Thursday, July 18, 2019

Reform Suggestions for Minimum Bureaucracy By Major General Mrinal Suman in Swarajya Magazine

A bureaucracy free to expand itself turns ‘minimum government’ into a pipe dream.

Minimum government refers to a state or practice wherein the people are subjected to minimum official intrusions, thereby allowing them to pursue their objectives with least intercessions and restrictions. On the other hand, maximum governance implies creation of an enabling environment through a transparent, stable and liberal policy regime for smooth development of social, economic and human aspirations.

Minimum government entails maximising productivity of the government while minimising its size: it is the quality of the government machinery that matters and not its magnitude. In fact, larger the government, more intense is the administrative tyranny. In addition to lack of accountability and reduced efficiency, large administrative set-ups are a drain on the exchequer as they consume considerable resources in salaries, perks and pensions. Therefore, trimming of the administration is a prerequisite for achieving the goal of minimum government. In this context, the performance of the present government has been rather dismal.

Unwieldy and Top Heavy:

A number of ministries are superfluous and redundant. They need to be abolished. In addition, many ministries having analogous functions are working at cross purposes in watertight compartments, thereby losing synergy and productivity.

The same applies to the bureaucracy. “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” is an old adage. Each ministry/department is overpopulated with secretaries and additional secretaries. There are close to 100 secretary-level officers working at the centre. Some ministries like the Home, Defence, Finance and Foreign Affairs have multitude of secretaries and additional secretaries. Most appointments have been upgraded without any justification. As the job content has not changed materially, functioning has become sluggish.

The whole bureaucratic set-up is highly bloated. Many departments hardly deserve secretaries at the helm. Take the case of the Department of Ex-servicemen Welfare. It is manned by one secretary and two joint secretaries whereas a single joint secretary can easily handle the work. Emergence of multiple tiers has increased paper work. Since every link in the chain wants to justify its existence, decision making has becomes a casualty.

Since the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is considered to be the trend setter, other services follow suit. As pay scales decide, among other things, parity of appointments, there is competition amongst all the services to create maximum number of senior appointments. In several cases, indulgent political leadership has upgraded tens of appointments in a single stroke without any organisational considerations.

Some states have dozens of directors general of police (DGP). It needs to be recalled here that undivided Punjab used to have one inspector general (IG) of police and a few deputy inspector generals. Today, each part (Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) has a glut of DGPs, Additional DGPs and IGs. State governments upgrade multiple appointments en-masse to accommodate chosen incumbents without job considerations. One DGP may be asked to look after the purchase of 100 computers, the second one assigned the task of purchasing furniture and yet the third one may be overseeing police lines. The same is true of the central police forces and the para-military forces. Proliferation of top brass has been of ridiculous proportions.

With a view to retain parity, the defence forces have also resorted to making a large number of senior appointments. All higher headquarters have become highly top-heavy and overstaffed. A job done earlier by a brigadier is being carried out by a lieutenant general now. Further, he has a major general as his deputy and two to three brigadiers to head different sections. Thus, a brigadier has been substituted by two general officers and two/three brigadiers. By rampant proliferation of top brass, the services are harming their own cause.

Cadre Review

Cadre review is a much abused stratagem. Every cadre review results in swelling of the higher hierarchy. As per the monograph issued by the Department of Personnel and Training – “The main purpose of a cadre review is to restructure a cadre in such a way as to remove the deficiencies which might be existing at the time of the constitution of a service or have crept in subsequently and ensure that the cadre structure satisfies the functional, structural and personnel considerations.”

Further, the monograph states that a cadre review provides an opportunity to overcome various bottlenecks, remove existing distortions and bring about rationalisation of cadre structure. Quoted objectives include estimation of future manpower requirements, planning recruitments, and restructuring the cadre with a view to harmonise the functional needs with the legitimate career expectations of its members to enhance the effectiveness of the service.

