A quarter of a century ago, Parliament passed two amendments to the Constitution to empower governance at panchayats and municipal bodies. The promise of transformation of rural India, the 73rd Amendment, came into force on April 24, 1993, and the 74th Amendment promising governance in urban India on June 1, 1993. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the promised revolution in local governance.
The ‘statement of objects and reason’ admitted to systemic sloth. The 73rd Amendment observed that for forty years panchayati raj institutions “have not been able to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people's bodies”, and the 74th Amendment disclosed that “Urban Local Bodies are not able to perform effectively as vibrant democratic units of self-government.” The twin amendments were meant to address despair and redress deficiencies.
Has that happened? The promised revolution has been converted into politically convenient evolution of devolution. The amendments to the Constitution mooted states transfer 29 functions to panchayats. The report card is sketchy. For the record, a Ministry of Panchayati Raj study shows Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka are outliers. Political expediency dictates cherry-picking by states—of what will be devolved and what will not be.
Yes, there are over three million elected representatives, including a million women. But are they empowered to deliver? The elected lack authority and, so, the electors can scarcely demand accountability. The state of education and health care and the crisis of drinking water is a testimony to the failed promise.
The story of urban India is not dissimilar. The 74th Amendment mooted transfer of 18 functions to ULBs. How have the urban local bodies fared—are the elected empowered? Frequently the delivery of outcomes tells the story most eloquently. Empirical data and experience of living conditions are instructive.
India has over 377 million persons—a widely contested figure. Be that as it may, every third person lives in urban India. Nearly 30 per cent of the urban populace lives in slums—that is over 65 million or roughly the population of France. Four of ten persons lack what the government calls “improved sanitation”. Drinking water supply, depending on location, ranges from an hour a day to six hours a day, power shutdowns can be both announced and unannounced and demand for private education and health care is surging.
Poor infrastructure haunts urban dwellers. India's towns and cities generate around 150,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day. How is it disposed? The Ministry of Urban Affairs says “24.8 per cent is scientifically processed and the “rest is either land filled in sanitary landfills or crudely dumped.” What about sewage? Urban India generates 61,948 million litres of sewage every day, of which only 37 per cent can be treated. Part of the reason is that roughly a third, 294 of 816 municipal sewerage treatment plants, are not operational.
Take public transport. Last year, just Pune added nearly 3 lakh personal vehicles to its roads. There are, as per urban development ministry data, 22,453 buses for the nearly 50 million people living in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Pune—do the math to get to the deficiency and one of the causative factors for pollution. And, mind you, these are the better organised metros. Cities must depend on Central intervention—in the past three years, under AMRUT, a sum of Rs 1,236.94 crore was released to 18 states—and/or pray for deliverance on the “promise” of metro projects.
Critical to grass-roots governance is transfer of funds, functions and authority over functionaries—this is validated by the struggle to implement Swachh Bharat and smart cities programmes. Take funds. The 14th Finance Commission allocated Rs 2,87,436 crore for the period 2015-20—Rs 2,00,292.2 crore for over 2.5 lakh panchayats and Rs 87,143.8 crore for ULBs. For sure it is less than adequate given the needs. The question is how much are states devolving in their budgets? Central finance commissions are required to go by the recommendations of state finance commissions, but states often render SFCs dysfunctional or disregard them.
The issue of devolution of functions and functionaries is more complex. Typically, states are wary of allocating functions easily to panchayats or to ULBs. Indeed, frequently, even after 25 years the elected folks in panchayats or urban local bodies can be overruled by officials in the state government departments. In urban local bodies, the appointed design and decide on budgets and the elected can scarcely object.
The issues haunting panchayats and urban bodies continue to be what was identified by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. There is the historic cynicism about entrusting power down to a stratified social system, scepticism about competency and, of course, suspicion of corruption.
These concerns may well be true, at least in part. But solutions need to be found. The proposal mooted in the 2017 budget for a cadre for panchayats and municipal bodies is worth pursuing. At the political level, parties may want to introduce a critical condition, of a stint at a panchayat or a municipal body, before candidates are parachuted to a state Assembly or Parliament.
The current discourse in the political economy offers a delicious irony. For some weeks now, chief ministers have been battling the Centre over centralization and are calling for decentralization of funds and functions— there is a growing ruckus over a greater share of devolution of funds through the Finance Commission. The fact is that the states do to local bodies what they allege the Centre does to them. The promise of critical last mile governance continues to be hostage to politics.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India