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Schools & skills don’t speak to each other. Empower local govts to fix this and much more

Funds, functions and functionaries must be with local governments to face local governance challenges.

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There has been a lot of change and continuity in local power relations from the days of Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar. Their differences on local governments were on account of the character of panchayats and hierarchies of social and economic well-being. Universal adult suffrage, positive discrimination vis-à-vis vulnerable social groups, women’s collectives, and a growing democratisation of power relations in a dynamic democracy have all contributed toward the change.

Despite changing social relations, debates around gram panchayats and urban local bodies have remained ideological and polarised. Those for a larger role for elected local governments would argue for transfer of funds, functions and functionaries to local governments. Paradoxically, the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendment for a greater role for local governments (Article 243 G, Constitution of India) provided for state legislatures to take a call on true devolution. As a consequence, the 29 sectors for rural Panchayats in Eleventh Schedule and 18 sectors for urban local bodies in Twelfth Schedule remained a statement of intent with very little powers to local governments in most states. Kerala remained the only state known for celebration of local governments on scale, with the deepening of People’s Planning campaign.

Those opposed to strong local governments would cite the purchase of SUVs by local representatives as a sign of corruption because of increased volume of funds. Local elected leaders were seen mostly as exercising arbitrary authority and embroiled in large-scale local level corruption, with few exceptions. They were also seen as reinforcing unequal social and economic relations despite the ascendancy of ‘one person one vote’ and periodic change of governments. While there have been substantial changes over time, the perception continues among many.

It is time for an evidence-based assessment of what has happened so far and what needs to happen. There is a need to learn from successes, failures and the changing social contexts of local governance.

There are seven broad areas that have seen changes but still require attention.

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The journey so far

First, with reservation for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, women, the character of elected representatives have significantly changed since 1950. 43 percent of the elected 31 lakh representatives are women and many of the ‘sarpanch patis’ (husbands of sarpanches) are losing their chair in the panchayat office. Geographical representation of various hamlets that constitute a gram panchayat has also improved with direct ward-level elections in many states. This too addresses social inequalities.

Second, Kerala’s success was a success of an accountable local government as the notion of Neighbourhood Household Groups (NHGs) and subsequently the women’s collectives of Kudumbashree became integral to the functioning of panchayats, especially in terms of accountability to the citizens. Kerala’s decentralisation is a success of elected representatives being held responsible for public services. It is for this reason that 84 per cent of gram panchayats in Kerala scored over 60 per cent in the Mission Antyodaya assessments 2020 on the basis of human development, infrastructure, economic activities and public services. The national average is only 31.2 per cent. Today, Kerala’s local governments provide two hundred services on-line to their citizens, wherever they may be. Accountable local governments do have good outcomes.

Third, the rise of women’s collectives has played a critical role in the reduction of poverty in the Southern states. These Rural Livelihood Self Help Groups have been accompanied by a reduction of fertility rates, increased access to high school and higher education for adolescent girls, diversification of livelihoods, improved access to credit and public services. Over time, they are also able to democratise the functioning of elected governments by working as a countervailing force for accountability. Today, we have over 90 million women in urban and rural areas in SHGs of the livelihood missions.

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What more can be achieved

An urban ward, the lowest level of elected representatives in urban areas, covers a very large population in bigger and metropolitan cities. This renders community connect impossible and gives rise to ‘might is right’ and muscle power agents for access to basic public services in urban slums. Direct elections at basti-level in urban areas is urgently needed and has been an issue since the days of earlier urban initiatives before smart cities. The Constitution does not come in the way and this alone will ensure a thrust beyond just cement and concrete work in urban areas. Choked drains, last mile health and education services, access to housing, sanitation, electricity, gas connection, all require a larger role for elected representatives at the basti level. Livelihood Mission that is nearing universal coverage of the deprived in rural areas needs speeding up in the urban areas with greater credit linkage potential. It is necessary to prepare cities for growing urbanisation. Human resources in urban local bodies become important for quality services. The paradox of those with responsibilities (corporations/municipalities, NACs, town panchayats) not having the resources and those with resources (urban development authorities) not having the responsibilities needs to be resolved in the light of post-GST tax opportunities for local governments.

Our success in education, nutrition, health, skills and livelihoods has been modest as the level of community connect, convergence and local-level capacity building is often missing. These are sectors that do not lend themselves to narrow departmentalism. The performance of none of these sectors is based only on the department concerned. Convergence and integrated intervention is the only way forward as outcomes will remain elusive in its absence. Technology offers many opportunities for a faster progress but to utilise it, we need to work under the umbrella of the local government to enable equity in provision and citizen-centric accountability. Convergence is a mandatory need for outcomes. An under–nourished child’s learning is irreversibly compromised; schools and skills do not speak to each other; diversified livelihoods need skills and credit access; access to public services works best when community connect is strong.

Technology as a means has been transformational in the ability of public systems to deliver more accountable services. Use of information technology for Direct Benefit Transfer, Aadhaar as a common identifier, geo-tagging of assets, real-time monitoring of programmes and disbursement of funds. Use of the Socio-Economic Census (SECC 2011) as the basis for evidence-based identification of the deprived households irrespective of caste, creed or religion, have all been a game changer in recent years. Technology as a means, facilitated by local Common Service Centres, Bank Correspondent Sakhis of the Livelihood Mission, ASHA workers, Aanganwadi workers, teachers, panchayat leaders. Women’s collectives have all contributed to success in electricity delivery, gas connections, toilet construction and use, housing, banking penetration, life and accident insurance coverage, adoption of LED bulbs, and so on. The success of the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan needs to be replicated in urban and rural areas in the sectors of education, health, nutrition, livelihoods, and skills.

Global warming needs community led action too. Lifestyle and community action to meet needs but not greed would call for a very decentralised consensus on the way forward across sectors. From promoting renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, waste to wealth, water recycling, maintaining the water cycle and balance, regenerating natural forests and planting saplings to reduce the carbon footprint all call for local action. Economic activity and workplaces would also need a decentralised and small emerging cities approach rather than ever-growing metropolitan planning, from a perspective of sustainability. Living in harmony with nature is about a shared community collective perspective. It is about solidarities for sustainable progress in local contexts.

Devolution of financial resources to local governments have increased since the Thirteenth Finance Commission period and this has helped in bridging many infrastructure and services gaps. Panchayats have improved their governance by coming on to the Public Financial Management System and timely preparation of double entry bookkeeping accounts using the panchayat’s software. Geotagging of assets, online services have all gained in recent years. The Sumit Bose committee’s normative provision of human resources and professionals in panchayats to carry on their core and agency functions effectively need to be adapted and adopted by states for professional outcomes.

From the evidence presented above, it is time to strengthen decentralisation under the elected local governments with the countervailing presence of community organisations like Livelihood Mission SHGs, Dairy and Agriculture Primary Cooperatives and so on. Funds, functions and functionaries must be with local governments along with some of the reforms suggested above. Breathing life into local governments and communities on the basis of evidence is our best hope for shared growth and well-being. Education, nutrition, health, skills, and livelihood outcomes will gain if local governments and communities triumph.

Amarjeet Sinha is a retired civil servant. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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