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Misunderstanding decentralisation

In a good decentralised system,mohalla sabhas will not just be RWAs in a new garb.


November 29, 2013 3:40:16 am

In a good decentralised system,mohalla sabhas will not just be RWAs in a new garb.

The Aam Aadmi Party has come under criticism from several quarters for its focus on decentralisation and its announcement that power will be devolved to mohalla sabhas. In The Indian Express,Shekhar Gupta has expressed his misgivings about this idea,equating it with crowd-sourcing governance (‘AAP ki adalat’,November 23). He asks: if every decision is taken on the street,where is the need to elect assemblies and parliaments? This alarmist view shows that he does not understand what democratic decentralised governance is.

Decentralisation is not abdication. It is not mob rule. It requires the painstaking division of powers and responsibilities among multiple levels of governance. A lot of design goes into the construction and working of a good decentralised system,and one of the key areas of focus is a good system of people’s participation. India’s record on democratic decentralisation,particularly in urban areas,has been abysmal. Delhi could show the way,if political parties intend so. Yet,Delhi stands apart from other cities,which in turn calls for a customised approach to decentralisation.

Delhi suffers,I use the word intentionally,from oversight by many levels of government — the Central,state and municipal governments. Since all three exist in the city,local concerns escalate quickly into national concerns. While Delhi’s residents believe it gives them more power and influence,their will is actually subservient to that of three levels of government. Consequently,there is little people’s participation in Delhi’s governance. The poor have little voice. There are no formal institutions for people’s participation akin to gram sabhas.

The Constitution mandates there be wards committees in urban areas. However,Delhi perpetrated a travesty through the Bhagidari scheme,which focused on RWAs. One agrees with Gupta that this approach was elitist,undemocratic and unequal. However,is that a good reason to presume that mohalla sabhas will be nothing more than morphed RWAs? In a good decentralised system they need not be so. The mohalla sabhas could be building blocks to constitute the wards committees. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission proposed that ward committees would be representative bodies,with members elected through “area sabhas”. However,these stipulations were not met by the states,and Delhi is no exception. The Union government has now shelved this.

There is a need to revive the approach recommended by the JNNURM. All that needs to be done is to configure the mohalla sabhas promised by the AAP as area sabhas,from where a representative elected by each of these will become its representative in the wards committees. This will ensure wards committees are constituted on a representative basis,so that the city’s governance becomes participative and empowers the poor.

The next question is the extent of powers and responsibilities to be further decentralised to mohalla sabhas and wards committees. The task of assigning functions to each level is typically done through activity mapping — a process of listing all activities that constitute the delivery of a particular service — and then allocating these to different levels,based on objective criteria. These terms are part of the official lexicon of the UPA’s policy documents,but have not been acted upon. What would then be typically decentralised to the level of ward committees and mohalla sabhas are matters such as managing of local amenities and recreational facilities,aspects of solid waste management,decentralised sanitation systems,and maintenance of street lights. While many parties have made tall promises to devolve power through local governments,little is done in practice.

Yet,well-designed decentralisation is not something utopian. In Kerala,in 1996,a people’s planning campaign was launched,where more than a lakh volunteers were mobilised to engage in participative planning at the panchayat level. Panchayats were devolved nearly 30 per cent of the state plan budget,in the form of flexible grants. Innovation reigned,as panchayats worked collaboratively with peoples’ groups. Delhi could replicate this celebrated example in an urban context,if it gets the design of decentralisation right.

The AAP’s election promise of constituting mohalla sabhas could be the starting point for designing a more participative and inclusive form of governance in Delhi. While how this will be constructed is not mentioned in great detail in the party’s manifesto,that is no reason to conclude they will be either RWAs in a new garb or mobs holding kangaroo courts.

Over the decades,mainstream parties have dragged their feet on democratic decentralisation. We now have a new party that seems to be willing to walk the talk. If the AAP comes to power,they will need to work on the details of the design,the checks and balances required to make decentralisation work for all. This will include listing the responsibilities of mohalla sabhas and wards committees,ensuring that financial resources match responsibilities,putting in place rules for local committees to function and,finally,ensuring citizens with grievances against these committees have recourse to a redress mechanism,including a lokayukta. There is no denying this will be a demanding task,but it is not impossible. Democratic decentralisation cannot be misunderstood to mean communitarian anarchy.

The writer is advisor,Accountability Initiative,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi and former joint secretary,ministry of Panchayati Raj.

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