Two points need to be flagged here. One, the personnel aspect is secondary to functional and structural aspects. It implies that organisational interests remain the supreme concern and cannot be sacrificed for the sake of personal ambitions. Two, career expectations and aspirations of the members must be legitimate. It is a totally illogical and absurd demand that every member should rise to the top. All services have pyramid-like structures, albeit some are steeper than others but the posts at the top are limited.

Cadre review of Group ‘A’ Services is undertaken every five years. Unfortunately, instead of managing the cadre to suit the changing organisational requirements, cadre review has come to be identified with the sole objective of upgrading maximum number of posts in the service. It is a single point agenda. Other important aspects like training of the functionaries receive little attention. Worse, upgradation of posts is neither need-based nor warranted. On the contrary, it leads to serious functional distortions and makes the service dysfunctional, while causing immense drain on the exchequer. Regrettably, for the beneficiary functionaries, self-interest takes precedence over ethics, probity and righteousness.

Non Functional Upgrade Scheme:

Bureaucracy has the flair for inventing ingenious ways to feather its own nest, without any pangs of conscience. The Non Functional Upgrade (NFU) scheme is a brainchild of the bureaucracy’s selfish superciliousness. The stated purpose of NFU is to ‘alleviate stagnation in the civil services’. There is no international precedent for such a scheme. The NFU is a malady of epidemic proportions and has the potential of plaguing all organs of the state and devouring them to hollowness. It totally disregards the basic tenets of financial prudence, organisational hierarchy and responsible governance.

The NFU scheme implies that whenever any IAS officer of a particular batch is promoted to a specific grade pay in pay bands PB-3 or PB-4, grant of higher pay scale on non-functional basis should be granted to the officers belonging to batches of 49 ‘Organised Central Group A Civil Services’ senior by two years. NFU is presently available up to the Higher Administrative Grade (HAG) level.

For better understanding, let us take the following example. If an officer of the 1999 batch of IAS is appointed as joint secretary in the Centre, then all officers of the 1997 and earlier batches, who have not so far been promoted to that particular grade, would be granted the same grade on a nonfunctional basis from the date of posting of the 1999 batch officer as joint secretary.

The domino effect of such a devious scheme is already discernible. To start with, NFU was meant only for 49 ‘Organised Central Group A Civil Services’. However, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service were soon added to the list of the beneficiaries. NFU undermined the status of the defence forces and the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) with disastrous effect. Citing higher pay scales under NFU, most civilian officials refused to obey their senior uniformed officers.
The armed forces and CAPFs felt aggrieved and approached the courts for justice. In September 2015, the Delhi High Court declared CAPFs as organised services, thereby entitling them to financial benefits under NFU. The armed forces appealed to the principal bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal in New Delhi and obtained a favourable verdict in December 2016.

Mala fide schemes like NFU tend to acquire epidemical characteristics. As stagnation impacts all, NFU may soon afflict other government services as well. In addition, demand will also be raised to apply NFU to HAG and Apex scales as well. Stagnation at HAG will be the brazen excuse. It is indeed a chaotic and scary scenario.

The NFU delinks promotions from career progression, thereby completely abolishing the merit-based selection system. Financial remunerations must relate to the job responsibilities, span of control and challenges of decision making. The pay cannot be delinked from the job being performed, with officers claiming entitlement to higher pay scales without performing the corresponding functions. NFU is damaging the structural edifice of all services. Through promotions to entire batches, it is bloating the central services and making them more cylindrical in nature.

The Way Forward:

The use of technology to monitor the functioning of the bureaucracy and to keep a check on the movement of files is a significant step. However, far more stringent measures are needed to achieve the objective of minimum government. Here are some suggestions:-

• Amalgamation of analogous ministries to ensure synergy in functioning. Abolition of superfluous ministries and departments.

• Reduction in the strength of the council of ministers. A number of ministers of state can be assigned to each cabinet minister to share the workload.

• No ministry should have more than one secretary. Departments can be headed by additional secretaries and joint secretaries.

• No state should have more than one DGP. There should be a cap on the number of ADGPs and IGs that a police force can have.

• The number of top level posts in the central police forces and the paramilitary forces should be drastically curtailed.

