There is substantial evidence that basic public services and programs function inefficiently in India especially in the poorer states. The paper, “People’s Empowerment through Democratic Decentralization in India” (N.C. Saxena, 2010) examines the obstacles in the functioning of Indian panchayats (a political system of local government created in 1993) and makes recommendations for more effective and participative panchayats.
Several reasons for the poor performance of the panchayats were mentioned:
- There are competing demands among villages per panchayat.
- There is no incentive for the elected persons to deliver on their promises because there is no prospect of re-election during their term of five years.
- Most of the State Acts have not spelt power to Gram Sabha (all the adult citizen voters of the village) nor have any procedures for the functioning of these bodies.
- The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) which enables Gram Sabhas to self govern their natural resources has almost been forgotten with week-kneed political will.
Lack of financial independence by panchayat is a barrier to their empowerment and function. In 9 out of 12 major states, the tax revenue of local bodies constituted less than 5% of the total tax revenue of the states, and local bodies do not have sufficient tax assignments to raise revenue locally. Also, there is the overwhelming dependency, often more than 95%, of panchayats on government funding. When panchayats do not raise internal resources, people are less likely to request a social audit that would strengthen the accountability of the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs).
The author pointed out that decentralization should be carefully designed, sequenced, and implemented to avoid increasing fiscal burden on the states and a break-down in service delivery in particular to the poor. Thus, political and public service reforms must go hand in hand with empowerment of panchayats. Efficient decentralization is accompanied with improving governance and accountability, at least in the poorer or badly governed states.
Many suggestions to make panchayats more effective and participative have been discussed in the paper, including:
- Panchayats should be more active in social sector such as health, education, and nutrition, which require people to come together as equal.
- All Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and parallel bodies should be required to report periodically to the Gram Sabha so that the community is kept informed of the activities of parallel bodies.
- Gram Sabha meetings were regularly held only in a few places, and participation was low. Empowering Gram Sabhas and strengthening their control over panchayats is necessary for transparency, and involvement of the poor and marginalized people.
- Only a small number of village people are aware of their fiscal power. Encouraging panchayats to use their fiscal power to levy new taxes is necessary for raising local resources.
- States need to increase the share of transfers to PRIs from state governments as untied grants. The formula of transfer should no doubt give weight age to population and poverty, but also to performance and efficiency.
- Quality of work done by panchayat should be monitored by a team of journalists, civil society members, panchayat leaders from the neighbouring districts, and stakeholders. Decision on future funds should be based on the grades of quality of work to strengthen accountability of the local bodies.
The mere presence of opportunity for participative and accountable governance ushered by the 73rd Amendment does not result in participation by citizens and the establishment of an accountable system. They require a number of institutional reforms that facilitate participation and make it more meaningful. Indian experience with local governance in the last 15 years highlights that strong local governments have the potential to significantly transform politics. Thus, empowered local governments can create empowered citizens and accountable government.
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