The development laboratory

Where civil society, says SUNITA NARAIN, could learn a decentralisation lesson or two

Published: Wednesday 31 March 2004

The development laboratory

-- Last year, Congress chief minister Digvijay Singh lost the Madhya Pradesh (MP) state elections. Two years before, the Communist-led coalition lost in Kerala. Since both governments had fervently promoted decentralisation, questions naturally come to the fore: Was their defeat a vote against the move towards local governance and devolution of power? Further, if decentralisation does not bring electoral benefits, will politicians invest in this idea in the future? What went wrong in MP? What's not going right in Kerala? In MP, will the initiatives introduced outlive the change in government? In Kerala, has it outlived so? Once people have tasted power can officialdom regain its control once again? Or are we wrong to believe that officialdom's stranglehold had been loosened?

In this story, we attempt to find answers. But before you read what we found, let us make clear to you a bias. Down To Earth has consistently upheld the idea of a devolved state, in which local institutions are empowered to manage their resources and other affairs. Not because of religious or other sentiments, but because we know that bureaucracies cannot plant trees that survive, or build and maintain local water systems, or protect grazing lands from encroachments, or run schools where teachers come to work. Bureaucracies cannot achieve all this in the 600,000 villages of India and its numerous hamlets. At the same time, if people are to participate, they need institutions. They need funds to spend on what they think is their priority. They need legal entitlements.

Readers of Down To Earth may recall that in 1998, it was widely predicted that Digvijay Singh would lose. But he won. We reported then that 'good governance' had paid dividends. The swing of votes was highest in the tribal constituencies; water and education programmes had obviously impacted. In 2003, Congress' vote share fell from 40.6 per cent (in 1998) to 31.8 per cent. The swing was marked in the same tribal belt. The BJP picked up 36 of the 41 reserved seats for scheduled tribes, making inroads into rural areas on the whole.

What happened?
Down To Earth reporters found a complicated scenario, perhaps much more than what unfolds here. But one fact is crystal clear: decentralisation is weaving a new magic -- confident and effective local leaders, water in local tanks, teachers in schools. But still people resent the man and the government that promoted these programmes.

There seem to be no real takers for the 'idea' of decentralisation. We are not very surprised. This is because it involves devolution of finances. And it means decentralisation of power. The politician serious about such devolution will fall foul of the system at all levels -- village, district and state level functionaries, and people's representatives. Everybody likes decentralisation, but only up to their level. This is especially true of a country where corruption is a tidal phenomenon, where pelf, privilege and pilferage are the ways of the political process and the administration.

This is what happened in MP. Digvijay Singh invested in innovative and fascinating institutional changes but he also succumbed to the pressures working against decentralisation. For instance, in 2001 he enacted the Madhya Pradesh Panchayat Raj (Sansodhan) Adhiniyam (or the Gram Swaraj Amendment), which deepened democracy by making the gram sabhas (village assembly) the constitutional authority for governance. He did this to break the nexus of the "sarpanch raj. He earned their ire and then had to delay implementation. In this process, the elected sarpanch and panchayat members worked against the gram sabha, making them pawns for government petty officials. Furthermore, he gave in to elected representatives -- MLAs and ministers -- by making them members of the district planning committees or zilla sarkar. He also appeased officialdom by making the collector (district level bureaucrat) the member secretary of the district government, responsible for preparing a draft development plan for the district as a whole. The rules for consolidating the programmes prepared by the panchayats or gram sabhas were never formulated. Similarly, while the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) was merged with the zilla panchayat, centrally sponsored schemes were not brought under the ambit of this local body.

Thus, the bureaucrat continued to control funds and administrative decisions. But elected representatives, now literally naked to public scrutiny, suffered. Local leaders had to deal with the same horrible system and told Down To Earth how they had to make many trips to government offices and how they would "have to pay" to get their programme sanctioned.

Kerala's story
Kerala's story is similar. In 2000, when Down To Earth had reported on the People's Plan Campaign, it was dynamic and bold. Government would devolve 40 per cent of state funds to local agencies; the state budget and plan would emerge from a collective of village level plans. A year later, government changed and the elected Congress-led coalition promised to keep the programme alive. Now, many see cracks emerging.

An acute fiscal crisis has forced the government to negotiate a loan with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The programme includes the 'modernising government programme' component, which will revamp state and local institutions for more effective delivery of services. There are reports in the local media on corrupt local panchayats, and how ineffectively they implement programmes.

Changes are being made to existing guidelines, that could dismantle the intent -- if not the form -- of decentralisation here. The reforms are geared to downsizing the state. In this system, the local panchayat is a mere service-providing body, more effective than the state authority. What will this do to the character of institutions that are meant to deepen 'the state', only time can tell. But it is evident that the state bureaucracy, which opposed the very thought of devolution since its inception, will now find circumstances are more suitable to mould the programme closer to its interests: an adjunct department, not an autonomous institution capable of self governance.

In both states there are parallels: Firstly, a stronger gram sabha is resented. Politicians find it easier to promote representative democracy and view the village assembly as pliable to bureaucratic interference. The transparency and accountability the gram sabha provides is not appreciated.

Secondly, the Fifth Pay Commission -- which increased salaries and allowances of government employees -- has crippled state economies; empty treasuries cannot fund devolution. In addition, assistance to states from the Centre has decreased, from 52 per cent in the Eighth Five Year Plan to 45 per cent in the Ninth. States are forced to borrow more to survive. Now, if they were to decide to share revenues with decentralised agencies or people, they would be even worse off. For instance, the MP government has said that its programme to distribute the proceeds of its minor forest produce directly to people would mean an annual loss of Rs 100 crore to the state exchequer.

Thirdly, it is clear that politicians will have to be capable of "working" their bureaucracies and not be "worked by" them. Decentralisation is a serious and difficult business. It will take time, require institutional innovation. It demands support against all odds. That kind of backing, Down To Earth found out, was pathetically weak. Digvijay Singh's biggest failure was his inability to convince his colleagues. His own party, which had brought in the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution giving powers to local agencies, was not willing to stand behind it or "sell" this example of shining India. Similarly in Kerala, the Left-front has been working overtime to abuse the proponents of the People's Plan as agents of "imperialist powers", saying the programme promotes non-ideological democracy.

Most of all, this failure belongs to all of us, particularly the media and academia. The governance-related innovations of MP and Kerala need to be understood, so that they can be replicated or amended. This learning ground for democracy demands careful and continuous scrutiny. This is where we have erred. We have not participated adequately in the great experiment.

The issue is not if Digvijay Singh lost or if Uma Bharati won. The only winner is the bureaucracy. The losers are all those who want change. This is the laboratory of development.

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