• The armed forces must revert back to the old time-tested pyramidical structure. The number of appointments of general officers must be radically reduced.

• Scrap NFU for all services. NFU is a nefarious master stroke in skulduggery, which only the Indian bureaucracy can be expected to devise. It is an open loot of the nation by a scheming and unethical bureaucracy.

It is a well-known principle that ‘work expands so as to keep the expanding bureaucracy occupied’. It is a vicious cycle. And, expanding work is antithesis of minimum government. Therefore, trimming the bureaucracy (including the top brass of the uniformed forces) is an inescapable requirement. Understandably, it is a tall order. But then, reforms can never be initiated by the weak. Only a bold and dynamic leadership can stem the rot created by this hydra-headed administrative monster. Or else, minimum government will remain a pipe dream.

 Article Courtesy:

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Appreciation of This Blog by UPSC top rankers and other enlightened journals,organisations & websites

A new begins year with more good news!!

1. Mr. Sumit Kumar Rai UPSC AIR 54 CSE 2018 has recommended this blog under 'Essential books' in his interview stating:
"The website is a rich source of various pub ad concepts and is also helpful in quick revision of an entire topic in a 360 degree manner."

2. Enlightened journals,organisations & websites continue to refer to my work in their research:

Friday, April 26, 2019

‘Politicians And Bureaucrats Don’t Want To Devolve Powers To Local Governments’: T.R. Raghunandan

Mumbai: In April 2018, India marked the silver jubilee of the passing of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, which formalised the decentralisation of governance through panchayat raj institutions (PRI) across the country. Part IX of the Amendment made state legislatures responsible for devolving powers to PRIs.
Over the years, the southern states have done better than others in doing this. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka topped the aggregate index for devolution in a 2015-16 report entitled ‘Where Local Democracy and Devolution in India is Heading Towards?’ issued by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR). Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Jharkhand were poor performers, it added.
There are exceptions such as Tripura, which has the highest-spending rural bodies in India, as IndiaSpend reported in June 2015. Its per capita spending is almost double that of states with more money and financial powers. But overall, there are challenges of finances, transfer of functions and capacity of local governments to handle the work given to them.
This stems from the fact that politicians and bureaucrats are unwilling to relinquish power, said T.R. Raghunandan, an expert on decentralisation and a former joint secretary in the MoPR, who took voluntary retirement after serving 26 years in the Indian Administrative Service. After retirement, Raghunandan helped establish the initiative in 2011, which crowd-sources reports on corruption from citizens. He also co-founded a non-profit to work in the areas of decentralised public governance and heritage preservation. He was a member of the committee on decentralisation, a member of the state planning board in the government of Karnataka, as well as principal consultant to several expert committees constituted by the government of India on decentralised public governance.
In an email interview with IndiaSpend, Raghunandan talked about the hurdles faced by local governments in rural and urban areas, the reluctance of politicians and bureaucrats to allow the devolution of powers to panchayats, and his perspective on corruption in India.

