Because of its size and its relatively ambitious efforts to decentralise government, India provides an important context for understanding the ways in which decentralisation can improve the performance and accountability of local government institutions. In 1993, the Government of India passed a series of constitutional reforms, designed to democratise and empower local political bodies – the Panchayats. The 73rd
Amendment to the Constitution formally recognised a third tier of government at the sub-State level, thereby creating the legal conditions for local self-rule – or Panchayati Raj.Since this time, the experience has been highly variable, ranging from ambitious attempts at Gram Swaraj (or village self-rule) in Madhya Pradesh to political recentralization in Karnataka.
A commitment to the reduction of poverty has been a defining characteristic of the Indian state, from the time of Independence to the present day. As Kohli (1987: 62) has argued, the Indian state that emerged after Independence was deeply committed to ‘industrialisation, economic growth and a modicum of income redistribution.’ In terms of poverty reduction, this involved an early attempt at improving agricultural productivity through the implementation of land reforms, agricultural cooperatives and local self-government (Harriss et al., 1992; Varshney, 1998).
From an early stage in this process, the reduction of poverty and the empowerment of poor and politically marginal groups in India have been strongly associated with at least some form of decentralisation (e.g. Drèze and Sen, 1996; Jha, 1999). Perhaps the most enduring image of decentralisation in India is Gandhi’s vision of village Swaraj, in which universal education, economic self-sufficiency and village democracy would take the place of caste, untouchability and other forms of rural exploitation. Although this vision has been hotly debated since (at least) the time of independence (see, especially, Ambedkar’s debates with Gandhi, cited in World Bank, 2000a: 5), Gandhi’s vision has had an enduring effect on the ways in which decentralisation has been argued and defended in Indian politics. Beyond the symbolic imagery of the independent ‘village republic,’ an important element of this relates to the idea that formal, constitutional changes in India’s administrative system can have a lasting impact on informal and unequal structures like caste, class and gender. (We shall return to this theme in due course.)
Perhaps the most important among these – particularly since independence – were the B. Metha Commission of 1957, the Asoka Metha Commission of 1978, and the G.V.K. Rao Committee of 1985. An enduring issue that features in all of these assessments is the notion that the Panchayats have been weakened or undermined on three fronts: (1) States that are unwilling to devolve substantive power; (2) a resistant bureaucracy and (3) the power of ‘local élites.’ Such realisations were instrumental in the drive to give the Panchayats constitutional status in the 73rd Amendment (Jha, 1999).
Milestones in Indian decentralisation
1882 The Resolution on Local Self-Government.
1907 The Royal Commission on Decentralisation.
1948 Constitutional debates between Gandhi and Ambedkar on Gram Swaraj, ‘self-rule’.
1957 Balwantrai Mehta Commission – an early attempt to implement the Panchayat structure at district and block (Samithi) levels.
1963 K. Santhanam Committee – recommended limited revenue raising powers for Panchayats and the establishment of State Panchayati Raj Finance Corporations.
1978 Asoka Mehta Committee – appointed to address the weaknesses of PRIs, concluded that a resistant bureaucracy, lack of political will, ambiguity about the role of PRIs, and élite capture had undermined previous attempts at decentralisation, recommending that the District serve as the
administrative unit in the PRI structure. Based on these recommendations, Karnataka, Andhra
Pradesh and West Bengal passed new legislation to strengthen PRIs.
1985 G.V.K. Rao Committee – appointed to address weaknesses of PRIs, recommended that the block development office (BDO) should assume broad powers for planning, implementing and monitoring rural development programmes.
1986 L.M. Singvhi Committee – recommended that local self-government should be constitutionally enshrined, and that the Gram Sabha (the village assembly) should be the base of decentralized democracy in India.
1993 The 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution – PRIs at district, block and village levels are granted Constitutional status. The Gram Sabha is recognised as a formal democratic body at the village level. The 74th Amendment, granting Constitutional status to municipal bodies, is passed soon after.
1996 The Adivasi Act – Powers of self-government are extended to tribal communities living in ‘Fifth Schedule’ areas.
The 73rd Amendment gives village, block and district level bodies a constitutional status under Indian law. The more important features of the Amendment are summarised in Box 3 (World Bank, 2000a: 7):
Box 3 The 73rd Amendment: major provisions
At the village level, the most important provisions relating to participation and accountability are those governing reservations and the Gram Sabha. Under the 73rd Amendment one-third of all seats must be reserved for women. Likewise, reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are made in proportion to their population. At the village level, the Gram Sabha, which constitutes all eligible voters within a Gram Panchayat area, is meant to serve as a principal mechanism for transparency and accountability. Among its principal functions are:
This last provision is particularly important because it confers substantive authority over an area that is particularly prone to misallocation and corruption.