Monday, March 3, 2008

Gandhi and Political Decentralisation

Gandhi advocated self-sufficient village republics, which produce their own food and cloth, remain independent of the neighbors for vital wants, and yet interdependent for other needs and cooperating with the higher authorities. This aspect of economic decentralization was the highlight of what came to be known as ‘Gandhian Economics’. According to Gandhi, political decentralization should go hand in hand with economic decentralization.

By political decentralization he meant: “Prevention of massive concentrations of political power in the hands of too few; rather, to distribute it in the hands of many. The Gandhian political order takes the form of a direct, participatory democracy, operating in a tier structure from the base village level tier upward through the district and state levels to the national level."(“Why Gandhi is Relevant in Modern India: A Western Gandhian's Personal Discovery-- Stephen Murphy)

According to Gandhi, "Men ... should do their actual living and working in communities ... small enough to permit of genuine self-government and the assumption of personal responsibilities, federated into larger units in such a way that the temptation to abuse great power should not arise. The larger a democracy grows, the less becomes the rule of the people and the smaller is the say of individuals and localized groups in dealing with their own destinies.”

Gandhi's Idea of Gram Swaraj

“My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every village’s first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children. Then if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding ganja, tobacco, opium and the like. The village will maintain a village theatre, school and public hall. It will have its own waterworks, ensuring clean water supply. This can be done through controlled wells or tanks. Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course. As far as possible every activity will be conducted on the cooperative basis. There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. Non-violence with its technique of satyagraha and non-cooperation will be the sanction of the village community. There will be a compulsory service of village guards who will be selected by rotation from the register maintained by the village. The government of the village will be conducted by a Panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. These will have all the authority and jurisdiction required. Since there will be no system of punishments in the accepted sense, this Panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office. Any village can become such a republic today without much interference even from the present Government whose sole effective connection with the villages is the exaction of the village revenue. I have not examined here the question of relations with the neighbouring villages and the centre if any. My purpose is to present an outline of village government. Here there is perfect democracy based upon individual freedom. The individual is the architect of his own government. The law of non-violence rules him and his government. He and his village are able to defy the might of a world. For the law governing every villager is that he will suffer death in the defence of his and his village’s honour.”

SEVAGRAM, July 18, 1942
Harijan, 26-7-1942

These ideas might have sounded utopian at the time of Indian independence. Gandhi himself said that these are utopian and went on to say “ Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness.”

The drafting committee of the constituent assembly consisted of people who were well versed with the working of constitutions of other democracies but they gave little importance to this idea of political decentralization. However, the constituent assembly consisted of people elected by masses and they contested the non-inclusion of the concept of ‘Gram Swaraj’ in the draft constitution.As a result, it was included in Directive Principles of State policy,article 40 of the constitution which states the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self- government”. Understandably, centralization was given prominence by the then establishment in the wake of partition and demands for statehood by numerous groups. No doubt India at that point of time needed a strong center and though the constitution has guaranteed many federal features, it termed India as a ‘Union of states’ rather than a federation.

Nehru being a democrat had nothing against the idea of self-government at the grassroot level. He went on centralized planning but at the same time he created a Ministry of Community Development, Panchayati Raj and Cooperation. The initial emphasis was on community development programmes without much success. Later Balwant Rai Mehta committee, appointed by the government concluded that: “Development cannot progress without responsibility and power. Community development can be real only when the community understands its problems, realizes its responsibilities, exercises necessary powers through its chosen representatives and maintains a constant and intelligent vigilance on local administration”. The creation of elected local bodies and formulation of plans at district level was proposed. After Nehru, the centralization tendencies began to take stage and Indira Gandhi’s government merged the ministry of community development, Panchayat Raj and cooperation with Ministry of Food and Agriculture.It was only in second half of 1980s there was growing awareness that ‘top to bottom’approach was ineffective in delivering the government schemes to the real beneficiaries. In 1992, through 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, Panchayat Raj Institutions and Urban Local Bodies were given constitutional status.In the period that followed, though states were reluctant to devolve powers to local bodies, the PRIs have made a mark in functioning at the grass root level ushering in participative democracy. Through affirmative action, women and depressed sections of the societies began to take active part in local governments. A lot need to be done and we are nowhere in the reach of Gandhian Utopia of Gram Swaraj. The importance of self-sufficient villages with local administrative structure, planning and catering to the local needs is being realized today with the prevalence of rural distress and migration to cities.To make the PRI system work in the envisaged manner, there is an essential need of devolving political and financial powers to Panchayati Raj Institutions.

Mahatma Gandhi and the Legacy of Democratic Decentralisation in India by Partha Nath Mukherjee:

From the above link:The challenges to our system of Local self Government .

(1)There is the factor of the local political economy and the high probability of elite capture of resources.

(2)Central and State-level political elite feel threatened having to vie with the local political elite, trying to win support from a common constituency.

(3)The non-elected resource-rich NGOs/INGOs with their primary accountability to the donors operate within panchayat jurisdictions as competing structures of influence and power.

(4)There are State and central-level projects that bypass the authority of the PRIs.

(5)Problems of accountability and transparency often associated with rent-seeking behaviour characterise many functionaries at all levels.

(6)Gram sabhas, which are the fundamental units of direct democracy, are often convened at irregular intervals with poor attendance.

(7)There is the problem of what is known as ‘proxy panchayats’, where the husband/male members of the family act on behalf of the elected women representatives.

(8) Social-institutional barriers often inhibit the role of dalits (the Scheduled Castes) and the Scheduled Tribes in the Panchayati Raj system.

(9)A resistant bureaucracy is tardy in implementing devolution of power.

(10) Political and economic clientelism in an iniquitous agrarian and caste structure perpetuates the role of dominant powers.

(11) There are problems relating to ambiguities in the distribution and sharing of power at the various sub-State levels.

(12) Most importantly, there are problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition that provide structural barriers to the improvement in life-chances of the deprived and marginal groups.

In the words of Partha Nath Mukherjee today there is an irreversible ascendance of the forces of gram swaraj.Now it is the responsibility of the government, civil society and individuals with faith in participative democracy to let India live (after taking in to account the changed circumstances and the new globalized world) for Gandhi’s Utopia of Gram Swaraj, though never realizable in its completeness.

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