States such as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are among the top five for transferring functions, institutions and finances to PRIs. Lately, the details related to the weightage given to 2011 population in the 15th Finance Commission (FC) has received a backlash from the southern states. Do you think their reservations are relevant? What effect can it have on rural and urban local governance and the process of decentralisation?
The backlash from South Indian states certainly has plenty of substance. They are protesting because the 15th FC will take into account their 2011 populations when suggesting formulae for horizontal and vertical transfers [of central funds] to states.
These states say they are being punished for more effective population control ever since the family planning programme was announced in 1971. That is bound to have a bearing on the actual proportion of allocations these states receive from the central government’s revenues divisible pool, both for their own use and to supplement local governments’ finances.
The 14th FC was of the view that the use of dated population data is unfair and concluded that a weight to the 2011 population would capture the demographic changes since 1971, both in terms of migration and age structure.
However, this is not directly relevant to the issue of whether south Indian states are doing better than northern ones in the devolution of powers and responsibilities to local governments. Arguably, even if they were not, the use of 2011 population data will harm them.
While there are variations across states, the economic survey 2017-18 noted that urban local governments in India generated 44% (in 2015-16) of their total revenue from their own resources compared to panchayats which overwhelmingly (about 95% in 2014-15) depend on devolution of funds from the Centre. What are the challenges and solutions for resolving challenges to cooperative fiscal federalism?
While urban local governments earn a higher proportion of their revenues on their own as compared to panchayats, the fact remains that both rural and urban local governments are significantly underfunded to perform the tasks that are devolved to them under the law.
This does not mean that there is no scope to raise more revenues at the panchayat and municipality levels. In this regard, it is true that the panchayats have generally failed to utilise the revenue handles that have been given to them by state governments under the law. While some states, such as the southern states and Maharashtra, have had a generally better track record, and Chattisgarh and West Bengal have been able to undertake effective reforms in this regard, there is tremendous scope for panchayats to increase their own revenues.
Unfortunately, it is quite often the lack of capacity of states that has come in the way of panchayats raising their own revenues. Tax administration needs human resources and funds, but where states have not posted panchayat secretaries, or have one-person panchayat offices, panchayats cannot be blamed for not collecting taxes.
Most of the solutions for strengthening fiscal federalism have been repeated ad nauseum over the past two decades. They comprise of (a) a clear assignment of functions, powers and responsibilities to the local governments through activity mapping, (b) a clear budget window in state budgets assigning funds to the panchayats to match the devolved functions, (c) adequate staffing at the panchayat level, either through the state assigning staff on deputation or enabling the panchayats to recruit their own staff, and (d) the state being willing to provide capacity on tap to panchayats to enable them to perform their functions, instead of running low-quality, discontinuous, and haphazard one-off training programmes that deliver homilies to elected representatives instead of squarely addressing the administrative weaknesses of panchayats.
The biggest challenge is that higher-level politicians and bureaucrats don’t want to devolve powers and responsibilities to local governments, because they fear competition and being outclassed by the latter in the delivery of essential goods and services. Higher level politicians and bureaucrats have a vested interest in mystifying governance simply to protect their monopoly.
In a 2015 article**, you mention, “Over the last decade, the amount of money that goes to one [panchayat] has increased tenfold but the staff has remained nearly the same.” There seems to be very little in terms of building the organisational capacity of PRIs and strengthening the skills of functionaries. What sort of investments are needed to improve this?
To put matters bluntly, states do not know the meaning of the word ‘devolution’. It means that exclusive powers and authority are transferred to local governments, along with adequate fiscal allocations, capacities (in terms of people and systems to perform, not in terms of training alone) and accountability systems to ensure that people can hold their local governments accountable.
What we run in India through the panchayats is an extension office of the rural development department in villages. Panchayats are basically run as agencies of the state government, implementing rigid schemes through officers nominally posted at that level who owe allegiance to higher official channels than to elected representatives.
The elected representatives are scoffed at, ignored, or treated with hostility, particularly if they are outspoken. They are universally condemned as being transactional and corrupt. They are not at the table when crucial policy decisions are taken on how panchayati raj should be reformed. This is hardly devolution.
One of the big weaknesses of Indian administration is that it is under-capacitated in many ways. While many departments are top-heavy and centralise their administration through multiple levels of scrutiny in order to give something to do to redundant higher-levels officers, at the field level they typically suffer from grievous shortages of staff. This shortage pans itself across both local governments and departments that are not decentralised.
In such circumstances, the finance, planning and personnel departments of states need to take a serious look at how much investment needs to be put into the hiring and placement of well-qualified staff, regardless of whether they wish to run a decentralised or centralised system. Sadly, not one state thinks of these matters in the long term. Interim solutions include hiring people on contract, and even running departments through consultants hired through external funding. There cannot be a greater abdication of responsibility by states.
New Zealand has a remuneration authority for setting remuneration for elected members of local authorities. Would a similar body in India help uniformly establish honorarium/salary and benefits from panchayats to state legislatures and members of parliament? What has been the effect of the non-uniformity in salaries at different governance levels?
New Zealand is a unitary country. India is a federal country with huge variations in culture, democratic practice, habitation patterns, climatic conditions, service-delivery requirements and cost of service delivery. In such circumstances, having a single remuneration authority will not make sense.
