Derailing decentralisation

Print edition : December 31, 2004

The ruling alliance's indifference and declining participation in gram sabhas contribute to the worries about the future of the much-lauded democratic decentralisation programme in Kerala.

in Thiruvananthapuram

A user-friendly guide at the Vattiyoorkavu gram panchayat office informs citizens of services available, the time required for the panchayat to provide them, and the fee.-PICTURES: S. GOPAKUMAR

THE fears about the future of the decentralisation experiment in Kerala are coming true. People are staying away from the gram and ward sabhas in the invigorated panchayats, municipalities and corporations in the State and, as a result, the most exciting programme to empower citizens is seemingly running into trouble. In the majority of local bodies, attendance registers are being fudged regularly to fake the quorum at gram/ward sabha meetings. Genuine local governance by the people, thought to be a dream come true in Kerala under democratic decentralisation experiment, is thus being tampered with, knowingly or unknowingly.

As people's interest in local governance wanes, slowly, but surely, the tendency towards centralisation of powers is engulfing the panchayati raj system in the State. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government is increasingly becoming stingy in disbursing the promised, wholesome share of Plan funds to the local bodies. Government departments are trying to impose parallel programmes over development plans drawn up by the panchayats. State officials are trying to reclaim their lost notions of power over the people. Politicians, including Ministers, Members of Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies, and even members of the majority of local self-government institutions, have once again started believing themselves as the all-powerful dispensers of "favours" to the people.

A number of the newly empowered local self-government institutions (LSGIs) are swaying under the onslaught. If the unhealthy trends are not stemmed, India's most effective experiment as yet of giving `power to the people' may soon come to naught.

THE ideal cherished by the Gandhian tradition - of assemblies of people in every village discussing and deciding development projects, the sharing of public goods and services and keeping a watch on their elected representatives and officials - was believed to have been implemented in its true sense finally in Kerala during the past eight years, through the now-famous democratic decentralisation experiment launched by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government as a `People's Plan Campaign' in 1996 (Frontline, June 23, 2000).

Within a short time, it harnessed people's interest in the way they were being governed and in the policies and programmes that were being decided on their behalf, and effectively sought to remedy a hitherto unhappy system of local governance tilted in favour of the ruling class and the politician-official-contractor nexus. The campaign proved that real empowerment of the people could become a reality by creating pressure from below for greater devolution of powers and funds. It soon provided the maximum decentralisation of powers, enabling the local bodies to function as autonomous units with adequate authority and resources to discharge the basic responsibility of bringing about "economic development and social justice" as envisaged in the Constitution.

Decentralisation, as it then happened in Kerala, did not stop with merely transferring powers and responsibilities to the local self-governing institutions. By encouraging a system of vibrant gram sabhas, it facilitated the exercise of legitimate and legal authority by the people. It sought to put an end to the various extra-constitutional power centres influencing development at the grassroots level. It transferred the power of the State to bring about development and social justice vertically down to the local bodies. The role of government departments and officials were dramatically redefined as of facilitators, helping the people in taking decisions and then carrying them out, as they wanted it.

In real terms, it meant that the State government transferred various institutions and staff to the control of the three-tier LSGIs; it set apart 35 to 40 per cent of the annual Plan funds for the exclusive use of the local bodies and gave it legislative approval and protection against the vagaries of executive decision-making; the State comprehensively amended its panchayat and municipal laws, with the focus on substantial devolution of powers, functions and funds; it amended 35 other Acts to bring them in line with the new functions devolved to the local bodies; the presidents of the panchayati raj institutions were declared the chief executive authority and local bodies were given full administrative control, including powers of disciplinary action over their staff; including staff newly transferred to them from government departments; and the functional areas of the different tiers of local bodies were demarcated clearly, unlike in any other State. The gram sabhas, meant to be convened four times a year with a specified quorum of citizens of a panchayat/municipality/corporation ward, were crucial elements to the success of the new decentralisation experiment.

