There is a wide(ening?) gap between the promise of decentralisation and the reality of panchayats & municipal bodies.
This is a pre-edit of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
We have had three decades of decentralised local governments. Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of panchayati raj, when the 73rd and 74th amendments gave a constitutional status to rural panchayats and urban municipal councils. The conventional wisdom is that panchayati raj is a great idea, the amendments were faulty and while local government has created tens of thousands of local politicians, the improvements in local governance itself have been marginal.
The March 2023 issue of Seminar has an excellent collection of essays on local governance thirty years after the 73rd & 74th amendments.
Now, the idea of decentralising power and situating it proximate to the citizen is appealing. Yet whatever political theory advertises, it must pass the empirical test. The crop might be bounteous but it must grow on Indian soil. After thirty years, can we really put our hands on our hearts and say that we are better off with panchayati raj than without it? Even its most fervent proponents will argue is that barrel is half-full. Only if you scrape the bottom, I would add.
The argument that the amendments had flaws or its implementation was undermined by Indian political economy avoids confronting the more fundamental issues. In any case, as Ambedkar said, “However good a constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad. However bad a constitution may be, if those implementing it are good, it will prove to be good”. So we are back to the question of whether the crop of panchayati raj can profitably grow in the soil of Indian society.
There are four broad reasons to challenged the assumption that grassroots democracy is the paradise that it is made out to be.
First, as Ambedkar most famously argued, there is an absence of fraternity at all levels of Indian society. The people of an Indian village or town do not have a shared sense of civic community. There is, instead, an intense inter-group competition for resources, status, power and opportunities. Politics is primarily devoted to pursuing and managing this competition and, as a consequence, is poorly equipped to managing common pool resources or delivering quality public services. Can panchayati raj create the fraternity that is essential to its success? The empirical evidence suggests that it does not: on the contrary, to the extent that caste and community identities the poles around which political mobilisation takes place, it has perhaps created the opposite.
Second, the claim that local politics will lead to better governance must contend with the reality that Indian voters do not connect their electoral decisions to the delivery of better public services or economic development. The number of politicians who have been re-elected based on their track record of improving law-and-order, building infrastructure, and raising growth is small. Populism, corruption, caste and communal mobilisation are far more effective in winning elections at the state and national levels. Why should it be any different at panchayats or municipalities? After all, it’s the same people and the same society.
Third, people don’t expect panchayati raj institutions to be accountable because the link between paying them direct taxes and receiving public services is weak. If you pay a significant part of your income to the local council to pay for schools, roads and hospitals, and if you are convinced that there is a connection between them, you are likely to hold the councillors accountable. This happens, to some extent, in urban resident welfare associations, where the payer to voter ratio is high. But it does not happen in panchayats and municipalities because the direct taxpayer to voter ratio is very low.
Local governments can raise more revenues under various heads under their purview. But they don’t. Their own revenues as a share of their total budget have been declining over the last decade. We can blame centrally sponsored schemes & non-decentralisation of state finances for this, but how do you explain disinterest in collecting property and other taxes that municipalities ought to? In fact, as Arvind Subramanian told me “the closer the government is to the people, the more unwilling it is to raise taxes”. The downshot is broadening the tax base is tantanmout to narrowing the electoral base. Why would panchayati raj be more accountable for it governance responsibilities?
Finally, the lack of a republican consciousness among our citizens cannot be ignored. Democratic institutions are about role-playing: mayors, officials and magistrates are not exemplary individuals parachuted from another planet. They are ordinary citizens given constitutionally ring-fenced roles to play. It is not that we are incapable of playing these roles — the relative longevity of the Indian republic proves that we are — but rather, nobody spends any effort educating citizens on their roles and responsibilities. Civic education is woefully short of demographic growth.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in his typically insightful column “Nobody loves local government”
India’s raucous public sphere is filled with demands for a lot of things: the thing that is conspicuously missing is that for decentralisation. When was the last time there was a public agitation for “more power to the panchayat”? Why, Bengaluru has not had a municipal corporation for over two years and people are going about their daily lives as usual!
There’s no off-the-shelf alternative. We have to develop one. See my essay on digital democracy.
Like they say about democracy, we could argue panchayati raj is the worst form of government except for the alternatives. I think that’s a cop-out. Instead of worshipping at its altar, we should be thinking of more effective models that can improve grassroots governance in Indian conditions in the information age.
There are many more The Intersection columns here
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