Having said that, there is indeed a need to establish a set of norms for how much legislators and other elected representatives ought to be compensated. Politics is no longer to be wholly regarded as selfless public service. There is an opportunity cost to be considered if politics is to attract quality professionals. Otherwise, even the best are likely to become corrupt, first, in order to catch up on the lucrative incomes that they may have foregone to join politics, and then, to rake in the moolah while the good times last.
I have been involved in research studies of panchayat members, which show that while they are under pressure from their voters to perform, they do not have the staff to competently deliver services.
In such circumstances, panchayat members themselves take on quasi-executive duties and incur expenditure to undertake legitimate governance activities. As the sitting fees paid to them are not adequate to cover such expenses, even the best of them are drawn to indulge in need-based corruption, by which they skim off just enough money from government contracts and procurements to compensate for the expenditure they incur.
Such practices also open them to blackmail by corrupt officials who are often on the lookout for chinks in the armour of honest elected representatives.
Having state-wise remuneration authorities would be a good way to bring these issues out in the open and take pragmatic decisions based on the fundamental principle that everybody involved in governance, whether as elected representative or staff, ought to be compensated adequately. Only then will we be able to take a hard line on curbing corruption.
India was ranked 81st among 180 countries in the global corruption perception index 2017, after falling two places from the previous year. What has been the effect of corruption on local governance?
There is an oft-repeated statement that decentralisation amounts to only decentralisation of corruption. When this argument is made by those in the upper echelons of power, it reeks of hypocrisy and condescension. So what do these people mean, exactly? That corruption is better when centralised?
India’s ranking of corruption is hardly based or dependent on whether it has decentralised (which it has not). India is corrupt because we have no clue how to address corruption in a holistic or comprehensive manner, and instead, we merely engage in discontinuous, random steps to curb it.
What India needs is an anti-corruption strategy; one which takes a systems approach to curbing and eliminating corruption. We will be condemned to languish at the 80th position or so, for the next decade, if things don’t change.
The Pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand is an assertion of local governance where in some parts stone slabs have been inscribed with features of the Panchayat Extension of Schedule Areas (PESA) Act. While the state government is wary, how do you view such attempts to self-rule or govern? How can contestation of land and approach to local governance be resolved in such contexts, where development is low due to historic and socio-economic reasons?
This was bound to happen. I think it’s a natural outcome of having strong laws but very weak implementation. If the PESA were implemented with sincere intentions, it would have given tribal communities some chance at true self-governance in the spirit of their traditional approaches to participatory governance. However, the oppressive capturing of the spirit of PESA and its overturning by the same bureaucratic system that it aimed to supplant, will eventually lead to people repudiating the state.
I don’t believe that local governance can be weak simply because development as we observe it is measured to be low. I find that tribal communities have a greater sense of self-governance as compared to so-called developed communities, say, in urban areas, who are only too willing to be led by the nose by higher-level governments and who hardly have any understanding of the potential of local governments as a way to seize and decentralise power to enable local action.
Although on paper the law provides for decentralised decision-making at the gram panchayat level for many policies and schemes of the central government, overarching policies such as Aadhaar tend to centralise the entire process. Under such circumstances, would you believe that the spirit of decentralisation has been repeatedly affected due to unclear policy paths?
Till now, I would say that the progress of decentralisation was stymied by unclear policy paths. But we must remember that decentralisation is always in transition as capacities change and new techniques and technologies emerge that make the delivery of services efficient at some level other than the local. This has been predicted in the literature on fiscal federalism.
[Public economics expert Albert] Breton observed, in competitive governments, from a fiscal and service delivery perspective, decentralisation is about managing externalities in service delivery and governance action. As a logical extension of this argument, Jack Weldon, an academic who worked on decentralisation, observed that if at any time a higher-level government was in a position to manage all externalities, then the rationale for multi-level governance would disappear. While I am personally very wary of Aadhaar as I believe it seriously compromises privacy, I cannot but concede that Aadhaar is arguably one such instrument that can change the scales of service delivery dramatically.
Therefore, it is bound to have an effect of decentralisation of service delivery to local governments. I also anticipate that the future, with its reliance on artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other technologies that transcend national boundaries, will not only affect the way we look at local governments, but also how we consider national sovereignty. It is likely that in future the only real justification for local governments will be our enduring need to stick together on the basis of identity, culture and commonality of political beliefs, rather than on economist-generated ideas of efficient service delivery.
We’ll have panchayats in future because they represent our identities, not because they can deliver water or education or sanitation services better. That may be an additional benefit, but it might not be the glue that holds us together in our local governments.
The government has allowed lateral entry into the bureaucracy to bring in specialists. Is it a step in the right direction?
Yes, I think it’s a good thing, though I have serious misgivings about the rather non-transparent way in which this is being tried out at the moment. Monopolies are never good for incentivising the striving for more quality.
When an individual, however gifted, is guaranteed a certain measure of stability and assured progress in her career, you can bet that she has no incentive to improve. The bureaucracy must be kept on its toes and lateral entry is a good way to do that. Have you noticed that nearly all articles critical of lateral entry have been written by former or serving bureaucrats?


