It took more than 120 years for India to reach the present level of decentralization, started with the Resolution on Local Self-Government in 1882. The 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1993 is a significant milestone in this regard.
In simple terms, decentralization is the transfer of resources, power and responsibilities to democratically elected local governments (Panchayats). Idea behind decentralization is to be responsive to needs and preferences and involve people at grass root level in decision making process which can be better achieved through the devolution of functions, functionaries and finances to local governments.
The degree of decentralization is varied across the States due to willingness / unwillingness of State governments to transfer their powers to Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Irrespective of the level of decentralization, people’s interest and participation in PRIs is increasing across the States which is visible in terms of higher voting percentages in PRI elections compared to assembly and parliamentary elections. This higher turnout in elections is also related to the resources spent by the candidates.
Over the years, expenses of candidates in PRI elections are increasing disproportionately. During PRI elections in Karnataka in April-May 2010, some Gram Panchayat (GP) candidates have spent to the tune of Rs.500,000 on a voter population of less than 1,000. Even in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, where the devolution started lately, some Zilla Parishad candidates have spent up to Rs. 10,000,000 in 2008 PRI elections. The spending pattern is correlated with devolution and introduction of new schemes like NREGA handled by PRIs. The higher the devolution, higher will be resources available and greater the opportunities for corruption.
Assets of PRI members are increasing significantly in a short span of time. The bank balance of one of the GP Chairperson near our village has increased from less than Rs.10,000 to more than Rs.600,000 in 18 months. Similarly, the members of the GP are also earning through contracts and schemes. Instead of planning and implementing the activities according to needs, most often, the funds are divided and allocated to each member. It is up to the member to spend the amount on any activity according to his / her whims and fancies.
The unintended positive development along the devolution of functions, functionaries and funds is the devolution of corruption. Earlier, very few people (MLAs, MPs and officials at higher levels) used to swallow corrupt money. However, with devolution, it is being distributed to many PRI members and lower level functionaries. This is not to say corruption is desirable. Our PRIs are still in infancy and I am confident that they will work as envisioned in the years to come with maturity and proper implementation of policies like Social Audit and Right to Information.