But eight years down the line, it is a different story. A joint study undertaken by the New Delhi-based Participatory Research in Area (PRIA) and a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sahayi, as part of efforts meant to strengthen LSGIs in the country, has confirmed the worst doubts. According to J. Placid, director of Sahayi, a survey conducted in 67 gram panchayats in eight selected districts and based on discussions and observations by Sahayi volunteers in 45 gram panchayats in four other districts have shown that gram sabha meetings in the majority of panchayats have become a ritual. The quorum of the meeting was almost always a "contrived one". Very few people attended such meetings, leaving the doors open for manipulation by elected representatives, officials and contractors. Only a few respondents were aware of the objectives and responsibilities of the gram and ward sabhas. There was general ignorance about the constitutional status of the gram sabhas. Most respondents did not know how often gram sabhas were meant to be convened or about the requirement of a quorum for the panchayats to take decisions. Most of those who attended the gram sabhas claimed they did so expecting "benefits".

"The survey results reflect the reality in Kerala. People have lost interest in the gram sabhas. The few who attend go away disappointed that it is not a forum for obtaining `benefits'. The elected representatives like us cannot deliver on our promises to the gram sabha, given the inordinate delay that we experience in getting the allotted funds, the frequent changes in norms for implementing projects and lack of cooperation from the officials who are supposed to be under the control of the panchayats," said B. Jayakumar, a ward member and the chairman of the standing committee on development of the Vattiyoorkavu gram panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Several panchayat members admitted that they forged signatures to "ensure" that the quorum in the gram sabhas was maintained. Ambili Surendran, president of a woman's neighbourhood group sponsored by the `Kudumbashree' State Poverty Eradication Mission, said that the members of her group were often asked to attend gram sabhas by the Mission officials and ward members. But, she added, "it was of no use, there are no benefits for us in the gram sabhas". Jayakumar said that most of the people who used to attend gram sabhas, such as resource persons , expert committee members and political party cadre, are reluctant to participate in them today. Conveners have to coerce women self-help group (SHG) members under the Kudumbashree project to attend to manage the quorum.

A senior government official involved in the decentralisation programme told Frontline: "It is true that participatory structures have been terribly weakened in the past few years in the local bodies. A skewed phenomenon is witnessed vis--vis participation in the gram sabhas. Participation is solely based on the aim of obtaining benefits. People no longer take part in the decision-making process. We are at a loss to understand how to change this. The local bodies, as a rule, and the elected representatives are not interested in building up a participatory culture. This is undermining the whole philosophy of decentralisation."

One of the key architects of the "People's Plan Campaign" , T.M. Thomas Isaac, now a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA, said that if attendance in gram sabhas was declining it was a comment on the ruling UDF's attitude towards them and local self-government institutions. "Because of arbitrary cuts in fund allocation, many local bodies are unable to implement the plans approved by the gram sabhas. Many elected representatives complain that they cannot face the gram sabha members because of this. The government is giving more importance to its officials over the elected representatives. Thus the government itself is dismantling the credibility of the local bodies before the people."

Thomas Isaac said that given the UDF record of undoing the District Councils in 1991, it was feared that its new government would undo the achievements of the decentralisation experiment and dismantle it. "But, fortunately, the new UDF government did not do this. Instead it tinkered with the programme. There is an explicit attempt to give a new direction to the decentralisation programme, to make it complimentary to the globalisation process, and model it on the World Bank's prescriptions," he said.

At a coconut drying unit established by the Venganoor gram panchayat under an employment scheme for poor women.-

For example, the urban development policy of the UDF states that the local bodies are no longer providers but facilitators, services have to be privatised and that in order to ensure that privatisation is successful, local bodies must hike user charges so that projects are made commercially viable.

Thomas Isaac criticised the UDF's attempt to introduce parallel structures that obviate the need for local bodies to plan and implement programmes. He said that the government was also going back on its commitment to provide the promised funds to the local bodies. Funds given are taken back on some pretext; cuts are made in the resources provided. The actual money made available to the local bodies by the UDF in its first three years in office was only half of the total resources devolved by the LDF, he said.

