Local Government
Image Credit: Racolb Legal

After eight long years, the time has come for rural Tamil Nadu to elect its local government representatives. The area covered by 156 Panchayat Unions went to the polls to elect 260 ward members of district panchayats, 2,546 members of panchayat unions and 37,830 members of panchayats and it is incumbent upon us to talk and discuss more decentralisation and localisation of government. The importance is rooted on two grounds; namely, India claims it has a three-tier government, and more importantly, decentralisation is the practical end of self-governance.

India and Local Government

The story of local government in Free India started with Gandhi’s love for villages, but other congress leaders shunned the idea for progressive cities and industrial complexes. The love story thus had effectively no place in the otherwise bulky constitution.

Decentralisation, though idealised, was put in the backseat given the continuous riots and secession movements throughout the early years of the republic. The move towards socialist thinking further pushed the prospect of localising the government and felt the distribution of wealth more important than the distribution of actual power.

Further centralisation during the Indira years even made state governments prone to the whims of the centre brewing instability. As a poster example of how ‘good’ government intention might lead to unintended adverse consequences, states grew more against each other which was further amplified by problems in sharing and co-existing thereby putting narrow parochial interests like identity above the nation and public well-being.

Sons of Ideas

Tony Joseph, in his recent book Early Indiansdiscusses the four waves of migration into the sub-continent since mutation gave way to the modern Homo sapiens in Africa. He goes on to explain how intermixing of the population was rampant so much so that there are no pure breeds in the sub-continent now; even the isolated tribes, for that matter, are not pure. These biological facts make the racial divide (Aryan and Dravidian) irrelevant and thereby rendering indigenous identity out of touch with the modern world.

Although safeguarding ‘indigenous’ cultures is important, it is equally important to realise that migration does not damage cultures but only enhances it. Movement of people from one state to another is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, and it has only been advantageous to both the migrating community and the state which absorbs such migration. To take an example, the Marwaris of Tamil Nadu have a substantial role to play in the growth of the local economy as they provide credit and livelihoods to the ‘locals’.

Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Indian red-tapism is the by-product of the license-raj whose effect still lingers and retards the country’s economy. The important aspect of the bureaucracy is its reluctance to let go of power; however small it might be. This lust for power is straight out of the socialist model, where proximity to the government is directly proportional to the growth of the person (company).

This reluctance in the shedding of unnecessary power is aptly illustrated with the following example. In the mid-1960s, a department under the government of Tamil Nadu named CAA demanded funds for the functioning of the department. To know what CAA is, we need to go back to the 1940s.

During the Second World War, trade between Britain and South America was curtailed. Winston Churchill, who was an ardent fan of the Cuban cigars, found it very difficult to let go off steam during those troubled times. To his delight, he had found an alternative in Tamil Nadu which he declared to be second best cigar in the world. So the British set up a department whose sole function was to procure and send cigars to Britain so that Churchill could smoke his cigar. It was named Churchill Cigar Assistant or CAA.

The war ended, Britain exited for the first time and India became a republic, but still, our bureaucrats could not let go of the funds and power of an essentially useless department. That is the extent of our bureaucracy’s lust for power.

Rationale behind Localisation

The rationale behind the localisation of government is obvious – Local problems can only be solved locally. It is desirable and efficient in every which way. To illustrate this, former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan in his book The Third Pillar cites an example from Italy.

An interesting historical study by Luigi Zingales and others highlights the long-term benefits of localism. They find that Italian cities that achieved self-government in the Middle Ages have higher levels of social capital today—as measured by more non-profit organisations per capita, the presence of an organ bank (indicating a willingness to donate) and fewer children caught cheating on national exams. They conclude that self-governance instilled a culture that allowed citizens to be confident in their ability to do what was needed and to reach goals. Decentralising powers to communities may thus reduce apathy and force their members to assume responsibility for their destinies rather than blaming a distant elitist administration.

Another important reason for decentralising political power is to reduce corruption. Although we have come a long way from the times of Rajiv Gandhi’s one-rupee statement, we still have a long way to go. It does not help to reduce corruption by creating another “new” department to control corruption done by other departments. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas might provide sellable short-time solutions, but as time goes on, they themselves become part of the rusting system giving in to their flawed bureaucratic setup which it was set up to reform. Decentralisation of funds and power makes the public taxpayers more vigil, and it is also easier to judge the efficiency of the government by what can be seen by the local voters in their local neighbourhood.

Lost & to be Found

Local bodies were the locus of the erstwhile self-government movements. From Annie Besant to Gandhi, all great leaders focused on the enhancement of autonomy for the local governments. The developed cities of British India were developed due to robust local governments. Mayors were the political heads of the cities; they were part of the executive. Great names like Rajaji, Periyar EVR were all part and leaders of local governments. There is a need today to reinvigorate our local bodies. The constitutional posts under the local government should not be the bastions of political heirs and thugs who held such posts to milk out money and throw the rule of law on its head.

We seem to forget that the most important part of a democracy is its people and nobody else. Even though the 73rd and 74th amendment to the constitution provided legal status to the local bodies, the implementation of the said amendments seems to not be in touch with reality. It is also interesting to see states which advocate fiercely for federalism and decentralisation in their dealings with the centre shy away from further devolution of power and the establishment of the local political marketplace.

It should also be said that there is still a prevalence of backward thinking in the minds of voters and apathy for local elections because there is not much drama like the general and state elections. But such apprehensions shall be removed once they start seeing real improvements. Voters, thus, must realise the true potential of the local bodies and take part in the most important of elections – local body elections, for furthering the cause of democracy.

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This article originally appeared on 02 January 2020, at Article 19 blog.