Message from voters : Empower local governments- let tax payers be in charge!

Delhi Assembly election is in reality an election to the city government. The people took active and lively interest in campaign, voting and outcome in large part because it impacts their daily lives – the garbage, sewerage, drinking water, electricity, parks, street lighting etc. With some variations, Delhi government is what a genuinely empowered city local government should be.

The Mayors and City Councils of all major cities in the world – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Mexico city, San Paulo, Bangkok etc – do as much as and more than what Delhi government is empowered to do. The Mayors of all these great cities therefore are influential leaders in their countries.

The message of Delhi election is let power devolve on elected local governments. Our 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments are largely toothless. The original US Constitution was 4400-word long; but our 73rd and 74th amendments alone are 7756-word long! Despite such length and detail, they have largely created over-structured rigid local governments with very few real powers. The net result is, as in many other spheres of our governance, symbolism with little substance. Apart from poor design and weak constitutional provisions, local governments remained ineffective because most of our elites paid no attention to them. Influential Indians seem to secretly harbour Churchill’s disdain for our capacity for self-governance! There is a tendency to accept centralized power in the hands of a state or union government. There is deep mistrust of the people’s capacity to elect a competent and effective local government. There is a natural propensity in our society and public discourse to view power in hierarchical, centralized terms, and the notion of multiple loci of power is somewhat alien to our notion of government.

It is said that the United States has possibly the largest number of final decision making authorities. The sphere of influence of a decision making authority may be small, but it is definite and final. A School Board, City Council, County, Zoning Board etc may have limited jurisdiction, but it often exercises final authority. For instance, when Bill and Hillary Clinton moved to Harlem, New York after the Clinton Presidency, it is the local residents’ authority that had the power to decide whether or not the former President’s family, with all the intrusive security measure, should live in their midst! Surprisingly, China has remarkable decentralization in many spheres of activity. While the larger policy and direction are decided in Beijing, much of the actual implementation is in the hands of local authorities.

India, for a large and extraordinarily diverse nation, has possibly the smallest number final decision making authorities. A substantial part of government power is concentrated in three functionaries – the unelected District Magistrate (DM), the Chief Minister (CM) and the Prime Minister (PM). Most of our well-meaning programmes fail in delivery because there is neither flexibility nor accountability to ensure outcomes at local level. The failure of our public education, healthcare, anti-poverty programmes and sanitation is too well-known to need elaboration.

The MLA and the senior bureaucrats see the local government as a threat or nuisance. Often they genuinely believe that local governments are incompetent and corrupt. The CMs are very happy to centralise power and rely on bureaucracy because they can then please MLAs with whose support they survive in power, or the civil servants with whose assistance they can keep an eye on dissenting legislators and ministers who are potential rivals.

However, the argument that local governments are inherently more corrupt or ineffective is a self-serving one. Every significant accomplishment in our public domain was a result of devolution and local or sectoral leadership!

  • ISRO would have been yet another ineffective, dysfunctional bureaucracy if the organization did not enjoy autonomy and resources along with a clear mandate and accountability. 
  • The milk revolution was possible only because Dr Kurien ensured autonomy of milk cooperatives, and combined it with leadership, technology and management skills. 

During freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru (Allahabad), Chittaranjan Das (Calcutta), Vallabhbhai Patel (Ahmedabad) Prakasam Pantulu (Rajamundry) and Subhash Chandra Bose (Calcutta), Rajendra Prasad (Patna) – all led their city governments, and eventually emerged as national leaders.

The remarkable work of RS Bharati in Alandur Municipality (Tamil Nadu) in building India’s first sewerage system in a small town in recent years is a testimony to what empowered local governments can do.

I was privileged as a DM (1986 – 89) to create nearly 200,000 acres of irrigation in just one district (Prakasam in Andhra Pradesh) in about 30 months through small lift and minor irrigation schemes at a very low cost of Rs. 2000 per acre with no maintenance burden on government only by delegating power to local farmers. Half the money was raised as bank loans, and the farmers repaid every single loan within three years!  Until then, in all 22 districts of then rural AP, the state agencies could only create 110,000 acres of lift irrigation in over 20 years at an average cost of Rs. 15,000/ acre, and the State was bearing the annual burden of Rs. 450 / acre for maintenance!

The only thing that really works well in a democracy is effective local empowerment with accountability. When the citizen / farmer / tax payer understands the link between the public money and the local services she gets, people ensure proper utilization of resources. When the voter understands that the person elected makes all the difference – good, bad or ugly, there is a greater likelihood of mature voting unaffected by money power, caste or short-term freebies. Things get done well only when the person responsible for delivery has full authority and resources, and is fully accountable. True local government empowerment is not creation of another set of tyrants and another tier of corruption. It is responsible devolution with effective accountability.

Swachh Bharat Mission is a good example of a worthy programme that can never yield results without genuine local empowerment and accountability. Building of hygienic and safe toilets, proper sewerage and sewage treatment, solid waste management, cleaning up rivers and water bodies, proper storm water drainage in cities and safe and productive utilisation of agricultural residues – all these are essential components of Swachh Bharat Mission. A ball park estimate shows that the total cost of all these will be of the order of about Rs. 500,000 cr, of which the Unioin may have to transfer about 50% as grants to local governments (near 100% for toilets, and about 20% for the rest). GoI is transferring Rs. 778,000 crore in 2014-15 to states under various heads.

Henceforth, with the creation of NITI Aayog in place of the Planning Commission, abolition of many centrally sponsored schemes and plan assistance, and the widely anticipated increase of States’ share in central tax pool (to 42%), about Rs 800, 000 cr or more will be directly transferred to states every year. If one-sixth of this amount, say about 16% is directly transferred to urban and rural local governments, there will be a sum of Rs. 1000 per capita available to the third tier of governments for local infrastructure, innovation and service delivery. A district ombudsman with wide powers of monitoring, enquiry and punishment can be appointed by law for every district to ensure effective monitoring and accountability. This money is part of what the states are spending ineffectively anyway, and is not an additional burden on the exchequer. Such a devolution with accountability will transform our governance and delivery.

More than anything else, true empowerment of cities and local governments will shift responsibility for delivery where it should be. In a centralized, opaque structure, we created a system of alibis in which there is general failure to deliver, but you can never pin point responsibility! In a well-designed local government, authority and accountability will be in full alignment. People will be energized, and local leadership will develop.

Elections at National and State level will be largely about policy and big infrastructure, and local governments will be about delivery.

Millions of enlightened citizens will become local partners in governance and will herald a revolution. Once people know that finite resources are at their disposal, they will learn to make responsible choices, instead of seeking short-term freebies at the cost of long-term public good. Discontented Maoists and other protest groups will lose all support, and people’s energies will be channelized constructively and creatively. Duties will accompany rights, and the perpetual government-bashing and anti-political rhetoric will be replaced by collective problem-solving.

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Much of the political discontent in India stems from appallingly poor delivery, lack of accountability, mis-allocation of resources in a centralized polity, and increasing gulf between exaggerated promises and indifferent outcomes. The one Mantra that can rejuvenate our democracy and give us the harmony, stability and institutional strength we need in our quest for growth, prosperity and national greatness is accountable empowerment and citizen-participation. That is the message from the ground swell of people’s support to popular movements against corruption and mis-governance and the verdict of Delhi citizens. If we fail to empower citizens and local governments in a responsible manner, we will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis in our politics, economic management, public services and ultimately society.

The lesson is loud and clear – let tax payers and voters be in charge!

Jayaprakash Narayan,