During the Chief Ministers’ Conference on June 29th 2004, the Prime Minister of India has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons by urging the Chief Ministers to consider the possibility of “providing block grants to districts based on their incidence of poverty to plan and implement strategies that optimize their resource potential.” This, he said, “would ensure that district level planning as envisaged in the Constitution Amendment on Panchayat Raj becomes a reality.”
The observations of the Prime Minister were apt and came at a time when there is growing demand for empowerment of local governments. The local governments in many states are “governments” only on paper; in reality they are mere appendages of state governments. This can be remedied by providing substantial financial resources. However, there were many commentators who raised questions such as, “can local governments efficiently spend an amount of Rs. 17,000 crores that are now being disbursed annually under various rural development schemes?” And there are some who said: “Oh, the local governments are corrupt to the core, any new funds to them will only lead to further embezzlement of funds”.
While the concern to ensure accountability in administrative apparatus is valid, the solution of not devolving any funds or functions to local governments is not a correct approach to ensure accountability in local governments. Let me illustrate this by an example. In the recent stamp scam, many senior functionaries, including senior police officials and ministers in couple of states have been implicated. As corruption of unimaginable proportions in police departments in various states has come to light, should the Union government take over the police functions in these states? The answer to such a question would be a definite no. Similarly, the higher tiers of government should not usurp the functions of the local governments under the pretext of proven corruption in the past or possible corruption in the future. The Union and state governments can and should devolve funds and functions making every effort to ensure accountability in local governments. The following four measures can be considered for ensuring accountability in the local governments.
- There should be independent Ombudsmen to look into all complaints or grievances related to local governments for every district. The Ombudsman should have the power to take any action, initiate disciplinary proceedings against any local government representative/employee including removal or dismissal. The government shall have no appeal powers and the appeal will lie with a body of state-level Ombudsmen. The Ombudsman should be a person of integrity and reputation in the district and a committee comprising of the chief minister, chief justice of the high court and leader of the opposition will appoint him.
- All the states should create effective mechanisms for implementation of the right to information legislation and make them applicable to all branches of state government and local governments. A provision for independent appeal and compensation to the citizen along with penalties for erring employee should be provided.
- There is a need to proactively implement the local government citizen charters. The Citizen Charter should clearly outline citizen’s entitlements, time-frame, and compensation for non-delivery and penalties for the erring employee.
- A District Audit Unit, independent of local and state governments can be constituted to scrutinize the expenditure of local governments, and it should function like the Accountant General’s audit.
Involving the people in the local governance process itself can ensure accountability. The citizen involvement is contingent on an open administrative apparatus that allows citizen participation. In one of my earlier columns, I have emphasized this point and pointed out that civil society should facilitate active citizens’ involvement in public affairs and should devise tools for collective assertion. For instance, when corrupt practices under Building Regularization Scheme came to light in Kukatpally Municipality, the collective assertion of local people under Lok Satta banner resulted in refund of the bribe money! This is a small but significant victory for the local people. Further, Lok Satta was also instrumental in enactment of excellent Citizen's Charter in all Municipalities in the State. For the first time in India, a compensation of Rs.50 is now payable to the citizen for every day's delay in these services. Over 50 municipalities in Andhra Pradesh are implementing this.
Similarly, Janaagraha of Bangalore has been carrying out initiatives like the Ward Vision Campaign aimed at full participation of citizens in planning and monitoring of public works carried out by the local governments. More recently, along with other partner organizations, it has compelled the Bangalore Municipal Corporation to release it’s quarterly financial statement. This innovative campaign is an important step in the right direction aimed at ensuring complete transparency in local governments. Realizing that an important reason for the dysfunctional governance apparatus that we have today is the absence of link between services and the taxes we pay, Janaagraha has been urging the Municipal Corporation to release list of property tax payers in Bangalore. This will result in identifying the non-taxpayers from taxpayers and there will a tangible indicator to measure the efficiency of the Municipal Corporation in collection of taxes. The experiences of various civil society initiatives should be studied in detail to identify effective accountability mechanisms for local governments.
All this demonstrates that ensuring accountability in local governments is not a Herculean task. There are many mechanisms and the civil society is ever willing to lend its expertise to the authorities concerned to ensure accountability in local governments. The fundamental premise of democracy is that the citizens have the capacity to understand their self-interest and are capable of taking charge of their own lives, which holds true even at the local level as links between their vote and public good, and taxes and services are clearly evident. If this is so, to deny funds to local governments on the pretext of lack of accountability only betrays lack of faith in representative democracy.