Taking Democracy to the Grassroots
India is still predominately rural. It was only in the late 80s, early 90s that gradually our policymakers thought of cities as constituencies in themselves; constituencies that were rapidly deteriorating without a planned systemic state intervention, regulation and control. Urban centres, it was realized, play a crucial role in the development of a country and are important to support the development of the rural hinterland as well. Many states had municipal level governments and had provisions for the functioning of urban local governments at the grassroots level. However, the local institutions were in state of disarray. The elections were irregular, their powers and functions were not clearly defined. It was susceptible to being encroached upon by specialized government agencies. The problems related to financing and revenue making them unsustainable in nature. Such complex factors led to the weakening of local governments at the grassroots level.
It was acknowledged that in order to ensure that the economic and social development of the cities, and in turn the nation, are in sync with the needs and aspirations of the people, it is important that the people and their representatives participate and involve themselves in the planning and policymaking at the local. For a strong democracy to foster, it is critical to ensure that focus of the Legislature and Executive (both at the Central and State level) reach the roots of the towns and cities where the people live. Although the Constitution had made explicit provisions for local governance structures at the rural level (with the idea of Village Panchayats enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy), there were no clear provisions for local governance mechanisms in the urban areas. Recognizing the need to strengthen the governance structure at the local level, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act was taken up for consideration and came into force on 1st June 1993.
The framework for Urban Local Governance
The Act details the structure, constitution and composition of municipalities in the urban areas. There are also provisions for constitution of ward committees in areas with a population over 3 lakh. Thereby decentralizing the concentration of power and resources from the state level to the local. The powers and functions of the municipalities are contained in Schedule XII of the Constitution. Additional ones may be entrusted to the municipalities by the State government. There are also provisions for the creation of a District Planning and Metropolitan Planning Committee. It will be instrumental in preparing the development plan of the region. Through such provisions, it was hoped that democracy would be more participatory. And more people will engage in the governance process.
The Challenges to Decentralization
Twenty-five years ago, with the promulgation of 74th amendment, there was optimism in the air; there were hopes that our governance process will finally be more accountable, transparent and democratic. Yes, we have made important strides in the direction, but seemingly quite slow. We are facing several challenges in the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. The States have the responsibility to constitute the District Planning Commissions at the local level. Though lot of states have yet to constitute these bodies.
Seven states have not yet constituted District Planning Commissions. And there are several states where such bodies exist only in certain districts. Moreover, there are challenges in the functioning of DPCs as well- such as few States preparing district plans. Even after constituting DPCs, problems in budget outlay and funding, lack of sufficient time due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and lack of coordination among the departments. There is a long way to go in ensuring that DPCs function in the way as envisaged in the Constitution. Also, DPCs are only of one the many provisions that are not being holistically implemented.
Way forward – What is to Be Done?
These challenges need to be addressed, and it could only happen when demands from the civil society reach the people who have the power to make these changes. The civil society needs to participate more actively in the process of governance. And interact with the government in order to increase their accountability and improve service delivery mechanisms. Active citizenship is fundamental to the survival of democracy. The democracy is much more than voting in the elections every five years. In order to strengthen the governance mechanisms, the people need to be aware of their rights in the country. They should demand participation, and actively participate in the process of planning and governance. It is with this hope and aspiration that we are calling for a renewed call to empower urban local governance process. One mohalla at a time! One city at a time! To achieve our aim of decentralizing power and taking democracy to the grassroots.