Bengaluru: It has been nearly three decades since the 74th Constitution Amendment gave constitutional status to urban local bodies (ULBs) in India. But how effective has decentralisation been in ensuring responsive and autonomous city governments? Some states have functioned better than others in providing services while others have been reluctant to transfer power and responsibilities to local urban governments, says Suraj Jacob, a political economist at the Azim Premji University.

Jacob's book Governing Locally, co-authored with Babu Jacob, retired bureaucrat and former chief secretary of Kerala, explores the functioning of state and local governments in Kerala, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, and analyses why their decentralisation outcomes vary. While Kerala does well in decentralisation indicators relevant to panchayats, its indicators for local autonomy in service delivery are poor. Gujarat's city governments fare better in this regard.

In an interview with IndiaSpend, Suraj Jacob speaks about autonomy for urban governments, the links between ULBs and states, and bureaucratic hurdles to local governance.

Edited excerpts:

Your book studies Kerala, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. How do they fare in urban governance?

The states show considerable differences in urban local services--water supply, sanitation, storm water drainage, street lighting, and so on. The differences have to do with whether or not services are decentralised. In Kerala, local service provision occurs largely through the state government, not local city governments. This is also true for Tamil Nadu, although to a lesser extent. Local city governments have a far greater role in Gujarat.

Compared with Kerala or Tamil Nadu, city governments in Gujarat have greater municipal capacity to provide services and greater autonomy in carrying out their affairs. Here, 'capacity' is about how activities and work procedures are organised. For instance, a service such as street lighting looks simple but depends partly on the ability to procure and deploy quality bulbs as well as effective coordination among skilled and motivated staff. Such capacities are weak in Kerala's city governments--whether in bigger cities like Kochi and Trivandrum or smaller ones.

But the matter is not merely managerial or technical. We find that strong or weak municipal capacity is connected with the extent of autonomy from the state government. Kerala city governments take orders from the state government regarding many things, such as the types of committees to form and how to take decisions on expenditure. Even on small matters, city governments typically have to take state government permission--technical and financial--for many activities, even routine ones. The state government also controls city government staffing. [The] lack of autonomy hems in municipal capacity. And then the state government steps in to fill the void of service delivery.

Can these differences be traced to issues in the legislation on decentralisation? Or are states reluctant to devolve power to local elected bodies?

To explore the question of what explains local autonomy or the lack of it, let us consider what happened during the national decentralisation reforms of the 1990s. The Parliament enacted two momentous changes to the Constitution--73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, which mandated and gave constitutional sanctity to local government in rural and urban areas, respectively. The spirit and letter of these changes were unambiguous.

Local governments were to be constituted democratically and without interference from state governments. These local governments were to receive a share of state finances determined independently of the state government. And these local governments were given the 'powers and responsibilities' (to use the language of the 74th Amendment) for many important matters affecting citizens like water supply, sanitation and roads.

Since the Constitution specifies that local government is a 'state subject', state legislatures were required to enact laws to carry out this intent. Indeed, state legislatures did do this in the ensuing years. Kerala typically receives top billing in analyses of the extent of decentralisation enacted by state law. Differences aside, across states, at a minimum these laws conformed to the spirit of the 74th Amendment.

After the state laws were enacted, states did set up independent Election Commissions and Finance Commissions for organising elections and sharing finances. In Kerala and other states, the implementation of these two important matters mostly fit the spirit of the Constitution Amendment. But where things went awry was with the transfer of 'powers and responsibilities' for street lighting, water, etc.

In Kerala, although the new law mentions transfer, other provisions in the law make the transfer ambiguous. Importantly, the law leaves it to the state government to figure out the details of transfer and more generally, the details of how local governments should function--their work procedures and internal organisation and staff. The state government dragged its feet on this, and has been dragging its feet for the last 25 years. The physical equipment, and staff and administrative machinery are all still under the control of the state government. Things are somewhat similar in Tamil Nadu.

But Gujarat is different. It turns out that well before the 74th Amendment, these 'powers and responsibilities' were already with city governments. This is a history that can be traced to laws from decades ago (such as the Bombay Provincial Municipal Corporations Act of 1949), from before the state was formed--and those laws are themselves the legacy of still older legislation from the late 1800s. The legislative legacy of local government autonomy has eroded in Gujarat, especially in recent times, but its city governments still ride the good fortune of this beneficent history.