**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.
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.


Friday, April 5, 2019

New-age policy-makers

Policy-making, a specialised field, requires an in-depth study of its nuances

I still remember the time in school, when civics was the favourite subject for most of my classmates, including me. More than the content of the curriculum that the subject offered, it was the way it was taught, that made it so interesting — ‘participative’ would, indeed, be the word for it. The role plays served as an immersion into real-life scenarios, in order to understand duties, responsibilities and challenges better. The outcome — better understanding, as all of had our thinking caps on. That was not just a momentary outcome, but had a long-term impact of sorts. The interest in the country’s affairs, its societies, communities, and their respective roles was kindred, and enhanced, with the passage of time. Though the profession I chose was far and wide from the subject, the attachment and interest remained. I have always wondered (and hoped) whether ‘learning that encourages to think’ is being actively deployed in classrooms, no matter what age the faculty and students are.
One of my recent assignments plunged me into the world of public policy making. The first point that struck me was, “How can someone be trained in this vast and dynamic field?” Of course, basic training forms the core, but experience on-the-job would, ideally, do the trick. The popularity in the study of the field lies in the fact that it holds career progression, wide scope for exposure, and fulfilment of the passion to be the change one wishes to see and make. Having said this, my introduction to the Indian School of Public Policy (ISPP) served as an eye-opener, in a way.

Balanced mix

Policy-making, and its training, is a highly specialised field, with the amalgamation of theoretical rigour and experiential learning being a prerequisite. Not only is an in-depth study of the nuances of the subject paramount, but what is also vital is an exposure to the subject on an international basis, and to global policy makers. Says Vijay Kelkar, former finance secretary, Chairman of the Thirteenth Finance Commission of India, Padma Vibhushan awardee and chairman of academic advisory council, ISPP, “One of the most important, not skill, but prerequisite for a public policy domain maker, according to me, is the possession of values. He or she should be committed to public good. This is extremely important. On second place, I would place domain knowledge. How can a policy-maker make a policy, on say climate change, when he/she is not well versed with the nuances of the field? This applies to policy-making in any field. On the other hand, this does not mean a standalone focus on one field. It also fosters the strength to navigate between fields, quickly and effectively. Another important prerequisite is the willingness to adapt.”
Over the past few decades, it has been heartening to see the paradigm shift towards specialisation in a field like public policy; this has been, mainly, to address the desire in future decision-makers to find innovative and effective solutions for the dynamic challenges the country faces. The energy is infectious and inspiring. At the same time, governments are becoming increasingly open to draw fresh talent, ideas and designs from outside the bureaucratic ranks. The need is urgent and agreed upon.
And so, young minds nourishing policy space is an idea whose time has come, and a shift that is here to stay…hopefully, for a long time…
The writer is advisor, communications and media outreach, IL&FS Education and Technology Services.