According to a Planning Board official, the most visible weakness is the failure of the panchayats in service delivery. "The local body representatives have failed to realise the importance of service delivery for the success of decentralisation and even for their own personal electoral fortunes. There has been a complacent response regarding the quality of services provided too. The government departments and the officials are also to be blamed for this," he said.

Most critics believe that there is no conscious attempt on the part of the UDF government to facilitate the process of democratic decentralisation. The training programmes and the effective capacity building efforts launched during the initial years of decentralisation have become a trickle. By dismantling the structures painstakingly built up to provide resource persons to the local bodies, the government has put the panchayats once again at the mercy of government officials. The enabling environment has been given up. "The government rolled up the `campaign' for decentralisation even before the initial achievements could be stabilised and went on to institutionalise the half-baked achievements," Placid said.

Several elected representatives complained about the "new rules announced every other day" that hindered the functioning of the local bodies. For example, one of them said, the new government announced that funds would be allotted to the local bodies on a monthly basis and that they would lapse if the local bodies failed to spend them by the end of each month. When they found it was not a practical rule, they changed it to mean that funds not spent before March 31 every year would lapse.

According to N. Rajendran, a gram panchayat member, such thoughtless measures have created a lot of practical hassles in the smooth functioning of the local bodies and have eventually led to power being usurped by government officials. There is a move to take back some of the responsibilities entrusted to the local bodies, a recent example being the State government decision to take over the responsibility of constructing minor irrigation projects. The concept of a constituency development fund for MLAs have been reintroduced, he said, "a clear negation of democratic decentralisation".

According to Thomas Isaac, government departments have started functioning independent of the local bodies and the departmental schemes are no longer subjected to the control of gram sabhas. Every department has started sponsored schemes, for each of which the local governments have to set apart funds. In the end, the panchayats are left with no role in selecting beneficiaries and little resources for their own projects. "The whole thing is being implemented against the spirit of decentralisation," Thomas Isaac said.

Criticism is widespread that by imposing a new rule that the local bodies will lose the unutilised Plan funds allotted to them if they fail to spend the entire amount by March 31 every year, the State government has initiated a rat race merely to spend. In the process, the norms of decentralised decision-making and need-based fund utilisation is given the go by. It is a curious case of unseen hands working to accelerate the dismantling of a much-lauded experiment.

KERALA marked a fundamental shift from the longstanding method of executing public works through private contractors and served a blow to the ubiquitous nexus of politicians, officials and contractors, when it decided that they should be executed through panchayati raj institutions. The decentralisation laws provided for community contracting of public works through committees of beneficiaries and made stringent provisions to guard against benami contractors pretending to be conveners or nominees of beneficiary committees. The rules insist that all records relating to public works right from preliminary estimates are "public documents" that any one should be allowed to peruse and take copies.

They also require that a summary of the estimates should be displayed at the work site. The process of technical sanction of projects was also demystified, with the laws approving the utilisation of well-known institutions and committees of government and non-government professionals for technical sanction of public works. Voluntary expert committees were introduced at the block and district panchayat levels to provide technical advice to the local bodies, technically to vet the people's projects before they are sent for approval and to function as technical advisory groups to the district planning committees.

But with people losing interest in the gram sabhas, their place along with the new powers have been taken over by the notoriously corrupt politician-official-contractor nexus. In most places the decision-making has strayed back to politicians and officials. They decide the beneficiaries and the priority of project implementation and undertake the scrutiny of their own projects. Public display of estimates has become an exception.

"The majority of local bodies have failed to do much for local economic development. They have shown an inclination, once again, to implement asset-oriented schemes. Employment and income generating schemes are on the wane. The participatory process has been terribly weakened. Local experts have been effectively sidelined. Local bodies now display a tendency to find convenient experts to scrutinise and sanction projects," a senior official in the Local Administration Department said.

