The Annual Forum of the UN Solution Exchange Decentralization Community was held this year between 22nd and 24th October in Lucknow. It was attended by 135 participants from 23 states, among whom were elected representatives from Panchayats in 15 states across the country. I had the opportunity to attend the forum, and in this post I have summarized my takeaways from it.
Solution Exchange (SE), is an initiative of the UN Agencies in India to harness the power of Communities of Practice to help attain national development goals and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Decentralization Community of SE is facilitated by the UNDP and connects practitioners across the country working on Decentralization and Local Governance in India, providing them a non-partisan platform, helping them share and apply each other’s knowledge and experience, thereby increasing the effectiveness of their individual efforts.
The theme for this year’s Annual Forum was ‘Rights and Local Governance’. This was in consideration of the rights based framework within which various new initiatives of the government like the Right to Information Act, the Right to Employment, the Right to Food Security, and Access to Justice through Gram Nyayalayas have been conceived. The theme was timely and important, as all of these have direct implication for the local governance as local governments have a major role to play in realizing the objectives of these initiatives.
The plenary session on Day 1 had engaging talks centred on the ‘rights and local governance’ theme. Prof Meenakshisundaram, (Former Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development) spoke about how, so far, the local governments in India have not been recognized in practice as any real ‘unit of governance’, and how the increased role for them in the rights-based service delivery framework might help bring that recognition.
Mr. S.M. Vijayanand (Principal Secretary, Department of Local Self Government, Kerala) talked about the theoretical implications of the rights-based framework. He said that this kind of framework by definition involves a ‘covenant’ between the government and its citizens. On the one hand it recognizes citizens’ agency in asserting it, and on the other, forces the government to intervene in cases of non-compliance by making it a violation of a legal right.
Dr. S.C. Behar (Former Chief Secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh), drew attention to the urgency of efforts to scrutinize and make suggestions to the Right to Education Act, the details of which are being formulated currently. He pointed out that even though in the new framework the funds are to be shared between the Centre and the States, there is yet no consensus on how these funds are going to be raised at these levels. He also suggested that local governments must go beyond their duties of governance and take up advocacy as well, to ensure that higher levels of government live up to their promises.
Dr. N.C. Saxena (Former Secretary, Planning Commission), spoke about the Food Security Act, and its three aspects – availability, accessibility and absorption, and pointed out how Panchayats have a rather limited role in all of these. He said that we must think beyond the 3Fs (functions, functionaries, and funds), and work to build Panchayats as institutions. Panchayats need to be able to generate their own revenue, which would foster responsibility and make them more directly accountable to the people. He also suggested that indicators need to be developed in health, education, nutrition etc., and Panchayats need to be graded along these indicators, and funding could be made contingent on these grades. He gave examples of ICDS in Himachal Pradesh and Education Programmes in Chhattisgarh where such indicators have been implemented. Also, citing the example of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly which met only 25 days in a year, he pointed out that the MLAs seem not to be interested as much in their legislative duties, as they are in doing more visible things like spending the MLALADS money, and sharing in the implementation of local level programmes – something which is the mandate of lower tiers of government. To reduce the conflict that this might create between the MLA and the Sarpanch, he made a pragmatic, if adventurous, suggestion of merging the MLA with the Block Presidency.
Following the plenary session, there were parallel sessions on the different working groups on rights and local governance, namely the Rights to Information, Education, Employment and Food Security, and Access to Justice. I attended the RTI session, in which some interesting suggestions came up on how Panchayats can improve transparency and proactive disclosure of records in their villages. One suggestion was that one day in the week could be designated when all the Panchayat records would be made available freely for anyone t o come and inspect. Nikhil Dey of MKSS cited the example of Delhi where this practice has been successfully implemented for the PDS records. Another suggestion was to designate a day in a month when a ‘local secretariat’ would be conducted where representatives of government department would come to the Panchayat office with the current records pertaining to the village, which would be open for inspection by anyone in the village. Steps like these, it was felt, would not only improve the transparency and ease of access of information, but also consolidate the importance of the Panchayat as an institution, as it requires the bureaucrats from higher levels of government to come there and be answerable every month.
Day 2 had sessions where we got a chance to hear from the elected representatives from different states about their experiences of running a government at the local level. There were also women representatives from Goa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Among other things, many Sarpanches spoke about their desire for public service which motivated them to contest the elections, and their everyday experience of being in office. They also spoke about the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucrats at the higher levels. Day 2 also had presentations by members on selected themes of decentralization like ‘Land, Water and Empowerment’, ‘Urban Governance’ and ‘Local Governance – the Way Forward’.
An interesting feature of Day 2 was the ‘Knowledge Mela’, which was a highly interactive way of learning from experiences. Members could walk around 6-10 tables and meet Resource Persons to network with and understand themes/topics that he/she was presenting. The themes ranged from gender equity in Panchayats, teaching local governance as an academic subject in higher education to climate change and local governance and capacity building through technology. There was also some discussion on how to take the Decentralization Community forward, and how to decentralize the decentralization community itself, so that there was greater ownership and diversity of voices from the local levels.
Forums such as these provide an important opportunity where policymakers, elected representatives and practitioners from local level, researchers and academics share a common platform. This enables a rich discussion full of perspectives from different stakeholders in governance, especially the practitioner perspective from the field. The 73rd and 74th Amendments may have set in motion the possibility of making governance meaningful at the local levels, but it is through deliberations and learnings from forums such as these that we can keep the momentum of reform going, so that local government is not just an electoral reality but also a substantive, capable, and responsive government for the citizens.
Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative