July 4, 2010

Fixing two genetic flaws in the Constitution

If self-governance is the hallmark of democracy, then India barely qualifies. While India’s achievements in economic and commercial spheres are being hailed globally, the chronic ailments that dog our political and administrative systems, while drawing comment, have yet to really come up for overhauling in any serious way. And perhaps some of the problems we are witnessing in India’s polity today are due to lack of this overhaul, and arise from the way Inida’s constitution was written. As an illustration, we may consider two pressing issues—the state of India’s cities and villages, and the continuing importance of caste in our political discourse.

Empowering local governments
It is no exaggeration to state that governance, particularly at the lower levels of government, is marked by sloth, inefficiency, and corruption. Citizen services are of the poorest quality, reflected in both the lack of hard infrastructure such as roads, water, and sewage management as well as in service delivery across police services, traffic control, fire, health and emergency services, pollution control and so on.

Urban and rural local bodies form the lowest tier of the ‘sarkar’. However, almost all decisions on the why’s, hows, why nots, dos and don’ts of running the lives of common people are taken at the state level, which is at least two levels removed from the daily reach for most citizens. Law & order, schools, electricity, and even local sewerage and water supply lie in the domain of parastatal bodies largely or totally funded and controlled by the state governments. To this list one could add even typically local services such as fire, emergency response, and primary health.

This absence of immediacy in the power to take decisions while providing service at the last mile contributes to inefficiencies in governance—it is impossible for even the most well-meaning Secretary sitting in Lucknow to effectively monitor how well a teacher is teaching in a school in a village in Badaun district. The only stakeholders who can effectively monitor the quality of service provisioning are the parents of the children attending classes. If we are to improve the quality of our local services, and reduce corruption, the only proven way to do so effectively and sustainably is to make those services accountable to the immediate users of these services, that is the local populace.

Unfortunately, the Constitution explicitly, from its very inception, fostered a culture of top-down governance that has the completely opposite effect of eliminating local accountability. To wit, there is a Union List, a State List, a Concurrent List, but no “local bodies” list. The Finance Commission which  defines revenue sharing bases for the Union and States, makes no mention of local bodies.

While the 73rd and 74th Amendments were milestone events that acknowledged the importance of local bodies, they have not been able to lead local bodies to the promised land. This is because given the political exigencies of the time, delegation of powers, monies and responsibilities remained discretionary decisions left to the state governments.

Though it has been nearly twenty years since those amendments were made, progress remains patchy. State capitals have adhered to the letter of the law in some instances, but genuine empowerment remains a distant dream. The fabled Indian approach of change by evolutionary steps has not worked.

Time has come for forcing through the change. First, insert a third list in the Seventh Schedule, explicitly carving out the domain of the local bodies. Second, amend Article 280 (governing the provision and functions of the Finance Commission) to explicitly ask for revenue sharing between the Centre, States and Local bodies. Third, amend the 73rd and 74th amendments to make elections, composition, functions and responsibilities of the local bodies mandatory, and not subject to the discretion of the states

De-emphasising caste politics
The caste system in India is part of its ancient history and its implications in the present day cannot be wished away or shut out. Though the caste system is essentially a social feature and not a political one, it has lent itself with admirable ease to political mobilisation and lobbying, particularly given the “first past the post” structure of our electoral laws embodied in the Representation of People’s Act (RPA).

Given the first past the post method, electoral aspirants need to consolidate a group bigger than any other group, and make sure every other group is as fragmented as possible in order to get elected. It is a race for the smallest viable unit, as opposed to the biggest possible grouping.

Politicians cannot be blamed for holding up the trump caste card time and again, as they are merely responding to the construct of the RPA by picking up caste as the most handy tool of fragmentation. Amending the law to take away that tool will certainly not do away with the caste system, but it may at the very least, arrest its misuse in politics. To do so, the RPA must be amended in a way that facilitates consolidation of vote banks rather than fragmentation, by amending the first past the post to a system of majority vote.

To genuinely have MPs and MLAs elected by majority vote of the constituency, elections in each constituency could be held in two rounds—the second round being a run-off between the top two candidates of the first round. This will ensure that the winner has the support of the majority of the electorate; a side benefit is that there has to be consolidation across multiple caste blocks for any candidate to aspire to victory.

These two sets of proposals presented here will go a long way in casting off the shackles of a governance structure that India has inherited. Centralised governance made perfect sense for the British when they needed to rule India as a colony. It scarcely makes sense when the aim is to have Indians rule themselves. The incremental time and expenditure incurred in conducting run-off elections is a price worth paying to obtain a better quality and less divisive governance.

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