, as the years go by, there has been increasing scepticism about its capability to be an agent, of administration of equitable and efficient, honest design, and delivery of development.
There is a truth in all the misgivings. Such as, for example, an IAS officer of the planning department in Karnataka put it: We are only lowering the level at which corruption operates — suggesting that the argument that people can be vigilant over administration is a non-starter.
This argument is also supported by leading civil society campaigners, whether it is those defending the MNREGS, or those protesting against major development projects, such as the Narmada Dam or the various SEZ projects.
There is this view that the locally-elected councils are part of the problem, not the solution.
Ignorance of development, its content, its technical and financial management has been another knife into localising government. The implementation of schemes is an art and only those wonderful functionaries, called tehsildars and BDOs, have mastered the art.
And the final thrust is on hierarchies, the embedded caste and class domination , which pinches more when it is proximate. From the feminist spaces, there is the added down sizing that the elected women are pawns or puppets in the hands of the men who prop them up.
Yet news on people participation in Panchayat elections, latest from Jammu and Kashmir which has also been referred to by the Prime Minster, indicate enthusiasm as well as entry as candidates, of persons who are often of a different class and occupation — the “other” people. Why do they engage?
Obviously for the same reason that people want to enter politics at other levels and negotiate and bribe and create dynasties — power. The power over money, power to sanction so many resources, apart from offer positions.
The difference, however, is that the majority of the candidates offer a new typology — and perhaps another kind of “class”. Yes, Zamindars and their wives, sons and daughters, traders and their family, thugs and so on. But there are also others — bangle sellers, weavers, barbers, technicians of all kinds of grounded types and of course wives, mothers and daughters-in-law galore. Another fabric of power, locally woven, proximate; with the potential to be held accountable by regular elections. There is a flood of material available illustrating the value of tapping this local energy.
What is crucial now is for the Central government and the Planning Commission to take the leap and firmly fit the elected local self government bodies into the development policy and programme. It would require firm legislation or practice.
For example, the Planning Commission, after placing local self-government centrally in the approach paper to the 12th Plan as the single delivery mechanism of funds for specific purposes, needs to put in a conditionality into the sanctioning of state plan proposals. Unless the state’s plan is the outcome of a summation of district plans, they will not be considered at all. Further, the Central schemes need to be shed and handed over to the states but with the same rider, the conditionality clause.
Second, ban or disallow schemes to set up their own structures of monitoring and design. For example, the Mahila Kisan Scheme of the rural development ministry has already set up a structure for enabling the scheme and its monitoring. Similarly, even MNREGS has a multiplicity of technical bodies and for monitoring often uses technical agencies from the outside. There should almost be a legislative ban on setting up alternative bodies.
Decentralisation is a negative term. We need to replace it with the idea of deconstructing power and thus reconstructing India from the lower rungs of economy, of administration, of capability. This is a possibility and would heal the fissures and also mitigate the evils of centralised power, which in turn invites scams and deviations as accumulation does tempt.
Given that there is now support for this system of localising government from the highest ranks, it is time that the government agencies should respond by removing the shackles which chain them and enable them to usher inclusive development.

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