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Saturday, August 9, 2003

I would like to narrate an event that took place in Calcutta some 80 years ago. Sri Chittaranjan Das (C R Das) was elected as the  Mayor of the newly constituted Municipal Corporation of Calcutta in 1924. He argued with the British Governor of the province that as the elected head of the local government he should have the right to appoint his own chief executive officer (Commissioner). Even though the British offered him any ICS official of his choice, Das declined and won the right to appoint his own man. Das selected a bright 27 year old as his Commissioner. Subsequently, this youngster was arrested for his involvement in freedom struggle, and put in Alipore Jail. Das again fought with the British government and said that as the youngster was doing a wonderful job, he should be allowed to function as the Commissioner even from jail. The colonial government agreed and issued orders stating that the commissioner should be allowed to discharge his duties from the jail. This young man went on to become the Mayor of Calcutta city and subsequently became the president of Indian National Congress. He was none other than Netaji Subash Chandra Bose! I am afraid to recount this story for fear that our criminals masquerading as netas will claim the same right to be in power even when they are jailed for their crimes!

This episode illustrates the degree of autonomy enjoyed by local governments in colonial times. Contrast this with today’s scenario where elected representatives have hardly any authority or responsibility. They are reduced to figure heads. But it is important to realize that the ‘local government’ be it a village panchayat, mandal, zilla parishad or municipality is constitutionally as much a government as a state or union government.

If one looks back at the evolution of self-governments in India, the elected provincial governments were formed only in 1937, subsequent to the enactment of Government of India Act, 1935. And the elected union government assumed office only in 1946. But the local governments have a much longer history. Madras province had a three-tier system of administration comprising of local governments as early as 1884, which took a much more concrete shape in 1920 after the enactment of the Madras District Boards Act. That means we had substantial local governance for more than 80 years, even when we were under colonial rule. Many national leaders rose to fame through their work in municipalities.

And panchayats have been powerful and self-contained for thousands of years.  The Uttarameru inscription of early chola period dating back about 1000 years is a breathtaking testimony to the power of the Little Republics in India.

But in independent India, even though the directive principles and the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments envisage the local governments as genuine units of self-governance, they remain as nothing more than skeletons with no real powers.

In this context, we at LOK SATTA along with the Federation for Empowerment of Local Governments (which is a representative body of elected and former local government representatives from across the political spectrum) is launching a state-wide campaign to collect ten million (one crore)  endorsements in support of local government empowerment. The campaign will be symbolically launched on the 9th August - Quit India day and will culminate on the 2nd of October , the birth anniversary of Gandhiji, who fought all his life for true “Gram Swarajya”.

This is the first time such a large non-partisan campaign is being undertaken in any state in India for a constructive and democratic issue. It is not our claim that local government leaders are pious and moral, and state and union governments are immoral. People are the same everywhere. But even the best intentions of a centralized government can never be translated into public good, given the many barriers between the citizen and state. Even a bad local leader can be held to account by collective assertion of citizens. That is why even a bad local leader is better than a ‘good’ distant leader in a centralized government. The fight today is between genuine local empowerment and centralized mis-governance. All of us, citizens, have high stakes in this struggle.

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