From the ground-up
In order to make policymaking and implementation efficient, the Indian government should concentrate its efforts on the proper decentralisation of its powers
It is an axiomatic truth that the impact of the decisions, policies, programmes and schemes of the central government depends on the effective implementation of all the above by the state and the local governments. There are very many non-state actors who play a vital role in achieving the development and delivery of services at the grassroots. Of them, the local bodies are one set of institutions that play an important role in achieving development by involving the stakeholders, the people. In the context of climate emergency, ecological imbalance and environmental degradation, effective ground-level actions are an imperative need and could be achieved only through local governments. In order to achieve local economic development, social justice and democratisation of the communities at the grassroots, local governments in India have been made governance institutions by incorporating them in part IX and IXA of the constitution of India.
The devolution theory argues that local governments will be effective in their performance only when effective transfer of functions based on the principle of unambiguous control of the local bodies over the functionaries discharging the functions; financial authorisation of the local bodies commensurate with functional responsibility and the ability of the local bodies to function as cutting edge partners with the line departments as autonomous agencies in decision making. This has been achieved only in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharastra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. It is also limited to rural local bodies and not urban local bodies as there was no research study pertinent to the devolution of powers in urban local bodies. Other states are at different levels of devolution. The above observations are made as per the devolution study conducted in India by the Tata Institute of Social Science Mumbai and I was part of the pan India study as an advisor sponsored by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India published in the year 2016. After this study, there was no pan India study on devolution to date. The above status of decentralisation was achieved through a long process of advocacy and facilitation done by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj under the leadership of Mani Shankar Aiyar during UPA regime. After the departure of Mani Shankar Aiyar, interest in devolution exercise started dwindling. As a result, bilateral and multilateral institutions who have evinced keen interest in devolution have withdrawn from their active involvement in local body activities.
Urbanisation is fast in many of the states in India during the era of economic globalisation which assumes significance in the current context. Though service delivery is basic, establishing participatory governance at the grassroots, both urban and rural endeavours need earnest effort on part of the central government. When there was a Ministry for Panchayati Raj during UPA-I, the Ministry acted as a civil society to build a movement for devolution and that too for only rural local bodies. After 2010, there had been no such vibrancy in the Ministry to push the devolution exercise. Now it has come to the lowest ebb. It is the considered opinion of every development thinker and practitioner that many of the development issues at the grassroots could not be tackled through government machinery alone. It needs the participation of the stakeholders (people). It is not only for achieving development but to deepen democracy through their participation. It has to achieve social justice, peace and harmony through a process of dialogue and discourse and for which local governance mechanism has to be strengthened.
In the context of centralisation of powers in the name of reforms for the market to achieve growth, devolution of powers to local government from the state government is not an easy task. But it is crucial for addressing the issues of climate change, ecology and environment at the local level with the active involvement of the people. Hence, it is appropriate to create a separate Ministry for Local Governance to look after the governance process both in rural and urban local bodies. The role of the Ministry is to track the devolution to the local bodies and present the needful advocacy to the state governments. The Ministry need not evolve schemes and programmes for rural and urban development and that job will be done by the Ministry of Rural and Urban development. But Local Government Ministry should concentrate on local governance issues in the states, PESA areas, Vth and VIth schedule areas. Furthermore, the training institutions meant for training the rural and urban development elected and non-elected functionaries, have to be integrated into a common training institute for training the local body leaders as in Kerala (Kerala Institute of Local Administration).
Yet another reform needed to strengthen the local governance system in India is to integrate the State Election Commission of every state with the Election Commission of India, with a view to maintaining its autonomy without the interference of the state governments. This is based on past experience in many of the states in India.
Thirdly, governance and administration have to be simplified and a manual for governance and administration has to be prepared for rural and urban local bodies for every state and that manual has to be kept in every local body institution. Fourthly, in every local body institution, be it Gram Panchayat or Town panchayat, municipality or corporation, there should be a dedicated data sheet for households and local bodies, alongside data sets that should be maintained. Finally, every two years, devolution reports have to be prepared for both rural and urban local bodies. These are the steps to be taken by the Government of India with a view to strengthening local governance Institutions in India.
G Palanithurai is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are strictly personal