Prakash Sharma
Swaraj, road to decentralization of power
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Sixty years after Independence, there is an increased realization that India, while it became Sovereign in 1947 and a constitutional republic in 1950, has not given real power in the hands of people. It has instead replaced the British ruler with an establishment, a nexus of Politician-Bureaucrat-Businessmen-Contractor-Journalists-fixers that is now ruling us, the people of India, where we have only a ceremonial say only once in five years.

The idea of power in the hands of people is not recent; Gandhiji spoke of Gram-Swaraj, as did many other freedom fighters. However, as soon as the British left, the overwhelming concern of our forefathers became that of protecting the unity and integrity of India, resulting in a form of a Union Government which became as powerful and as distant as the British imperialism was at its peak. To be fair, our constitution did a great job in laying down the fundamental rights of a citizen and that in itself was unprecedented in India in empowering the citizen. But the governance was placed far away from the citizen. This was further accentuated by Nehru’s penchant for central planning, Indira’s nationalization drive and resulting license-permit-raj which made the citizen completely dependent on the corrupt Government.

The net result is that even though Indians enjoyed civil liberties, we didn’t enjoy freedom to pursue economic opportunities, of rule of law, of being able to seek accountability from Public Servants (Both Politicians and Bureaucrats) and being able to influence governance that have direct bearing on our well-being. Every awakened Indian feel frustrated in this context and should be yearning for a change. But what is that we are seeking? Let me put my vision of Citizen Empowerment and Swaraj.

What is doesn’t mean:

Swaraj cannot be executive power in the hands of people that would mean anarchy. Imagine if the prices of petrol or electricity are decided on the street or if people have to decide the salary of a doctor serving in the health center of their village! We remember how many of the well-to-do people challenged in Delhi high court the elevated Delhi Metro lines, just because they visualized it as an eyesore from their windows! Who on the street would support any tough decision? Swaraj doesn’t mean that on every executive decision, Government has to seek a referendum from people, which could cripple the governance (assuming it is functional, unlike the current UPA which is dysfunctional and is stalled for all practical purpose)

What Swaraj means:

Swaraj means that governance comes closer to people, it enables people to influence, question, to seek accountability, to seek recourse, to seek change. Swaraj can only be achieved when two conditions are satisfied; 1) decentralization of power and of 2) citizen empowerment.

1) Decentralization of power

The Union Government still controls almost all financial resources and the legislative powers in the country. I mean, sanitation in my village, in a remote corner of Aligarh and a Union ministry of sanitation in Delhi, what the hell!

Biggest problem plaguing governance today is multiplicity of agency having overlapping jurisdiction, enabling them to skirt accountability. Union Government has its tentacles in almost everything, from education to healthcare, from food supplies to agriculture, from sanitation to environment and so on. So if in my village, town or locality a healthcare centre, a school, or PDS is dysfunctional, a common person finds it difficult to decipher if s/he needs to vote out the local (panchayat/municipality) or State or the Union Government. Being able to vote out a dysfunctional Government is at the core of democracy and Swaraj but in our system, this is obscured.

For a strong India, we need a powerful centre, but make no mistake that strength must be in the area of external and internal defence, not in every taluk level decision going through mandarins sitting in Delhi. For matters other than of national importance, we need to invert the pyramid of Governance from the current situation of ‘farther the Government, more powerful it is’! We must recognize that farther the Government is, lesser I can influence it by my vote and therefore least accountable it is to me. I mean how much can voters in a town influence who become the Prime Minister of this country! We need to make the Prime Minister more powerful in matters of National Security, but irrelevant in matters of Social Welfare and local governance.

Here is my agenda of Decentralization of Power:

1.1) Devolution of Power: Centre must give up on executive and legislative power and responsibilities in the following areas and devolve power completely to the states. Wherever necessary, set up independent national regulatory bodies, only to ensure uniformity of practices and standards applied across all the states:

1.1.1) Land, Forests, environment

1.1.2) Agriculture, Food Supplies, including PDS

1.1.3) Population Control and family planning

1.1.4) Trade unions, industrial and labour disputes and Labour laws.

