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Decentralisation and Democracy

Decentralisation and Democracy Local Democracy in India: Interpreting Decentralisation by Girish Kumar; Eastern Book Corporation, 2006; pp 336, Rs 795 (hardback).


Decentralisation and Democracy

Local Democracy in India: Interpreting Decentralisation

by Girish Kumar; Eastern Book Corporation, 2006; pp 336, Rs 795 (hardback).


he debate on the impact of India’s experiment with rural decentralisation, post the 73rd amendment, has been somewhat limited owing to the lack of empirical evidence on how decentralisation has unfolded in practice. As the author of this book argues, much has been written about the supply side of why and how decentralisation can provide for a more efficient system of governance than a centralised one but the demand side has been relatively ignored. Indeed the logic of decentralisation is compelling and deserves critical attention. Clearly, local governments will be better informed of the needs and priorities of citizens in specific localities than central governments, proximity will ensure responsiveness, citizens will be better informed of governmental activity and hence will be better placed to enforce good performance. By bringing governments closer to people, decentralisation provides a platform not only for more effective governance but also enables greater political participation. Decentralisation thus has the potential to deepen democracy.

There is a small but growing pool of research that attempts to understand how decentralisation has unfolded in practice. These can roughly be divided into two categories, one that focuses on the service delivery dimension of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and the second that examines PRIs as institutions of democratic governance, emphasising their role in tackling social exclusion. Most research in the latter category focuses on the mechanics of institutional forms of participation such as reservations and gram sabhas. However, given the scope and potential of decentralisation, a range of questions remain. At the macro level it is important to understand what the political preconditions for decentralisation are? At the micro level relevant questions are – what is the perceived role of these institutions? What motivates PR members and how do they perceive their political and developmental functions? Do citizens feel they have a stake in PRIs? Do citizens see the gram sabha as a forum for people’s participation? Answering these questions is crucial for understanding the impact of decentralisation on the democratic process and formulating related policy.

PRIs Today

Girish Kumar’s book on local democracy in India is a timely and much needed effort that attempts to fill this lacuna by interrogating the role that panchayats have come to play in the day-to-day lives of the people they govern. Kumar enters this debate by asking the critical question: “Has the realisation gone down that panchayats are not ends in themselves – they are part of the means, that is, one of the instruments meant for facilitating people’s participation and thus enriching the democratisation process at the local level?”

Kumar’s efforts at untangling these issues reflect the difficulties of undertaking a comprehensive review of such a broad topic. Given the range and scope of such an investigation, most analysis of PRIs have tended to adopt a regional focus and a limited sample.1 Kumar limits his sample to 8 GPs (necessitated by the nature of the investigation) but covers four states

– Maharashtra, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Recognising the limitations of such a small sample survey, he supports his survey with available secondary research. This makes for a dense read and occasionally impedes a detailed analysis of findings. Nevertheless, this book asks important questions and is valuable to anyone interested in the dynamic of political decentralisation in India.

Kumar begins his analysis by locating the history of the evolution of PRIs within the realm of state politics. He does so to understand what prompts some political formations to adopt pro-decentralisation policies and what determines their survival. Kumar’s analysis suggests that a pro-poor political ideology coupled with the imperatives of electoral politics that compel political parties to expand their political base provided the prime motivation for state governments to decentralise and are responsible for its survival.

The bulk of Kumar’s book is based on findings from his primary survey. Through the survey, Kumar develops a profile of panchayat leaders identifying their socioeconomic status, past experience, factors that motivated them to enter formal politics, the daily functions they discharge and their levels of performance satisfaction. Next he focuses on citizens asking them a myriad of questions to gather perspectives on the role of panchayats and their impact on their day-to-day lives. His questions revolve around citizen participation in election campaigns, the level of transparency and awareness of the roles and responsibilities of panchayats, performance and expectations from panchayats, nature of assistance citizens seek from panchayats, and the behavioural pattern of panchayats.

Kumar concludes that the “overall picture emerging is an unfinished task of decentralisation”. For the most part, panchayat leaders are unaware of their roles and responsibility and perform routine functions such as beneficiary selection, minor repair and construction works, site selection, issuing of ration cards and so on. Panchayat resources are limited and so is their autonomy. Finally, reservations have had a limited impact. As for citizens, their participation in the political process is limited to voting. There is a lack of awareness of roles and responsibilities and the daily activities of panchayats further adds to the sense of apathy towards panchayats.

