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21 April, 2009

Citizen’s Report on Governance: Reinventing local self-government

This is the third and final post based on the Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09, produced by the National Social Watch Coalition:

The Citizen’s Report notes that there have been both good and bad developments with regard to local self-governance.

The good is that 14 years after constitutional status was given to panchayats and municipalities, barring Jharkhand, several states have completed two or even three rounds of elections for rural and local self-government. Since 2005 the Union Minister of Panchayati Raj has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with as many as 19 states and one Union Territory for the devolution of funds, functions and functionaries.

The MoUs show a sense of urgency towards fulfilling certain issues for successful decentralization of power and can be used to hold the state governments accountable for the commitments outlined in them. People’s support for these organizations is increasing because panchayats are providing a diverse, widespread and strong foundation for inclusive and participatory growth. These institutions are gaining importance because they are implementing national programs like NREM and NREGA.

Delays in devolution

The report’s other concerns are:

Devolution of funds, functions and functionaries to local bodies continues to be tardy with state governments retaining direct control over all aspects of these bodies.

MOUs signed between the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the different states are not being followed or implemented in their true spirit because they are not time-bound. (The Ministry has signed MOUs with 15 states for time-bound and concrete action.)

Government apathy

Transfer of functions, according to the report, leaves much to be desired where some innocuous functions such as monitoring and supervision have been transferred. Most of the functions are related to the ones handled by the line department functionaries and Panchayats have no direct control over them, in reality. Wherever the function seems to be substantial, it is in the form of rendering assistance to line departments. The solution to this problem in terms of ‘activity mapping’ done by MOPR is a welcome initiative. However, the order issued for that is incomplete. The states began with a wrong checklist because of a lackadaisical attitude or lack of understanding.

On the flip side there is concern over the fact that gram sabhas and ward sabhas in urban areas continue to be victims of government apathy and indifference from civil society.

The report suggests that different development structures that will be accountable to them be created because ongoing programs have created parallel institutions resulting in over lapping and conflicts in implementation.

The report notes that the investment patterns of Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission has a lopsided approach to urban governance and infrastructure with as much as Rs. 4430.23 crores being sanctioned for Urban Governance and Infrastructure as against Rs.1, 003.27 crores for Basic Services to Urban Poor.

Agriculture in crises

The report opines that policies formulated during the last 15 years lack strategic goals and objectives and that though the growth performance over the last decade has been impressive it has not necessarily benefited everyone equally.

This is particularly true of Indian agriculture, which has been witnessing a decline in the number of cultivators from 110.7 million in 1991 to 103,63 million. Added to this is the plight of farmers, close to 182936 across the states who have committed suicide between 1997 -2007. The irony in all this is that many of them could have been saved because as the Finance Minister admitted in his last Budget speech, "There is no dearth of schemes; there is no dearth of funds. What needs to be done is to deliver the intended outcomes." But, as he added, "Sadly, the extension system (read administration) seems to have collapsed."

Health - persisting disparities

Similarly, India's performance in reducing health inequalities has made little headway with disparities continuing to persist regionally, across socio-economic groups and between rural and urban areas. At present, health care amounts to mere 1.4 % of its GDP, which is extremely small compared to other developing countries like Cuba
(6.7),Namibia (4.7), Nepa l(3.8) and Bangladesh(2.3).

The National Rural Health Mission 2005-2012, the report notes, has had little effect because of limited awareness levels, confusion regarding the role of various agencies and the fact that health plans have remained more or less centralized. The Report feels the spirit of NRHM should be implemented thorough anganwadis and Panchayati Raj institutions to make rural health services more effective.

Centre-State fiscal relations

There is a clear connection between the fiscal consolidation targets and the changing dynamics of Centre-state fiscal relations. The Centre’s own expenditure was reduced by 2.3 percentage points to achieve the revenue deficit to GDP target of roughly the same magnitude, which indicates that there is an inherent process of centralization. The increasing control of the Centre has been reflected in the nature of grants, decline in overall transfers, increasing expenditure responsibilities of the States, increase in committed expenditures, and increase in relative command over total resources by the central government in relation to its expenditure.

In terms of the overall centre-State fiscal relations, there is accentuation of imbalances, both vertical and horizontal imbalances, especially during the period of economic reforms. Increase in these inequalities means the balancing act, which the constitutionally mandated transfer mechanism had to do, have not been achieved.

RTI-diluted in spirit

The report sees the Right to Information Act as a welcome policy initiative which can be used as a tool to seek improvement in service delivery. However, it draws attention to some critical weaknesses in its operations.

According to the report, the Central Informnation Commission had imposed penalties in only 73 out of 7,000 cases disposed of. Worse still, the information commissions have begun to reject appeals on technical and flimsy grounds. In April 2007, for instance, 57.96 % of appeals received at CIC were rejected, and by June rejections rose to 63.76%. Nearly two out of three appeals and complaints were not registered.

Several issues need to be addressed, the most important being the appointment of Information Commissioners. The Act clearly states that they must not be from the bureaucracy but most ICs are retired or serving bureaucrats. The other is the reluctance of State Information Commissions to penalize principal information officers who do not provide adequate information.

Earlier posts:
Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09
Citizen’s Report: State of the Judiciary

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