By: T R Raghunandan
Democratic decentralisation, conceived two decades ago, seems to be a lost cause at first sight. Beyond lip service by politicians, neither panchayats nor municipalities have captured the public imagination as viable, responsive, accountable institutions of government. Just after the Karnataka panchayat elections, which ended on June 2, the continued disempowerment of local governments is again thrown into focus. Are panchayats as corrupt as portrayed? Is the experience with decentralisation negative? Is it better to implement development programmes through bureaucrat-led state institutions, which are perceived to be less corrupt?
India’s efforts at decentralisation are one of the world’s largest experiments in deepening democracy. In the Karnataka elections, nearly four crore people voted to elect about 1,00,000 representatives to gram panchayats. Of these, more than 50,000 will be women. SCs, STs and backward communities will be represented in proportion to their populations. This is a remarkable political system. However, practices such as bribing of voters, deal-making between different groups and mounting election expenditures have crept in, allowing contractors, criminals and the moneyed to buy their way to power.
In Karnataka, there has been a rise in corruption over the past decade, at all levels. The economic boom, poor regulation, rise in land prices, coalition governments and rampant horse-trading at higher political levels have influenced the way panchayat elections are fought. Faced with the decline of agriculture, chronic water shortage, and attracted by migration, villagers’ swabhimaan in their panchayat is being replaced with cynicism. Selling their votes thus seems a good option.
Criminal elements are making a beeline for panchayat elections due to the huge amounts of money now flowing into panchayats. A gram panchayat may get more than Rs 1.5 crore annually. The bureaucracy that works at higher levels is also complicit in this chain of corruption. Officers are posted at the higher level at the behest of MLAs, often on the payment of bribes. They in turn extract bribes from panchayats to clear plans, approve estimates and payments.
Yet it would be wrong to lay all the blame for rampant corruption on decentralisation. Corruption does not increase as a result of decentralisation. It just gets detected faster and is more visible.
There are ways to reverse this trend. First, the institution of the gram sabha has to be strengthened. Unfortunately, the term gram sabha is considered to be a meeting, though the Constitution defines it as an association of voters. There is a dire need to improve the quality of deliberation within gram sabhas so as to make them truly inclusive, through smaller group discussions and workshops rather than large meetings, which tend to get dominated by vocal and powerful mobs.
Second, the gram panchayat’s organisational structure has to be strengthened. Over the last decade, the amount of money that goes to one has increased tenfold but the staff has remained nearly the same. Panchayats are burdened with work from other departments (conducting surveys, undertaking censuses, distributing benefits) without any compensation. Need-based corruption is then inevitable. Gram panchayats should be enabled to hold state departments accountable and to have them provide quality, corruption-free services.
Third, we can never have accountable panchayats if they don’t collect taxes. In Karnataka, panchayats are not utilising their powers to collect property tax and user charges fully. They know that if they collect taxes, voters will never forgive them for misusing their funds. Tax collection results in higher accountability.
My not-for-profit institution, the Avantika Foundation, is helping panchayats reorganise their internal arrangements to better deliver services. Panchayats have put in place a system where ward members function like state cabinet ministers and take on sectoral responsibilities in health, education, sanitation, etc, with performance targets. Tax collection has improved. Because of such reforms, more people trust the system and attend gram sabha meetings.
In the overall analysis, improving the functioning of democratic institutions is a constant battle that must not be given up. A centralised system is far worse and much less accountable than panchayati raj.
The writer is a former joint secretary, ministry of panchayati raj and secretary, rural development, Karnataka