Decentralisation and Gram Sabha

Kumar’s assessment highlights that the outcomes of decentralisation are

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 influenced by the interplay of politics at the local and state level. In his assessment, party organisation in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka was built primarily by coopting the local elite and using their power and influence to mobilise mass support. In such a system, political success was based on further entrenching, rather than redressing, the inequitable power relations at the local level. Thus, reform champions (Digvijay Singh and Ramakrishna Hegde) were unable to develop a coalition in favour of democratic decentralisation and decentralisation did not lead to broadening the social base of local democracy. The story is somewhat different in West Bengal where the pro-poor orientation and massive party network of the CPI(M) has ensured that benefits from government programmes actually reach the poor through PRIs. However, accountability and transparency have been compromised and panchayat members are mere agents of the state government, rather than institutions of self government. Finally, it is the “psychology of the patronage network” prevalent in the highly stratified rural areas has ensured that decentralisation has not translated in enhanced participation and democratisation.

Next, Kumar embarks on an ambitious, anthropological investigation into the workings of the gram sabha (GS). Corroborating findings of available research, Kumar’s investigation finds that attendance at GS is thin, mere presence is no guarantee that people will actively participate in GS proceedings (in fact, in Karnataka he found that 50 per cent of sample respondents who attended GS meetings did not say a word), local elite dominate proceedings and that business is restricted to responding to distribution of ration cards, BPL cards and occasionally identification of village development activities. Rarely were issues related to budgeting and planning discussed. Kumar makes the important argument that one of the reasons for the failure of the GS is that the current socio-political scenario discourages panchayat members from holding GS, “after all if every decision of panchayats is put under scrutiny, they would lose their status as patrons”. He argues that reviving the GS will require mediation and moderators from civil


society can act as catalysts to promote meaningful debate in the GS. He ends his discussion on a somewhat pessimistic note urging supporters to shed their “romantic” illusions about the GS.

Kumar’s assessment of the workings of the GS highlights the important point that the incentives for panchayat members to hold GS are limited. However, a fact that he does not highlight is that the reverse is also true. Citizens do not always see the value of attending these meetings and hence there is no pressure on panchayats to hold them. A theme that runs across the book is that the failure to provide panchayats with adequate powers and resources has created a sense of apathy amongst citizens, albeit more with the upper castes, towards these institutions. Respondents recognise that panchayats are incapable of meeting their demands and hence do not see the value of attending GS. Thus, there is no pressure on panchayat members to hold GSs. Strengthening the GS requires not just civil society mediation as Kumar highlights but also untangling the incentive structure.

In the final section of his book Kumar shifts gear to assess the service delivery

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

role of panchayats with a particular focus on education and health. Kumar offers the reader a historical overview of the role of panchayats in these two sectors before narrowing his discussion to innovative schemes such as the education guarantee scheme in Madhya Pradesh, the ‘shishu shiksha kendra’ scheme and ‘sahayikas’ in West Bengal. Kumar’s account highlights the roaring success of these schemes indicating that when state governments chose to provide panchayats with requisite powers, resources and support they can make a tremendous impact.

The essence of Kumar’s analysis is that decentralisation is no panacea and that its outcomes are shaped by micro politics of the locality in which PRIs unfold on the one hand and the macro political dynamic of the state on the other. Panchayats are, therefore, embedded in the social and political context in which they emerge. The concept of “embedded panchayats”, resonates with the views of political theorists such as Veron and Corbridge (2003) who argue that power relationships at the local level condition the ways in which the marginalised access the state. Access to public goods and processes through which the poor negotiate political institutions is thus influenced by the workings of political society. Building on similar theme, John Harriss (2000) argues for “the curious paradox” or alternatively the “dialectics of decentralisation”. He argues that political relations between the centre (state government in the Indian context) and the locality coupled with power relationships at the local level determine the nature and form of decentralisation. This in turn necessitates a tension between the centre and locality for strong central intervention is critical to effective decentralisation as Kumar’s analysis of the experiments in health and education testify. From a policymaker’s point of view, understanding this is crucial to thinking about ways of strengthening decentralisation. Perhaps the answer lies, as Kumar hints at, in strengthening sectoral interventions and thereby creating the momentum to sustain state government commitment to strengthening panchayats.




1 There are some exceptions. For example, the

work of Rao et al (2005) that draws a sample

from four states in southern India.


Harriss, J (2000a): ‘The Dialectics of Decentralisation’, Frontline, Vol 17, Issue 13.

– (2000b): ‘Renewing Development and Deepening Democracy’, Frontline, Vol 17, Issue 17.

Rao, V, T Beseley and R Pande (2005): ‘The Political Economy of Gram Panchayats in South India: Drawing Policy Implications from a Research Project on Democratically Elected Village Governments’, http://www. panchayatreport.pdf.

Veron, R, S Corbridge, G Williams, M Srivastava (2003): ‘The Everyday State and Political Society in Eastern India: Structuring Access to the Employment Assurance Scheme’, Journal of Development Studies, Vol 39, pp 1-28.

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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