Vulnerable India 6: Decentralisation and its Discontents

By Anju Sharma

One of the most critical elements for successful adaptation by poor and vulnerable communities – if not the most critical element – will be their ability to identify local climate-related threats and respond quickly where response is possible, with locally appropriate solutions. Top-down, sectorial straitjacketed adaptation policies, projects and programmes that fail to take into account local concerns and circumstances are simply a recipe for failure.

Decentralised decision-making is therefore a prerequisite for adaptation, but may seem like a tall order in the short time available to respond to climate impacts. The good news is that most countries have some infrastructure for decentralisation in place. The bad news is that this infrastructure is not always robust and effective. Different countries are at different stages of implementation, some more advanced than others.

Despite this, I would like to argue here that adaptation efforts are better off contributing to improving and strengthening the existing infrastructure, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel within the limited budget, time and experience available to the adaptation community. As the experience in India (and no doubt in other countries) shows, it is not easy to get the powers-that-be to relinquish their powers to local communities, or indeed to bring communities up to speed in self-governance.

“Said, but not done mode”

The importance of decentralisation is recognised in India’s Constitution. Based on Gandhi’s ideals of village self-rule or swaraj, Article 40 calls on all Indian states to take steps to organise village panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government. For 40 years after Independence, however, this call was relegated to the background with only isolated experiments in a few states such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka.

In 1993, the Indian Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment. The 73rd Amendment mandated the creation of Gram (village) Panchayats, Taluk (county) Panchayats, and District Panchayats, while the 74th did the same for towns and cities. Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) were granted a central role in decision-making through these Amendments.

The Amendments stipulate that individual states have the discretion to specify the functions and powers of Panchayats. They must, however, set up State Election Commissions to supervise, organise and oversee the election of office-bearers for Panchyat Raj Institutions (PRIs). There are reservations for women (a third of the seats) and minorities.

While a few state governments took devolution seriously, most have been less willing. Instead of recognising PRIs as institutions of self-governance, they have reduced them to mere implementation arms or delivery mechanisms of pre-decided projects and activities. As a Planning Commission review of decentralisation in the agricultural sector noted, decentralisation remains in a “said, but not done mode”.

Ministry of Panchayati Raj was created in 2004, to ensure that state governments devolved responsibilities and funds to PRIs, created Gram Sabhas and District Planning Committees, and empowered them for grassroots planning. Sadly, however, the Ministry has remained chronically underfunded – so much so that the previous Minister of Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, announced that one per cent of his Ministry’s allocation for 2012 would be passed on the Ministry of Panchayati Raj so it could do its job.

Weaning the bureaucracy

Political decentralisation has take place in all states, with regular elections for PRIs, but administrative and fiscal decentralisation remains a challenge according to a review by the World Bank.

Only a couple of states have placed the bureaucracy under the control of local bodies. In most states, administrations continue to control PRIs in a number of ways: by applying rules or executive decisions that undermine or override the autonomy of PRIs; by dismissing local functionaries, whose ultimate accountability rests with the State government, not the Panchayats; by cancelling decisions or withholding approval for Panchayat activities; through administrative means such as the inspection of records and review of annual reports; and, of course, through the control of fiscal powers and resources.

“Panchayats are kept busy implementing construction schemes that promote hierarchical contractor-wage labour relationship,” says former rural development secretary N.C. Saxena. “They are not active in education, health, self-help groups, watershed, nutrition, pastures and forestry programmes, which require people to come together as equals and work through consensus.”

As relatively new institutions with elected office holders with limited experience, information or skills, the PRIs also lack capacity to plan, implement and monitor activities. The lack of this capacity becomes an excuse for state administrations to take over tasks such as planning and controlling budgets.

Power of the purse

Control over funding is the key determinant of which way the power flows. PRIs largely remain at the mercy of central and state governments for their funding. Most state governments keep lucrative tax sources for themselves, and transfer only the ‘less buoyant’ sources to PRIs. The responsibilities of tax collection are assigned to Gram Panchayats, but no support system is provided to levy and collect them, or to build their capacity to manage and audit the funds.

Only some states have taken steps to strengthen the financial position of PRIs. For instance, Kerala devolves 35-40 per cent of its state budget to local bodies as untied funds, to encourage local decision-making. In Madhya Pradesh, income from a few local resources such as minor minerals and fisheries are transferred to Panchayats.

Combined with the lack of effective accountability mechanisms in many states, this means that accountability flows in the wrong direction – elected Panchayat officials become accountable to state and district officials, rather than to people and PRIs. Accessible means for communities and Panchayat officials to hold state or district officials accountable are very limited.

PRIs also receive funding from central and state sponsored schemes. However, this money arrives fettered with top-down targets through often pre-determined sectoral actions, leaving very little flexibility for its use at the local level, or for integration with other sources.

Committed nonetheless

Despite these shortcomings, India is committed to strengthening its infrastructure for decentralised governance in the long-term, and the PRIs are here to stay.

The Twelfth Five Year Plan for 2012-2017 clearly recognises that a primary reason for the limited success of programmes for the poor is that they are designed in a top-down manner, and do not effectively articulate the needs and aspirations of the local people, especially the most vulnerable. Each of the key rural sectors, at least, have been assessed for ways of improving decentralised decision-making. Under the Twelfth Plan, the budget of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj was increased ten-fold “in a break from the past”. Efforts are being made to improve the capacity of PRIs, for instance through the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan.

It is too early to say how effective these measures will be, or indeed whether the new Prime Minister will deliver on his avowed commitment to empowering rural India.

What does this mean for adaptation?

There is a tendency among existing adaptation projects in India to set up separate committees to deal with adaptation at the village level, instead of working directly with PRIs. This is usually done to cut through red tape, or to circumvent irresponsive Panchyats, or because while the Panchyat leaders may be willing, their “bosses” in the block, district or state administrations cannot be convinced.

While the creation of these separate committees may appear to be a practical approach in the short term, they will not only end up undermining institutions of local governance in the long term, but also pass up an opportunity to strengthen the capacity of local governance institutions to understand and deal with adaptation efforts, and to mainstream them into their decisions and activities in other development sectors. Moreover, the PRIs are a more sustainable option in the long term – they do not depend on external funding that is here today and gone tomorrow.

As institutions with a mandate from the people, they are also the likely to be the best conduits for adaptation finance from the national and global level.

The adaptation community would therefore do well to remember that we’re in it for the long haul. It is only by working with and strengthening existing institutions of local governance that we can we hope to make a lasting and durable impact at the local level.

About The Author:

Anju Sharma began her career as a journalist before she went on to work in sustainable development in UNEP and Oxfam GB. She currently heads the Policy Analysis and Publications Unit of the European Capacity Building Initiative, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development and work as a consultant for the International Institute of Sustainable Development’s Reporting Services. More of her posts can be found here.