What differentiates urban governance from rural as per your research?

The findings regarding capacity and autonomy likely hold for panchayats as well. When it comes to infrastructure, or health and education, much of what panchayats do is on the back of initiatives, planning and designs laid out by the state government. Panchayats may differ in how well they go about identifying individual 'beneficiaries' of some welfare programme, but the programme--or at least its structure--is typically not conceived by the panchayat based on its context and needs.

In Kerala, panchayats depend on state government departments for conceiving and organising water supply, electricity, roads, etc. Just as with city governments, programming choices and design in panchayats are laid out by, and depend on, the state government. State government 'approval' is needed on many matters, even trivial ones. All this typically produces and reproduces a top-down orientation.

In fact, since panchayats are typically smaller than city governments in terms of population, diversity, and staff size and specialisation, they naturally face challenges to capacity. If the capacity argument does not work even in city governments in much of India, we think it is far less likely to work in panchayats. This shows up in how villagers perceive the location of government power--for most matters of public services, they approach not the president of the gram panchayat or zilla panchayat but rather the Collectorate or other offices of the state government.

The argument about local autonomy does not imply that the state government should not have any role. 'Horizontal' relations between state and local government are consistent with autonomy, while the present 'vertical' top-down relations compromise autonomy and thereby capacity as well.

Your book finds that the city government of Surat is able to deliver services more efficiently than Thiruvananthapuram while the latter seems better at public engagement through the formation of citizen assemblies (like ward committees). Do your findings dent the popular belief that Kerala has better decentralised governance thanks to 'people's planning', a system that allows assessment of public needs through panchayat-level meetings? Do historical or cultural reasons play any role here?

Kerala is indeed popularly perceived as a positive example of decentralisation and it scores relatively highly on conventional decentralisation indicators. These perceptions and scores are derived from panchayats. The indicators do not pick up local autonomy for service delivery, which is crucial for genuinely decentralised arrangements especially in cities. Instead, these indicators focus on legal arrangements, resources committed to be transferred from state to local governments, and formal arrangements for community participation in local governance. It is true that Kerala does well on such matters--and they are important.

In terms of urban governance, despite state laws that appear to be strong on decentralisation and dramatic commitment to transfer a significant portion of state government revenue to local government--and despite elaborate arrangements for people's participation through citizen assemblies--municipal capacity remains low and autonomy stands compromised. At the end of the day, city governments function through strings pulled by the state government.

Unlike Kerala, where ward committees were created in all cities, Gujarat did so only for bigger cities--and even there, people's participation is quite limited. Besides better formal arrangements, Kerala also has a propitious history of mobilisation and participation through caste movements, left movements and other social movements. This culminated in 'public action' for the common good, once associated with the 'Kerala model' of development.

And yet, despite all this, people's participation is not as strong as one would think. We identify the reason in local capacity and autonomy. Initially when local governments were formed, ward committees had considerable participation. But over time, people realised that city governments could not get much done--because they depend heavily on unequal relationships with state governments. The enfeeblement of city governments also diminished participation in local governance. A city leader from Kerala told us that initially as many as 4,000 people would attend ward sabha meetings. Over time it dwindled to a 100--and they would merely go through some rituals and provide tea.

In Gujarat, not only is low people's participation in local governance a concern in itself, but it also raises another concern: justice in municipal action. While history has given it the good fortune of relative autonomy to fashion capacity and local action, low participation reduces the ability of local action to be just. The potential for just action is greater in Kerala--because although participation is not high, it has the potential to be high if city governments have autonomy and capacity. It is tragic that institutional flaws--the lack of local autonomy and poor capacity--seriously curtail people's participation, which is an important attraction of decentralisation in the first place.

Kerala's mobilisation history and latent people's participation produce one important conducive feature: It restrains the government from moves to dispossess people of their livelihoods and settlements. Especially in mega cities of Gujarat and other states, the government has labelled some individuals and groups as 'illegal' squatters and evicted them, typically to make room for mega infrastructure and high-end shopping [complexes], hotels and housing. There are class, communal and caste dimensions to this.

The Indian bureaucracy is reluctant to devolve powers to ULBs, experts say. What has been the role of state and local administration politics in urban governance?

Indeed, the bureaucracy has been reluctant to devolve powers, more so than politicians--and this is to be expected. We find this to be the case in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, and is probably true for other states as well.

