Strengthening local government

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Fance has a network of 20-odd documentation centres on developing countries based in its different cities, The oldest one, CRIDFV, based in Rennes and founded by the eminent soil scientist Alain Ruillan, recently completed 20 years of its existence. As part of its anniversary celebrations, cmow invited me to deliver a series of lectures in Rennes, Lorient, Caen and Lyon on 'Environment and Democracy'. In 1994, the French magazine Les Realites de Vecalogic had given me the Environmentalist of the Year award, primarily for my writings on how local and global democracies are important for environmental caring and sharing.

At the formal reception arranged for me by the Rennes municipality, I asked the mayor's representative what she did in the city's municipality. She surprised me by saying that she was an elected councillor responsible for managing the city's relations with NGOS Or Iassociations', as they are called in France. She explained that the city worked closely with NGOs and even had agreements with serve of them for carrying out specific activities. She had been looking after this work for two terms, that is, nearly 12 years.

Loic Gerard Of CRIDV explained further that the city had set up a separate office for interacting with and supporting 1,400 local NGOS, out of some 2,000. CRIDEV itself received considerable support from the city. In this way, Gerard added, the city had steered clear of building up a relationship of patronage with NGOS. Usually, in many urban centres, favoured NGOS get more support and the less favoured ones are shown the door.

At the reception, there were other councillors who equally intrigued and interested me. A young man introduced himself as a councillor who had just been given the job of nurturing the city's relations with developing nations. He was just two months in the position and was trying to build up a programme in this area.

Another young man said that he was a member of the city's Red and Green Party. Over the years, the French Green Partv has split and changed political ideologies, especially owing to the mercurial character of its celebrated founder, Brice Lalonde. Lalonde had led a militant struggle in the 1970s against nuclear power stations in the country. Later, -6-e-cemb-er 1 5ji% DoWn To"rth he had founded bne of Europe's strongest Green parties. But in the 1980s, he split the party and joined the socialist government of President Francois Mitterand. In recent months, he has moved further on and joined the right wing ruling party.

This left the French Greens in considerable political disarray. So a group of young people in Rennes, with about 250'adherents', decided to form the city-based Red and Green Party to emphasise that they were greens with a clear socialist core. In a traditionally socialist city, they won four seats in the city's 53-member council. A councillor present at my reception laughed when I told him that all environmentalists were supposed to be like watermelons, as a popular saying goes: green on the outside and red on the inside. "I wish all greens in France would remember that," he retorted.

I he reception left a deep impression on me on the power of local democracy and decentralisation in making rich and vibrant innovations in social and political spheres. Cities can and do nominate their own ministers to deal with j(-.os and developing countries. Local groups can establish their own parties to deal with their own particular problems; in fact, the Green Party phenomenon started in Europe at the municipal level. And all this in a country like France - which together with the UK, remains one of the most centralised of all western European states when compared to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In India, on the other hand, we have completely destroyed our village and city governments. In recent years, thanks to the fillip given by the Rajiv Gandhi government, there have been some efforts to revive local governments in villages, but the movement towards city governments still remains stultified.

I am quite sure that if local democratic institutions are strengthened in this country, with the ongoing simultaneous strengthening of the civil society, India too will witness increased vibrancy and numerous innovations.

Already, several NGos have started working with panchayats in the rural areas, playing the traditional role of educators and trainers. Some NGOS have even tried to influence these institutions directly by setting up their own candidates. In fact, every effort in this dircetion can only make the country more dynamic.

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