Recently, we had the privilege of interacting with a number of leaders who were former local government heads in the state. A few of them who served as heads of the district panchayat (Zilla Parishad) in the 60’s and 70’s were commenting that they turned down positions in the state cabinet as they wielded more authority than that of a cabinet minister! In fact the norm used to be that a MLA or minister from any district had to request the ZP chairperson for any assistance that their constituents needed. What a contrast it is now – the MLAs rule the constituencies as uncrowned kings, while the elected head of the local government sits as a figurehead. In our own state, powerful leaders like Jalagam Vengala Rao and K Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy emerged from the ranks of local government and went on to serve as Chief Ministers.
Let’s examine the powers of local government leaders now, to understand the gravity of the situation. The directly elected Mayor of Hyderabad city has a discretionary power of approving/sanctioning any work up to Rs.50,000 at a time. Contrast this with the powers of the appointed Commissioner who can sanction works up to Rs. 20,00,000! The story is the same in smaller Municipalities also - the power of the chairperson to incur contingent expenditure is restricted to a paltry Rs 1500-3000.
It doesn’t get any better in rural governments. A major gram panchayat can give administrative sanction up to Rs 2 lakhs, while a Mandal Parishad can approve works up to Rs 75,000 and the Zilla parishad up to Rs 10,00,000. Any works/projects above these limits have to be approved by the government. And leaders of these tiers of local governments do not have any powers of their own, except for the gram sarpanch who can authorize spending up to Rs 10,000. On the other hand a Member of Parliament has at his disposal a 2 crore constituency development fund to spend as he wishes!
What is really getting lost in this administrative maze are some crucial facts:
• An average district in AP, with approximately 3 million population is larger than 80 countries in the world
• The local governments have as much constitutional sanctity as other tiers at the state or the union. It is not a question of higher vs lower governments, but a matter of farther vs nearer.
• Therefore, the elected head of the local government should have the legitimate authority to govern his/her domain as they are directly accountable to their constituents and no government has any right to deny these powers.
In any form of modern democratic governance structure, local governments are recognized as the most important tier as they are the nearest to the people. The case of New York city exemplifies this. Up to the early 90s, this great city was gripped by a host of problems ranging from crumbling infrastructure to high crime and bad schools to high unemployment. Guiliani took office as Mayor in the early 90s and single handedly transformed the city into the booming metropolis that it is today. It was estimated that in 2000, the metropolitan New York area contributed as much as 1/10th to the American economy. Even when a tragedy of the magnitude of September 11th with national security implications struck the city, the American President ceded the primary responsibility of coordinating the relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts to the City’s Mayor. Contrast this with the Mayor of Hyderabad City. Over 4 million people in the city have directly elected him, making him the elected official with the largest popular constituency. And yet, he has no legitimate authority to make even the slightest difference. The link between our vote and public good has been snapped in this centralized system which has no respect for our needs or our verdicts.
It is high time that the governments and parties of the day recognized the fact that governance cannot be improved until local government leaders are empowered and made accountable to the citizens.