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Tuesday, July 29, 2003

It is now over ten years since the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution were enacted with great hope and anticipation. Unfortunately, local governments in most parts of the country continue to be feeble and anaemic. As has now become the habit, our law-makers are loquacious without substance. Together the two amendments are about 7700 word-long, and yet the key provisions regarding the powers and functions of panchayats (Article 243-G) and municipalities (243-W) are vague and feeble. Most states, which are loathe to devolution of powers, took full advantage of this ambiguity, and created local governments devoid of any substance. Kerala is an honourable exception, and West Bengal and Karnataka too have empowered local governments to a reasonable extent.

Our two amendments run longer than the entire American constitution (4700 words) which created the most successful democracy in history. Article 28 of the German Basic Law, mandates powerful, democratic, autonomous and self-reliant local governments in just over 100 words.

Even then, our constitutional provisions are not meaningless. They do provide for mandatory creation of local governments and periodic elections. Elected local governments can no longer be dismissed en masse. If a functionary is removed after due enquiry, there shall be an election within six months to fill the vacancy only for the remainder of term. The propensity of partisan state governments to dismiss local governments controlled by rival parties is thus curbed. A State Election Commission as an independent constitutional authority is now mandatory to conduct regular, free and fair elections. Similarly a State Finance Commission has been created to recommend distribution of resources to local governments.

The preamble, fundamental rights and directive principles embody the spirit of the Constitution. These three together clearly point to true democracy defined as self-governance and empowerment, and popular sovereignty. Article 40, as well as the 73rd and 74th amendments talk of local bodies as effective units of self-government. The wording in provisions relating to creation of parliament (Article 79), state legislatures (Article 168), and local governments (Art. 243) is identical. But most states have violated this spirit. Often District and Metropolitan Planning Committees (Articles 243 ZD and ZE) and ward(s) committees (Art. 243S) are not created. Elections have been delayed; the recommendations of State Finance Commissions are ignored; and even Union grants devolved on the local governments are appropriated by the states.

The Council of ministers and legislature at the Union and State levels are clothed with great authority not because they comprise of the greatest or most virtuous citizens, but because we have elected them to represent us. That is what democracy is about. It is ironic that governments which derive legitimacy solely from democratic elections are keen to undermine local governments elected by the same voters.

Entrenched corruption in a centralized governance milieu has crippled the nation. This can only be changed in a decentralized government where the link between the citizen’s vote and well-being is clearly evident and the local government is truly empowered. The citizen will realize his vote is more valuable than the paltry hundred rupees offered during elections. When people see that the elected functionary can make all the difference in matters like water supply, drainage, roads, schools, healthcare, land records and public distribution system, they will start voting with greater care and judgment. The distortions will not disappear overnight. But empowerment of local governments is the key to revitalization of our democracy.

We have to acknowledge there is corruption in local governments. Five decades of high and illegitimate election expenditure, and conversion of public office as a means of self-aggrandizement and private gain have created a dangerous culture of treating politics as a big business. Criminalization of politics, polling irregularities, and local political fiefdoms have vitiated our parties and democratic institutions. Inevitably, the same predatory politics has permeated local governments. But corruption cannot be used as an excuse to deny legitimate empowerment of local governments. It is not our contention that local governments are better governments, but it is easier to check the misrule of a local government and for people to keep a tab on how their tax money is being spent. Moreover, when authority and accountability are fused, it will be difficult for public servants to offer lame excuses for non-performance. The greatest safeguard against abuse of authority is citizens’ vigil, and people can be effective watchdogs only at the local level where they understand the issues affecting their daily lives.

In a true democracy, there is no ‘central’ government away from citizens. Citizen is the centre. There are only closer or farther governments; smaller or larger units. The federal government is the most peripheral government. There are no hierarchies. Power flows from the citizen in ever-enlarging concentric circles. That is the reason why local government can be trusted most.

What can be done to translate this principle of subsidiarity into reality?

• Article 243 G and W need to be amended to give explicit authority to local governments. 11th and 12th schedules of the Constitution should have the same effect as the 7th Schedule - distributing powers between the Union and States.

• We need to create a single district government for rural and urban areas at the third tier of panchayats. A district is larger than about 80 nations in the world. The idea of a district panchayat only for rural areas is outdated.

• Healthy practices of devolution and decentralization should be evolved. Transfer of 50% tax resources as untied grants, de-provincialization of employees entrusted with local functions, district budgets, local tax avenues, and restructuring of village panchayats to make them larger and more viable units of self-government – all these are vital for effective local governance. Rotation of reservations can be effected once every two terms to give greater stability and promote leadership.

• We need to create instruments of accountability to keep elected governments at all levels under check.

All these changes are critical for the future of our republic. Only a massive people’s movement can empower local governments and rejuvenate our republic.