India’s Local Governance Structures Need Serious Reform

Changing governance structures is a slow, painstaking process that can’t be based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model.

A gram panchayat meeting in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

A gram panchayat meeting in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

In his article in the Indian Express titled ‘What lies below the district?’ Bibek Debroy draws attention to the important but ignored aspect of local governance and decentralised planning. The author argues that there are neither structures nor any specific persons with roles specified for planning at levels of administration below the district. Debroy is a member of the NITI Aayog carries in its belly the experience and intelligence of its erstwhile institution, the Planning Commission. It has not emerged in vacuum.

He ends the article by saying, “We tend to think of districts – and nothing below.” This is simply not true. The Planning Commission did look at the sub-district – or block/taluka – level. It had devised a criteria to rank blocks by their development indicators – both infrastructural and in terms of human development. This influences the choice of blocks for many centrally-sponsored schemes. For the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), an elaborate method of participatory planning was developed and used to prepare the first list of 250 blocks. Though this was the first attempt at such an elaborate exercise involving villagers, local administration officials and elected representatives, it did provide encouraging results. This led to a better mix of asset creation under the MGNREGA, based more on the needs of people and local geographies. The National Rural Livelihood Mission also works around this list of blocks. So there has been a clear policy to look beyond districts.

At another point in the article, Debroy says, “…decentralised planning has to start from below and below does not mean districts.” Sure, but how? What are the resources required for this transformation? And what is this ‘below’?

There is huge inter-state variance in the ‘below’ Debroy is talking about. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have mandals as sub-districts, with around 20-30 gram panchayats in one mandal. There is one mandal parishad development officer or MPDO (also known as a block development officer or BDO) for each such mandal. An MPDO in Andhra Pradesh handles 20-30 gram panchayats, while a BDO in Maharashtra manages 60-100 gram panchayats. The average population of a gram panchayat also varies drastically across states, at 25,000-30,000 in Kerala but an average of 2,000 in Maharashtra. Given this variation, schemes designed in Delhi based on the ‘one size fits all’ model lose all momentum when they hit ground zero.

The Fourteenth Finance Commission provided a platform to move into decentralised planning at the gram panchayat level. This gave rise to the ‘gram panchayat development plan’, meant to provide the necessary space for decentralised planning at smallest unit of governance. The gram panchayat development plan, however, is facing the same fate as most other central or state government programmes. In general, gram panchayats only get funds which are earmarked for a particular scheme or programme. But according to the gram panchayat development plan, the gram panchayat and gram sabha prepare a budget based on the needs of the community, and get funds based on the area and the population. This is a paradigm shift in India’s development policy framework.

Capacity building for the people responsible for this transformation, however, has not been a part of the process. Social change is a painstaking process, it involves long-drawn efforts. But instead of being a game changer, the gram panchayat development plan has become yet another example of failed policy. Not all is lost, though. It can be rescued if governance structures at the sub-district level are reformed.

A cluster-level approach might provide a way here. For the MGNREGA, as part of a working group of the Planning Commission, we had devised a cluster facilitation team to support planning. A cluster is a group of gram panchayats. This cluster group can be the planning, execution and monitoring entity – developed as the basic unit of planning at the sub-district level, which can have a role similar to the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA). Of course, a review of the DRDA is in the offing too.

There is a very real need to work on governance structures at the sub-district and gram panchayat level. New, smaller governance structures need to be enablers of decentralised planning. Certainly the NITI Aayog has a crucial role to play in this. Strong, decisive leadership with a wide mandate is a requirement for such transformation.