He said that several support institutions created to reduce government control over local bodies and to foster the concept of self-government - the State Finance Commission, the Ombudsman for local governments and the audit commissions - left much to be desired. He said: "For example, the Ombudsman, originally a seven-member body, was made a single member institution by the UDF, thereby making it totally ineffective in checking malfeasance in local governments. Local body representatives and officials now have no fear about indulging in corruption. If the Ombudsman had caught hold of a few cases at least and recommended exemplary punishment, it would have done a big service to the entire system."

In a special school for disabled children established by the Venganoor `model' panchayat, known for its programmes for poverty alleviation.-

According to Thomas Isaac, the recent criticism of the democratic decentralisation programme and the controversy that followed have weakened the opposition against such negatives trends and made it easy for the State government to be complacent about its dismantling. Jose Chattukkulam, director of the Centre for Rural Management, said: There is a clear attempt to take away the powers and privileges of the LSGIs in the State, though not in an obvious way. With the death of E.M. S. Namboodiripad, who had played a leadership role in the decentralisation efforts in Kerala since Independence, and the People's Campaign itself becoming a controversial topic within the LDF, there is nobody to champion the cause of decentralisation any longer in the State. The UDF government has shown appalling complacency in furthering the cause of decentralisation and has let the achievements of a remarkable programme go astray. The only positive response from the UDF so far has come from the new Local Administration Minister, Kutty Ahmed Kutty, when he insisted that gram sabhas should be convened regularly by the panchayats and that citizen's charter, explaining the people's rights under the decentralised system, be displayed prominently in all local bodies."

Senior officials, however, continue to maintain that one-third of the local bodies are still doing well, though in general the UDF government has shown a "wooden response" to the decentralisation process. An official said: "The positive aspect is that though the UDF government in the State is close to completing its term, it has not disturbed the bare features of the decentralisation experiment. Local bodies still retain the freedom to plan for local development. The quantum of funds disbursed to the local bodies has more or less remained the same, though there are complaints about them being taken back or diverted elsewhere. The temptation to interfere is still muted. There are positive signs too. The government has taken a decision not to entertain appeals against local bodies on its own through its officials, but to appoint an appellate tribunal, with a district judge as its head."

Political parties have shown little interest in sustaining the vibrancy of the decentralisation process. A State government official who was involved in the People's Plan Campaign said that, surprisingly, though there were changes in the ruling dispensations in nearly 400 of the over 1,000 local bodies in Kerala, none of these changes was the result of initiatives to curb corruption or anti-development or anti-decentralisation initiatives by the ruling groups. The premise that antagonistic politics in the State between the two rival fronts would be an effective antidote against corruption and other wrong tendencies in the local bodies has been proved wrong. Instead, it is the `politics of collusion' that has emerged in the panchayats and the municipalities. "We expected antagonistic politics to become an effective instrument against corruption. We expected civil society to be very active. But our expectations have been belied," he said.

However, T. Rufus Daniel, president of the Venganoor gram panchayat in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, which has become a model for other local bodies in its remarkable efforts to eradicate poverty, told Frontline that gram sabhas in his panchayat wards were almost always well attended and members did not find it difficult to ensure a quorum. Unlike in some other local bodies, which this writer visited, the panchayat president is a popular man in Venganoor. He had achieved a remarkable unity of purpose among elected representatives belonging to various political parties in undertaking developmental activities "that the people really wanted".

Venganoor is among the few panchayats in Kerala that are functioning well. Panchayat vice-president V. Anil Kumar said: "Individuals and their attitudes do matter. In Kerala, a lot of powers, funds and opportunities have legally been transferred to the local bodies. Nobody can take them away. A whole new constituency of panchayats representatives has evolved in Kerala and that will ensure that the powers and resources are not tampered with much. Whether a particular panchayat does well or not depends on the members that the people elect. This is what makes Venganoor a model panchayat, with ruling and Opposition party members working together for development, even in these difficult times."

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