Article Courtesy:

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Democracy depends on vibrant ‘gram sabhas’

Gram sabhas' have ceased to be vibrant spaces for popular participation and effective agencies to hold government functionaries to account.

Decentralization is a strategy to empower citizens to control their own destinies. At its core, decentralization signals that citizen collectives can come together to make decisions of allocation and expenditure of public resources. ‘Democratic decentralization’, as practised in India, is where this power is devolved to elected local governments—this was the spirit of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992-93.

This form of decentralization sought to break away from the conventional planning processes that did not involve citizens. Bringing about reforms in such a context required a ‘big bang’—of the kind attempted in Kerala, where, in 1996, instead of waiting to gradually create and upgrade the administrative capacity of the local government officials and elected representatives, the state government decided to devolve untied funds. The assumption was that these funds would trigger a wave of local accountability. The devolution was accompanied by a state-wide people’s campaign to mobilize people to participate in local governance.

In the democratic decentralization system, gram sabhas were envisaged as key platforms for popular participation. A quorum was defined for convening a meeting, and they had to develop by-laws that specified the number of times they were to meet in a year. Gram sabhas were responsible for catalysing local planning by conducting ‘needs assessment’ exercises, and devising plans for development projects that would be aggregated at the panchayat level. When further aggregated and rationalized at the district level, these would become official inputs into the state government’s annual budgeting process.
This highlights the importance of the gram sabha as a pivotal institution in local planning. However, 25 years since the landmark constitutional amendments, their state is quite different in reality. With low participation, and frequent hijacking by small but influential interests, gram sabhas have struggled to stay relevant. The dip in popular participation has had significant implications for the future of democratic decentralization in India. It is therefore important to take urgent steps to revive the humble institution. 

1. There is a widely shared perception that gram sabhas are only for discussions on benefits from individually-targeted government schemes, and the planning process is seen merely as an exercise in identifying beneficiaries for these schemes. This needs to be countered by running a widespread awareness campaign where the development agenda of local governments, and the role of gram sabhas, is clarified.
2. There is a significant imbalance of power between local government officials and gram sabha members. Government officials are supposed to attend key gram sabhas, and communicate how projects and schemes under their jurisdiction are relevant to communities. The active participation of these officials, and a clear demonstration that gram sabha decisions cannot be simply overruled by the local bureaucracy, would be an important factor in restoring trust. For instance, administrative sanctions for scheme implementation should not take place without authorization at the gram sabha level.
3. There is a perception of rampant corruption by local leaders and elected representatives. The quantum of funds that flow through local governments, and the reports of misuse, add to this suspicion, or at least strengthens the perception that local governments are unable to ensure clean effective spending. Local accountability should be the central theme that binds every gram sabha. An active state government, acting as a watchdog, should complement the role of popular participation, and put pressure on local governments and government officials operating at the grass roots, from both above and below.
4. In most parts of the country, self-help groups have put down strong roots. In Kerala, the Kudumbashree model has demonstrated how these groups can interact with local government, strengthening, as a result, the spirit of local governance.
5. Finally, when it comes to gram sabhas, one size does not fit all—not all gram sabhas care about service delivery issues; there might be ones whose primary concern is the quality of tertiary health, or educational institutes, or job creation.
The functioning of gram sabhas is affected by the manner in which agendas are framed for public meetings, and the levels of involvement of critical actors such as elected representatives, government officials and subject experts. It is evident that there is very little scrutiny of the local governments by the state government. This calls for a more active role from the state government in reforming the organization and the conduct of gram sabhas to improve popular participation. This would form the basis for state governments and civil society to hold gram sabhas and the local government accountable for the delivery of public services. 
In the techno-managerial framework of development, local governments have become contractors who just implement schemes designed and funded by those above them. In this process, gram sabhas have lost their ability to function as vibrant spaces for popular participation, as well as the ability to function as effective agencies to hold government functionaries to account. It is this space that gram sabhas need to regain if the goals of democratic decentralization are to be realized. 

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development in South Asia.

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