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Saturday, January 25, 2003

Soon we celebrate one more republic day. Instead of the usual symbolic flag hoisting and traditional invocation to Ghandiji, can we take a few concrete steps and make some sincere attempts to realize his dreams? Ever since independence, every leader of our country has been paying lip service to Gandhiji’s concept of Gram Swaraj. But this continues to remain only an ideal with decentralization of power and local government empowerment turning out to be a mere mirage.

Let us now examine why there should be real transfer of responsibilities with power to the local governments. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the local people and representatives are better people than our leaders in Hyderabad or Delhi. I am not saying that they have a greater understanding or competence than national and state leaders. But local government of even mediocre men and women is superior to centralized government of bright people.

A glance at our public expenditure and its scanty fruits will open our eyes to the centralized plunder that is taking place in the name of governance. Every year the government is spending Rs 7 lakh crores, collected either as taxes or by mortgaging the future of our children. The services we get in return do not account for even a fraction of this expenditure. All the basic amenities and services that make life worth living are in a state of disrepair. Look at education, health-care, water supply, drainage, roads and myriad other public services. As a rule, wherever we can find private alternatives, like in education and health-care, we opt for them at high cost. Where private goods are not possible, like roads and drains, we suffer in silence, and fume in impotent anger. The link between our taxes paid and services received is non-existent. No wonder, we all made tax evasion and avoidance a highly creative national pastime!

To understand this plunder, let us closely examine education in government schools. None of us send our children to government schools. Why? After all, the teachers here are as qualified or better qualified, and better paid, than teachers in private schools. Yet we all know that the quality of teaching is dismal with total lack of accountability. Even the teachers do not send their children to the schools where they teach! Even the poorest of poor try to avoid them. Why don’t we do anything about it? Somehow, because we do not spend the money directly from our pocket, because stakeholders are not empowered and because the local governments are powerless, this vital service has been allowed to be reduced to this sorry state. The dropout rate among the few who go there is very high resulting in the related problems we are all too aware of – low literacy, child labour, poor employable skills etc. There was a time when local governments ensured better schooling in a remote village. I am a product of a government school. When I think of today’s children who will never have an opportunity to fulfil their potential, it is difficult to control the tide of anger or tears of sorrow.

It would be folly on the part of either the state or Union governments to think that the people at the local level are not qualified to know their self interest and are incapable of taking charge of their own lives. Let us not forget these ‘ordinary’ people elected the national and state governments and our pundits and politicians extol their virtues in every election.

We have wasted 55 years of freedom by not trusting our people to look after themselves. As a result, taxes are de-linked from services, and authority is divorced from responsibility. As voting and change of governments does not change anything, people have succumbed to cynicism, and demand money for voting. Politics has become big business, and a vicious cycle of corruption and misgovernance has set in.

Do we, the urban, English-speaking privileged classes, have the good sense and foresight to trust the people, empower local governments, and allow little republics to flourish all over? Only when that happens will the fruits of freedom reach our people, and our national holidays will be occasions for genuine celebration, instead of meaningless rituals.

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