India should decentralize governance and reform administration

Decentralizing governance is necessary to make Indian governance participatory and citizen oriented. It is the process of delayering of government functions down to the states and local governments. Decentralisation of governance, except paying some lip service, has never been tried sincerely by any government in India. It is an issue to which every political party has declared its commitment.

Creation of District Governments (District Councils) in every district, as a third tier government, is the right first step to begin decentralisation.  It should replace the existing District Panchayat. The district government (DG) should have an elected President similar to the district Panchayat President, and an appointed civil servant, like the District Collector /Development Commissioner, as its chief executive, along with its elected members. The sixth part of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) Commission report had suggested this proposal. Therefore, the present government can leverage the support of the congress in this initiative.

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Grama Panchyat / Municipalities will be the fourth and lowest tier of federal governance. District Government formation amounts to bringing government closer to the ordinary people to serve them better. It would be a clever political and administrative move.

Decentralizing governance normally takes place through three streams of devolution: political, administrative and financial. Political decentralisation refers to the setting up of governance structures and sharing of policy making powers; administrative decentralisation deals with execution of projects and other administrative matters; financial decentralisation focuses on the sharing of financial resources among governments. Decentralisation efforts in these three lines should go cohesively to achieve holistic outcomes. In decentralisation, the central government should focus more on broad national issues and leave all the activities that the lower governments like states and local governments can do to them, based on the political doctrine Principle of Subsidiarity. The doctrine stipulates no function that can be done by a lower level government effectively should be left to the higher tier of government. If panchayat can do anything effectively, the state or central government may not interfere in that.

Consolidation of allied ministries under one minister at the center will make the government slender and compact. It will help in integrating sector based activities in the state and local governments. It will cut cost, downplay the culture of red tape and foreground development. A transport ministry with road, rail and shipping together will work better. A consolidation of industries, energy and labour ministries could help deliver services faster. There will be fewer disputes, faster resolution of contentions, and focused implementation of policies if ministries are integrated.

Integrating the functions of the ministries/ departments is a more difficult task than bringing ministries together. No one from Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh could do integration of ministries fruitfully. But Narendra Modi has set the start by clubbing ministries successfully as there were no compulsions from outside. Shipping, road transport and high ways have been clubbed. Finance and corporate affairs have come together. External affairs and overseas development have been brought together. Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water and Sanitation are under the same ministers. Though agriculture is a state subject, it has a full-fledged ministry at the Centre which is unnecessary. Separate departments/ministries on fertilizers, chemicals, water, food procurement and food processing that are allied to agriculture still remain as separate ministries. Agriculture and water resources are to be merged.  Coal, power, petroleum and natural gas, and renewable energy need to work together as an energy ministry. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is redundant when Prasaar Bharati exists. Here the work culture and style of government need revitalization, so that the ministries, having related tasks, can work with synergy.

Uneven availability of personnel in the departments is another issue. The Ministry of Culture, a state subject predominantly, has five joint secretaries, compared to seven in the department of economic affairs which has more prominence and functions.

State run public sector companies require autonomy. More than two hundred state-owned public sector firms function in India. The government has no mandate to run profit based business but some intervention is necessary to foster balanced growth. The government interference in the daily functioning of public sector companies should be avoided. The organizations need some restructuring to ensure autonomy and accountability in their functioning. More than 80 percent of the profit from them is contributed by the top ten companies. The chief executives of companies should have fixed tenure. Professionals should get an upper hand in those organisations, but with accountability. There has to be separation of ownership and management to avoid undue government interference in their working.

A series of administrative reforms through an “appropriate body under the PMO” is on the cards. No one since independence pursued administrative reforms. Three dozen committee reports suggested many reform measures but every initiative ended in cosmetic changes.  This is the right time to review the structures, processes and procedures of governance. A “rigorous evaluation process” of government officers is needed. Performers will be rewarded, and non-performers will have to undergo training.

Civil Service Reform is a key issue that requires attention. We need to think of whether we need an all India service of civil servants right now. Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is a product of the colonial past. There is a view that such an administrative service, other than Indian Police Service (IPS), is not essential now. If we prefer to retain it, there is a need to ensure standards and accountability of civil services to make them more independent and professional. The apex court on 31 October 2013 directed the union and states to constitute Civil Service Boards (CSBs) with high ranking serving officers to aid and advise on transfers and postings of officers and provide a minimum tenure of service to various civil servants, within a period of three months and to enact a law subsequently to legalise them.

The existing practice of appointing retired Government Servants, who go well with politicians, in the ministries have to be looked into. The Planning Commission, which absorbs many retired persons, requires reduction of posts of advisers and consultants. Lateral induction of experts into Indian civil service and weeding out of the inefficient ones from it must get government’s attention. Calendar based promotion should be introduced to all posts but the promotion to top jobs in government must be after a selection.

Judiciary is another reform area. The foremost reform would be to secure the quality of judges. The present method of selection and appointment to the higher judiciary by the collegium of judges does not help getting competent judges now. The judicial system is mired in procedural tangles. The tangles make the judiciary inaccessible to common citizens. It must be reformed to make justice delivery quick and effective.

Police reform is another pending issue. In 2006, the Supreme Court, in Prakash Singh’s petition, had issued a series of directions –setting up a security commission at the state level; transparent procedure for the appointment of police chief and desirability of giving the chief a fixed tenure; separation of crime investigation from law and order duties; enactment of a new police law in tune with democratic ideals. Some states like Kerala could do some of these things mostly as a ritual rather than in the right spirit. The purpose of the judgment was to insulate the state police from undue political pressure and bring the police functioning in accordance with the laws of the land.

The political control of the Planning Commission should be reduced and it should be made a professional body. The Finance Minister should continue to remain closely associated with its working. The Commission now plays an executive role in the distribution of grants between the Centre and the state governments. The basic role of Planning Commission is to ensure that the sectoral plans drawn by different ministries are in conformity with the plan objectives but it has become a super cabinet managing many mammoth Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSSs), ignoring even the center-state relations. The number of CSSs should be kept to the minimum.

National Development Council (NDC) needs revitalization as a democratic, development forum. The broad policies for socio-economic development, formulation of the national plan, resource mobilization and periodical appraisal of the plan-progress are the functional areas of the NDC. Issues like food distribution, land reforms, State trading corporation etc should also figure in the discussions of NDC.

The Inter-State Council, an apparatus for effecting regular consultations between the Centre and the States is to be revitalized to make center-state relations increasingly cooperative. The Council is to be large sized with Prime Minister, Central Ministers for Home, Finance, Labour, Food and other subjects in the State and the Concurrent Lists, Chief Ministers or their nominees, and other guests of the Council as its members. In a federal structure, despite having abroad division of functions, common directions, co-ordination and co-operation are required in many areas.  In the states, the State Development Council (SDC) and State Planning Board should perform respective functions as the NDC and the Planning Commission do at the National level.

Modi has now got a unique chance to redefine Indian governance by making changes in its administrative practices step by step. He can rely on a series of commission reports and living Indian thinkers on statecraft, for that. If he attempts to take this forward, it would be a new leaf in the emerging history of India.

K Rajasekharan

K Rajasekharan is a law graduate from Kerala Law Academy at Thiruvananthapuram. He also holds M Lib Sc., M.A. (Sociology) & M.A. Politics, and currently works at the Kerala Institute of Local Administration in Thrissur. Rajasekharan is well versed in topics like decentralization, local governance and related areas at the national level.