Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Shrinking space for local governance

Centralized governance has shown no visible improvement in efficiency and effectiveness on the ground

The spate of violence in the West Bengal panchayat elections that took place in May is rooted in a larger question of governance in India: What will be the space for local initiative and action? In this instance, the answer has been an unequivocal negative. This violence has erupted around a centralized political contest—which national or state political party will control panchayats and not a local contest about who might be the best local leaders, how local resources should be managed and what the priorities for the development of the village are. The violence in West Bengal is not surprising, as since the late 1970s, when panchayats were first empowered in the state, there has been a long history of them functioning as agents of the ruling party and not as local governments. The new ruling party has now wrested control, continuing the tradition of political centralization.

If the West Bengal panchayats are poster boys of centralized political control, in most other states, panchayats are subject to tight centralized administrative control. Panchayats implement centrally designed schemes, which provide in great detail the activities to be undertaken, the funds to be spent on each activity irrespective of suitability to the local context. In addition, state governments arbitrarily change the powers of panchayats from time to time, starve them of manpower, issue detailed directives of various types, such as commanding panchayats to hold gram sabhas (meetings of citizens) on certain days on central topics, and so on. Some states have even issued guidelines about how panchayats should spend the grant of the 14th Finance Commission, though the intention was that they should spend it according to their own priorities.

What is true of panchayats also holds for the field-level bureaucracy. The Indian bureaucracy is structured so that the “street bureaucracy", as it is called in the developed world—such as the anganwadi worker, sub-engineer, police constable—is the least skilled and empowered. This trend has been magnified in recent years by the large-scale hiring of low-paid contract workers at the field level: teachers, staff for rural development programmes, health workers. Consider the anganwadi worker. Her wages can be as low as 5,000 per month (below the minimum wage for an unskilled worker), and she is expected to run a pre-school centre, organize vaccination for mothers and children, track malnourished children and work with the family to get them out of the malnourishment category, visit homes of mothers and give advice, maintain an extensive data base, and so on.

Field-level employees are subject to continuous directions as well as contradictory and impossible demands from the top. They work in harsh conditions with inadequate infrastructure, and have to spend money for travel and even office expenses from their meagre salaries. Disciplinary action against them is often casual and arbitrary.

The hiring of low-paid, contractual workers is often justified on the grounds of reducing government expenditure. They cost very little and do not have to be paid a pension. But curiously, salaries of the senior-level bureaucrats do not reflect this concern. As an ever-increasing number of low-paid contractual workers have been hired in the last two decades, salaries have risen substantially for permanent employees with the sixth and seventh pay commissions. Consultants hired on contract in Central and state governments are paid well and the government spends ever larger amounts on campaigns, publicity and advertisements. The existence of low-paid contractual workers shows not a concern with saving government money, but deeper pathologies of governance.

This treatment of local governments and the street bureaucracy is symptomatic of the unstated premise in government that panchayats and the lower-level bureaucracy do not matter and cannot be trusted. The political and bureaucratic elite at the Centre and the state headquarters know what is best, and the more detailed their directions, the closer their scrutiny and the more intense their monitoring, the better for public administration.

Yet, there is little logic or evidence to justify this faith in extreme centralization. The government appears to be learning from private companies, which use cheap labour while paying huge amounts to their senior executives. Yet, unlike a private company, which can get garments stitched at very low costs through cheap contractual labour with few repercussions for itself, the cutting-edge employees in government implement government programmes and form the interface between the government and the people. The tasks they perform are complex, demanding a continuous negotiation of government policy with the existing context which varies from place to place. Disempowering local governments and placing poorly qualified and ill-paid employees as implementors is setting the scene for failure.

Increasing centralization has shown no visible improvement in efficiency and effectiveness on the ground. On the contrary, when subjected to excessive political and administrative control, panchayats become disempowered and the space for taking up relevant, context-specific programmes and addressing people’s needs shrinks. This is the reason why the empowerment of panchayats has often been recommended in various government reports, and the better governed states tend to have stronger panchayats.

Moreover, an outcome of disempowered panchayats is the existence of a large number of disaffected political representatives, which creates conflict within the government system. Local officials ignore panchayat representatives, who in turn, criticize them, and sometimes protest against state governments. Similarly, protests by various types of workers, para teachers, anganwadi workers and the like for permanent jobs and higher salaries are now a constant feature, leading to violence at times. Moreover, from time to time, especially near the elections, state governments often agree to provide such workers better pay and tenure. The “incentive structure" for better salaries that is created is thus not linked to performance but to successful protest.

The bid for control in government is symptomatic of a systemic malaise. Public administration in India is running hard to stay in the same place.

Rashmi Sharma is a former IAS officer.

Comments are welcome at