After the Constitution Amendment and subsequent state laws of the 1990s, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and most states, the implementation of the new state laws on decentralisation was left to the state government, not the local governments themselves. This meant that the state government would frame the rules to create this new government and its functioning. Even common sense suggests that this would create distortions since an 'interested party' is making the decisions. Like most new laws, the language was borrowed from old laws. Now, the decentralisation law was no run-of-the-mill law--it was about fashioning a new government. But it was also subjected to the habituated practice, so the state government ended up being assigned rule-making authority.

When we say that rule-making authority was given to the state government, although it is led by the political executive (ministers), in effect rule-making happens in specific parts of the state bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has its own motivations, perceptions, culture and interests, besides also having its own diversity. But there is little reason to believe that the bureaucracy would be particularly attentive to the democratic spirit of the Constitutional Amendment when framing decentralisation rules. Further, habituated practices permeate the work of rule-making just as with law-making. Instructions in government circulars have a peculiar similarity that many of us are familiar with as citizens. We do not find any dramatic instance of deliberate sabotage by the bureaucracy; rather, it is the slow accretion of habituated practices at work. Rules were made without consulting local governments.

Finally, our institutional and democratic system of checks and balances failed to vet the law and rules regarding decentralisation. When the state decentralisation law gave the state government rule-making authority, others--legislators, interest groups, civil society watchdog groups and the media--did not question the conflict of interest. When the state bureaucracy framed the rules, it was accepted by the political executive and rubber-stamped by the legislature without serious scrutiny by anybody regarding whether the rules reflected the spirit of the Constitutional Amendment and state law.

In the ongoing pandemic, poor migrant workers have suffered in the cities they helped build. Some local governments like Kerala's panchayats have done well in supporting them. As India urbanises, what changes could help local urban governments respond to crises like Covid-19?

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of governance mechanisms all over the country. Early on, one of the key functions was reaching essential supplies of food and medicine to those whose access and livelihoods were changed by the lockdown--including, as you note, the important group of migrant labour with traditionally low political salience. Another key function was contact tracing, monitoring the spread of infections, and arranging and enforcing quarantines.

Kerala was probably the only state where local governments--panchayats and municipal governments--played a substantive role on both counts. In fact, old procedures mandated by the state government and the requirement of its permissions were suspended in emergency conditions, and the latent participatory spirit and capacity thrived. This underlines our argument that autonomy is key for local governments to play substantive and sustained roles. The ethic of care shown to migrant workers taps into older strands of mobilisation and civic responsibility which do not normally get space in local government due to top-down control.

What lessons do Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat hold for other local governments?

There are a few aspects. The first is to revisit the question of rule-making authority in the law so that each local government has the autonomy to run its affairs. This was the great strength of Gujarat's legislative legacy, although there have been incursions on autonomy in recent years. It would be good to open up the question of rule-making authority and the rules themselves to greater democratic scrutiny. Simultaneously, local service delivery machinery should be transferred by the state government to the corresponding local government. Complications in such transfers should be dealt with in an independent manner rather than rely solely on the state government.

The second is to broaden the links between the state government and local governments. Specifically, in Kerala, one department of the state government (Local Self Government department) controls the rule-making and rule implementation for local governments, although it has little expertise in many sectors in which it sets rules, be it housing, SC/ST welfare or water supply. Loosening the monopoly will also help reset state-local relations. Local governments can potentially gain by establishing their own links with different sectoral departments of the state government.

The third is to rethink the roles of the national and state government in local governance. In the case of urban affairs, the role of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) is unclear. So far it has not called out state governments in failing to genuinely implement the spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment nor worked with them on this. Rather than confine itself to urban infrastructure funding grants to state governments, MoHUA can leverage the federal structure to act as a watchdog of local autonomy.

The fourth is to strengthen links between local governments and their communities, and to strengthen community organisations to constructively scrutinise the work of each local government and participate in local governance. In cities, more and more local groups are organising for action on local public affairs, going beyond the narrow concerns of middle-class resident welfare associations. As we deal with a world with greater and more casual authoritarian tendencies and neoliberal pressures, with parts of the public showing greater tolerance and even appreciation for these than in the past, it is important to strengthen diverse local initiatives to carry forward the spirit of decentralisation.

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