1.1.5) Planning Commission must be closed forthwith

1.1.6) Social Security and welfare

1.1.7) Education

1.1.8) Healthcare

1.1.9) Electricity, general, transmission, distribution

Union must close the 40 odd ministries in the areas listed above and other redundant subjects like Ministry of Steel, or Textile etc. Also why do we need separate ministries for Coal, Mining, and petroleum and so on instead of a ministry for national resources?

1.2) Financial Empowerment of States: The areas listed above are already in the concurrent list; however, because of the financial muscle of the Union, it squats over all of these areas either entirely or dominantly. The execution and implementation in these areas therefore can be moved entirely to states without needing a constitutional amendment, only if the Union is willing to change the equation of financial power, which is currently heavily skewed in favour of Union, to in favour of states.

1.2.1) The share of states in the net proceeds of the share-able Central taxes should be increased from current 32% to at least 70%. This would be entirely feasible if Union stop leaky spending in areas listed above.

1.2.2) The distribution of revenue among states must be based entirely on contribution, population and additional weightage to special status states. Centre must not have any scope for discretion for grants. The special status must be only for those states where both the contribution and population is low because of special conditions and largely the hilly states would qualify for such status. It must be noted that Bihar already gets a lion share in Centre revenue because of its population and does not qualify for special status.

1.3) Create a third layer of governance; Local Bodies: Create a third level of elected Government at the lever of District:

1.3.1) Directly elected District Government

1.3.2) District bureaucracy, including DM to work under the elected District Government

1.3.3) State Government must devolve funds (at least 50% of its total budget) to the District, again on the basis of population, tax contribution and weightage for special status districts. In addition, District should be able to impose local body taxes to raise its own revenue

1.3.4) Basic Education, Basic Healthcare (including preventive measures), Sanitation, drinking water, housing, PDS, public services at local level (e.g. birth, marriage certificate) Local Infrastructure (Urban or Rural) i.e., local public transport, roads, parks, horticulture, irrigation etc. must be devolved to the District Government.

Some may argue that adding a third layer will add to the problem of multiplicity of agencies and Delhi is a classic example of the mess that such multiplicity can create. But in my view it is not the multiplicity of agencies that in itself creates the mess, it’s the overlapping jurisdiction that enables each one to shift blame and skirt accountability. The executive responsibility of a given subject must lie entirely at only one level (Union, State or Local) even though the regulatory or legislative powers can be distributed. For example, Union can make rule for ALL roads in terms of design and safety but the execution must be clearly dividend for National, State and District level highways/roads. Similarly Union must set national standards for let’s driving tests, but execution must be only one layer of agency.

Now let me come the second requirement of Swaraj, that is citizen empowerment:

2) Citizen Empowerment

2.1 RTI has been the first step in the direction empowering citizen. It has enabled citizen to ask questions and seek information and then use to seek accountability

2.2) PIL has been another excellent instrument of Citizen Empowerment

2.3) We need a citizen charter from all Government functions at all levels (Union, State and Local Body) which are providing public services. This charter must state time bound delivery of service, ability to transparently track the services (through e-governance) and t be able to seek accountability and recourse if the service is not satisfactory.

2.4) Most importantly we need Police and Judicial reforms to ensure that citizen, when denied his/her rights is able to take the agencies to the court. I mean what kind of citizen empowerment it is if I can’t even file an FIR in a police station or when the corrupt and criminal officials or politicians are never punished by the dysfunctional investigation and judicial system?

We need to free the criminal and corruption investigation and prosecution agencies from political control and make them accountable to law and citizen oversight.

So in summary real Swaraj is to be achieved by decentralisation of power, by Judicial and Police Reforms including Lokpal, by citizen charter and not by an anarchist model of executive decisions being made on streets.