Decentralising governance: the chicken and egg problem

At the height of the Anna Hazare Jan Lokpal movement in 2011, I was more than a little apprehensive of the draconian powers that this institution would exercise. I saw it then as the Indian version of the Jacobin Terror. However, as politics marches on in India, post the game changing 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the realisation is dawning on me that checks on institutional misuse of power, of which corruption is one major phenomenon, have to be strengthened in the Indian context if we are not to see the spectacle of the same old wine being poured into new bottles.
This train of thought has been set off by the advocacy of decentralised governance right upto the village level by influential academics, thinkers and public policy analysts. In itself, this concept is unexceptionable. What gives one pause for thought are the deteriorating standards of ethics and morality at all levels of the polity and government (and, indeed, society) in India. Motivated probably by Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra of gram swaraj, a number of state governments devolved financial and administrative powers to local governments in the 1950s and 1960s. One by one, starting with Maharashtra (a state I am familiar with) and then Karnataka, they gradually recentralised these powers in the state governments. Many other states did not even bother to attempt transfer of powers to local bodies. Part of the reason for this was the fear of state legislators and the state governments that their writ would cease to run in the rural and urban areas of the state. It was not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s to see Zilla Parishad presidents in Maharashtra exercising greater authority than the local legislators. But the local governments also contributed to the diminution of their powers by irresponsible governance, a tendency that has become enhanced over the past three decades.
If, as has been suggested in different fora, a number of functions currently managed by state governments at the district and municipal levels, including crime and law & order policing, are to be transferred to local governments, what could be the legitimate apprehensions? Foremost among these is the likely suborning of the administrative process to meet the demands of local musclemen and ‘bahubalis’. The reprehensible habit of packing the local administration with pliable, compliant bureaucrats, right down to the police station and village levels, is already popular with legislators and ministers in different states. At a macro level, with more checks and balances and alternative centres of power, the scope for misuse, particularly in these days of media (and social media) overkill, is somewhat mitigated. Move the power down to the local level and the likelihood of abuse increases: local media is more vulnerable to threats and blandishments.
In such a scenario, the chances of unbridled corruption increase manifold. Today, the two elections that are fought with the greatest amount of bad blood and viciousness are those to gram panchayats and municipalities. Schemes like the MGNREGA have put huge funds at the disposal of gram panchayats; municipal councillors and corporators often have sizeable constituency funds, especially in the larger cities, apart from patronage powers in relation to vacant land, access to public hospitals and securing employment for favoured ones in municipal services. Not surprisingly, those left out of this “patronage gravy train” are bitter about their lack of powers. I have had innumerable grouses retailed to me by members of Panchayat Samitis (the intermediate tier of rural local government) in Maharashtra about how all resources are controlled by those either in the tier above them (Zilla Parishads) or in the tier below (Gram Panchayats).
The imagination boggles even further when we contemplate local bodies controlling law and order policing functions. Even today, the local police officer, because of caste and other considerations in postings, is often seen as the man of the powerful local overlord, who may often be a legislator/minister. Were local bodies to oversee police functioning in law & order matters, one can only speculate on the security concerns of disadvantaged groups and women, given that the current environment is itself a matter of grave concern.
And yet, we cannot again fall into the age-old trap of the “white man’s burden”, justified for over a century to deny self-rule to native colonies all over the globe. We have to repose faith in the dictum that a democratic transfer of power imbues, albeit over a period of time, those exercising these powers with a sense of their responsibility to those who have voted to vest this power in their chosen representatives. More importantly, there are three mechanisms which can serve as checks and balances on those in power in local governments (as indeed on those exercising power in state and national governments).
Deterrence, or the fear of punishment, is undoubtedly one of the major weapons for controlling irresponsible exercise of powers. The Lokayukta at the local level will exercise the same punitive powers that the Lok Pal (at the national level) and the Lokayukta (at the state level) will exercise. Apart from the bureaucracy, actions of all political functionaries at the local level will be liable to scrutiny by the Lokayukta. Karnataka has set an example wherein a sitting Chief Minister had to quit office when indicted by the Lokayukta. Independent investigation and prosecution wings attached to the Lokayukta will ensure that there can be no attempts by vested interests to interfere with the course of law.
Exposure is the second method to keep executive power in check. The Right to Information Act, by making available information to the public, has opened up public records to scrutiny. Section 4 of this Act has yet to be implemented in letter and spirit. Disclosure of government decisions and placing government data in the public domain should, to the greatest extent possible, be voluntary and web-based, so that the general public is aware of what their governments are doing. Of course, social media is a powerful tool available today to open up actions of public functionaries to instant scrutiny. The novel concept of citizen-journalists and the widespread use of smartphones have enabled the ordinary citizen to bring to public attention attempts to interfere with individual dignity and instances of misuse of public money. The fear of complaints “going viral” through the exponential spread of incriminating information ought to keep public functionaries on their toes and act as a check on arbitrary, unlawful actions on their part.
Processes constitute the third measure to enforce accountability in governance systems. These cover procedures related to public service delivery to make them transparent, impartial and timely and would often have to incorporate a substantial technology element. This blog column has, in the past, spoken admiringly of the flawless service and customer-focused responsiveness of private online retailers. It is heartening to note that public sector agencies like gas companies and electricity distribution companies have developed excellent internet portals to facilitate supply of gas cylinders and payment of electric bills. These services need to be extended to areas like old-age pension payments, registration of first information reports with the police, scholarship disbursements, etc. Reducing citizen interface with public bureaucracy reduces transaction costs not only by eliminating travel costs but also by cutting out opportunities for “rent-seeking”. E-tenders and online land records and systems for online registration of land transactions would go a long way in checking arbitrary exercise of executive power.
I need to stress here that the measures suggested are by no means limited to local governments; they apply with as much, if not greater, relevance to state and national governments. But the transfer of financial and administrative powers to local governments, accompanied by introduction of the measures mentioned above, would remove one of the facile excuses trotted out by state governments to delay the transfer of these powers (never mind that state governments themselves are no paragons of rectitude, probity and transparency in functioning). As we celebrate India’s sixty-eighth Independence Day, let us commit ourselves to decentralisation of powers, the only means by which citizens of India will have a greater voice in decisions impacting their future and the destinies of unborn generations of Indians.

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