For­mer joint sec­re­tary, Min­istry of Pan­chay­ati Raj


ad­min­is­tra­tion needs hu­man re­sources and funds, but where states have not posted pan­chayat sec­re­taries, or have one-per­son pan­chayat of­fices, pan­chay­ats can­not be blamed for not col­lect­ing taxes.

Most of the so­lu­tions for strength­en­ing fiscal fed­er­al­ism have been re­peated ad nau­seum over the past two decades. They com­prise of (a) a clear as­sign­ment of func­tions, pow­ers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the lo­cal gov­ern­ments through ac­tiv­ity map­ping, (b) a clear bud­get win­dow in state bud­gets as­sign­ing funds to the pan­chay­ats to match the de­volved func­tions, (c) ad­e­quate staffing at the pan­chayat level, ei­ther through the state as­sign­ing staff on dep­u­ta­tion or en­abling the pan­chay­ats to re­cruit their own staff, and (d) the state be­ing will­ing to pro­vide ca­pac­ity on tap to pan­chay­ats to en­able them to per­form their func­tions, in­stead of run­ning low-quality, dis­con­tin­u­ous, and hap­haz­ard one-off train­ing pro­grammes that de­liver hom­i­lies to elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­stead of squarely ad­dress­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tive weak­nesses of pan­chay­ats.

The big­gest chal­lenge is that higher-level politi­cians and bu­reau­crats don’t want to de­volve pow­ers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to lo­cal gov­ern­ments, be­cause they fear com­pe­ti­tion and be­ing out­classed by the lat­ter in the de­liv­ery of es­sen­tial goods and ser­vices. They have a vested in­ter­est in mys­ti­fy­ing gov­er­nance sim­ply to pro­tect their monopoly.

In a 2015 ar­ti­cle, you men­tion, “Over the last decade, the amount of money that goes to one [pan­chayat] has in­creased ten­folds but the staff has re­mained nearly the same.” There seems to be very lit­tle in terms of build­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tional ca­pac­ity of PRIs and strength­en­ing the skills of func­tionar­ies. What sort of in­vest­ments are needed to im­prove this? To put mat­ters bluntly, states do not know the mean­ing of the word ‘de­vo­lu­tion’. It means that exclusive pow­ers and author­ity are trans­ferred to lo­cal gov­ern­ments, along with ad­e­quate fiscal al­lo­ca­tions, ca­pac­i­ties (in terms of peo­ple and sys­tems to per­form, not in terms of train­ing alone) and ac­count­abil­ity sys­tems to en­sure that peo­ple can hold their lo­cal gov­ern­ments ac­count­able.

What we run in In­dia through the pan­chay­ats is an ex­ten­sion of­fice of the ru­ral de­vel­op­ment depart­ment in vil­lages. Pan­chay­ats are ba­si­cally run as agen­cies of the state govern­ment, im­ple­ment­ing rigid schemes through of­fi­cers nom­i­nally posted at that level who owe al­le­giance to higher official chan­nels than to the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives are scoffed at, ignored, or treated with hos­til­ity, par­tic­u­larly if they are out­spo­ken. They are uni­ver­sally con­demned as be­ing trans­ac­tional and cor­rupt. They are not at the ta­ble when cru­cial pol­icy de­ci­sions are taken on how pan­chay­ati raj should be re­formed. This is hardly de­vo­lu­tion.

One of the big weak­nesses of In­dian ad­min­is­tra­tion is that it is un­der-ca­pac­i­tated in many ways. While many de­part­ments are top-heavy and cen­tralise their ad­min­is­tra­tion through mul­ti­ple lev­els of scru­tiny in or­der to give some­thing to do to re­dun­dant higher-lev­els of­fi­cers, at the field level they typ­i­cally suf­fer from griev­ous short­ages of staff. This short­age pans it­self across both lo­cal gov­ern­ments and de­part­ments that are not de­cen­tralised.

In such cir­cum­stances, the fi­nance, plan­ning and per­son­nel de­part­ments of states need to take a se­ri­ous look at how much in­vest­ment needs to be put into the hir­ing and place­ment of well-qual­i­fied staff, re­gard­less of whether they wish to run a de­cen­tralised or cen­tralised sys­tem. Sadly, not one state thinks of th­ese mat­ters in the long term. In­terim so­lu­tions in­clude hir­ing peo­ple on con­tract, and even run­ning de­part­ments through con­sul­tants hired through ex­ter­nal fund­ing. There can­not be a greater ab­di­ca­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity by states.

New Zealand has a re­mu­ner­a­tion author­ity for set­ting re­mu­ner­a­tion for elected mem­bers of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. Would a sim­i­lar body in In­dia help uni­formly es­tab­lish hon­o­rar­ium/salary and ben­e­fits from pan­chay­ats to state leg­is­la­tures and mem­bers of par­lia­ment? What has been the ef­fect of the non-uni­for­mity in salaries at dif­fer­ent gov­er­nance lev­els?

New Zealand is a uni­tary coun­try. In­dia is a fed­eral coun­try with huge vari­a­tions in cul­ture, demo­cratic prac­tice, habi­ta­tion pat­terns, cli­matic con­di­tions, ser­vicede­liv­ery re­quire­ments and cost of ser­vice de­liv­ery. In such cir­cum­stances, hav­ing a sin­gle re­mu­ner­a­tion author­ity will not make sense. Hav­ing said that, there is in­deed a need to es­tab­lish a set of norms for how much leg­is­la­tors and other elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives ought to be com­pen­sated. Pol­i­tics is no longer to be wholly re­garded as self­less pub­lic ser­vice. There is an op­por­tu­nity cost to be con­sid­ered if pol­i­tics is to at­tract quality pro­fes­sion­als. Other­wise, even the best are likely to be­come cor­rupt, first, in or­der to catch up on the lu­cra­tive in­comes that they may have fore­gone to join pol­i­tics, and then, to rake in the moolah while the good times last.

I have been in­volved in re­search stud­ies of pan­chayat mem­bers, which show that while they are un­der pressure from their vot­ers to per­form, they do not have the staff to com­pe­tently de­liver ser­vices. In such cir­cum­stances, pan­chayat mem­bers them­selves take on quasiex­ec­u­tive du­ties and in­cur ex­pen­di­ture to un­der­take le­git­i­mate gov­er­nance ac­tiv­i­ties. As the sit­ting fees paid to them are not ad­e­quate to cover such ex­penses, even the best of them are drawn to in­dulge in need-based cor­rup­tion, by which they skim off just enough money from govern­ment con­tracts and pro­cure­ments to com­pen­sate for the ex­pen­di­ture they in­cur.

Such prac­tices also open them to black­mail by cor­rupt of­fi­cials who are of­ten on the look­out for chinks in the ar­mour of hon­est elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Hav­ing state-wise re­mu­ner­a­tion au­thor­i­ties would be a good way to bring th­ese is­sues out in the open and take prag­matic de­ci­sions based on the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that ev­ery­body in­volved in gov­er­nance, whether as elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive or staff, ought to be com­pen­sated ad­e­quately. Only then will we be able to take a hard line on curb­ing cor­rup­tion.

We’ll have pan­chay­ats in fu­ture be­cause they rep­re­sent our iden­ti­ties, not be­cause they can de­liver wa­ter or ed­u­ca­tion or san­i­ta­tion ser­vices bet­ter. That may be an ad­di­tional ben­e­fit, but it might not be the glue that holds us to­gether in our lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

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