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Saturday, November 9, 2002

“Nowhere has democracy functioned well without a large measure of local self-governance” – Friedrich Von Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom”

In brief, “subsidiarity” means that the responsibility for the diverse issues of life lies initially with the individual or immediate family; only what really cannot be resolved here should be delegated to the community level. The small community is usually based on a consensual voluntarism and is thus secured by natural law. Each higher level that establishes force, must therefore, be legitimized by the lower level. Thus all state power remains a “delegate” (not a sovereign “mandate”) from the bottom to the top.

What it means in simple terms is that any issue that can be handled locally at a level as close to the citizen as possible, should be done locally and only when it is not feasible should it be delegated to a higher level of government. The farther removed state action is from the citizen, the higher are the chances that the state will not function in the best interests of the citizen.

For example, take the case of school education. Even though the school is located in the community, the functioning of the school is completely out of the control of the community. It is widely known that 95 % of teachers who work in government schools do not send their children to the schools in which they teach! Neither the parent nor the locally elected political executive has any right to enforce accountability in the functioning of the school. So is the case with the functioning of the public health system. Every one in a community knows that the government doctor at the primary health centre rarely shows up and instead has his own private practice. And yet people are helpless as they do not have any control over him.

Not too long ago, in this state itself, both these institutions used to function reasonably well under the aegis of the local government. I myself was privileged to study in a government school in my village, which has given me a world-class education. When I go to the same school now, I do not see a future for any kid studying there – and that not only makes me angry but also depresses me. Human resources are the greatest wealth we have and we should be doing everything in our power to enable them achieve their full potential – that’s what state is all about and that’s what good governance means.

Partly as a result of our colonial legacy and partly because of the traumatic experience of partition at the time of Indian independence we have created a system of governance, which is extremely centralized. Accountability has been eroded leading to inefficiency and corruption in almost every sphere of government.

Although the constitution envisages transfer of 29 subjects ranging from education and health to agriculture to the local governments, in reality the states are extremely reluctant let go of any of their powers. As a result of this over centralization, the common man feels very much alienated. People lost all trust in the ability of the government to safeguard their interests. Centralized governance is often reduced to legal plunder. This in turn leads to a very cynical attitude towards the state and the political process itself, which is very dangerous in a democracy

The need of the hour is a radical redesign of our governance process and institutions to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. This means true empowerment of local governments with control over every subject that effects their daily life and which can be handled locally. This entails transfer of funds, functions and functionaries completely to the local governments. Only when the citizen sees a link between the taxes he pays and the services he receives will he regain a modicum of trust in the governance institutions and shed the cynical attitude towards the state. True decentralization with proper accountability is the only way to improve the quality of public services, reduce corruption and restore people’s faith in the state.


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