On Local Democracy in India

As an officer who has worked with the local government institutions in India for more than ten years, at national, state and local levels during my years with the Indian Administrative Service, I can be accused of having developed some insights in their functioning.

When the National and the Provincial governments in India were under British rule, the term Local Self-Government (LSG) meant the municipal and district local board administrations. At that time, there was no self-government at the higher levels and thus the limited self-government that was allowed at the local level after the Ripon Resolution was called Local Self-government. Even before the Government of India Act, 1935, which led to ministries in the provinces, the Governors-in-council in the provinces created after the Government of India Act of 1919 had a member in charge of Local-government. One of the most illustrious members in charge of local government in the then Bombay Province was Shah Nawaz Bhutto, father and grandfather of two future Prime Ministers of Pakistan, a distinction he shares with Moti Lal Nehru and Jawahar Lal Nehru on the Indian side. Shah Nawaz Bhutto represented Sindh, which was a part of Bombay Presidency till 1936. After the formation of provincial ministries in 1937, the subject of local self-government was entrusted to a Minister. In his book ‘Local Government in India’, Sri Ram Maheshwari, the I.I.P.A. Professor, argues that the term local self-government should now be replaced by ‘local government’ since the government at all levels is now self-government.


In India, democracy is well-nurtured and can be said to have become a giant tree. Democracy’s advantages far outweigh its disadvantages. It would be a rare Indian who would question the continuance of democracy in India, although sometimes doubts are expressed about the efficacy of democratic institutions in handling the complex problems before the country. About limitations of democracy, a quote from Robert Dahl is noteworthy.

‘Democracy cannot guarantee that its citizens will be happy, prosperous, wise, peaceful or just. To attain these ends is beyond capacity of any government.’

Dahl, however lists ten benefits of democracy that make it more desirable than any other form.

1. Democracy helps to prevent government by cruel and vicious autocrats.

  1. Democracy guarantees its citizens a number of fundamental rights that nondemocratic systems do not, and cannot grant.
  2. Democracy ensures its citizens a broader range of personal freedom than any feasible alternative to it.
  3. Democracy helps people to protect their own fundamental interests.
  4. Only a democratic government can provide a maximum opportunity for persons to exercise the freedom of self-determination-that is, to live under laws of their own choosing.
  5. Only a democratic government can provide a maximum opportunity for exercising moral responsibility.
  6. Democracy fosters human development more fully than any feasible alternative.
  7. Only a democratic government can foster a relatively high degree of political equality.
  8. Modern representative democracies do not fight wars with one another.
  9. Countries with democratic governments tend to be more prosperous than countries with non-democratic governments.’

Dahl, thus, concludes that democracy is, thus, a far better form of government than others.

What holds of democracy at National level also holds good for local democracy! It is difficult to enjoy all these advantages in systems other than vibrant democracies. Larger countries need more decentralization than smaller countries so that decision-making is not too distant from the common man!

The next questions will be does democracy contribute to welfare, whether people are indeed happier in democracies, or does democracy contribute to faster economic growth. The following discussion attempts to answer these questions with some references to local democracy.

Democracy and welfare

In democracy, citizens can articulate their grievances through their elected representatives. My experience both in Zilla Parishads and Municipal Corporations indicates that day to day grievances such as shortage of drinking water, outbreak of a disease, absenteeism among teachers or shortage of medicines reach the executive in the quickest possible manner through the elected representatives. This no doubt contributes to an increase in welfare of citizens. Amartya Sen observes:

‘Serious famines rarely occur in independent democratic countries with a free press. One simple reason is although famines can kill millions, they do not kill rulers. Kings and Presidents, bureaucrats and bosses, generals and police chiefs; they never starve.’

In Maharashtra, the problem of high mortality among children in Melghat in Amravati district was, no doubt, highlighted by the press. However, remedial action was possible quickly through the machinery of Amravati Zilla Parishad (District Council). During the monsoon floods in Mumbai, an annual feature, the local corporators (as the Councillors in Corporation are called) and NGOs play an important part in helping the municipal administration.

It is my experience that for quick remedial action, money needs to be available for units of 50000 to one lakh population or within five kilometre radius, so that the relief administration is speedy. Thus, the unit of decentralization must be close to the populace. In rural setting, this may require strengthening of the Panchayat Samitis wherever the Zilla Parishad is the unit of decentralization like in the Maharashtra-Gujarat model. Wherever the Village Panchayats are large enough, like in Kerala and West Bengal, they could be strengthened.

Kartik Murlidharan, then of Harvard University, studied absenteeism among employees dealing with service delivery in developing countries. It was found that the teacher absenteeism was the lowest in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where the teachers are employees of the Zilla Parishad and the Village Panchayats monitor the schools through Village Education Committees. However, among the health staff, the absenteeism was lowest in Kerala where the health staff directly reports to large-sized Panchayats with average populations of twenty-five to thirty thousand. The Village Panchayats and Panchayat Samitis in Maharashtra do not exercise the same kind of supervision over the Primary Health Centres as they do over the Primary Schools and this could be a reason why absenteeism of health staff was not the lowest in Maharashtra.

In the urban setting, welfare could be increased through strengthening of Ward Committees through devolution of adequate discretionary funds.

Democracy and Happiness

Economist Jeffry Sachs has observed that democracy is good for citizens’ happiness. This looks quite natural since nobody would like to live under the constant vigilant eye of a tyrant or even a ‘Big Brotherly’ dictator. Sachs observes that the happiest countries are participatory. Participation and deliberative democracy help to build mutual trust, an important part of social capital.It naturally follows that for effective participation, the unit of decision-making must be sufficiently small. Sachs further observes that the happiest countries have small populations. Among the top ten happiest countries, Canada is the largest with a population of 35 million. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that large countries would be necessarily unhappier. Participation can be achieved through decentralization to lower units of the government.

Nevertheless, democracy alone cannot confer happiness. World’s largest democracy, India, does not even figure among the top hundred countries in the World Happiness Index. This is because GDP/capita is an important indicator for the happiness index, in which India ranks quite low. The six indicators used for World Happiness Index are GDP/ capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and finally trust i.e. absence of corruption.However, many other surveys on happiness do not really give a large emphasis on incomeas a factor for human happiness. Closeness to family, good health, a rewarding career and the area in which you live were considered as factors that contribute more to happiness than a lot of money. However, a reasonable income is probably necessary to counter the worries arising from income insecurity.

Democracy and Economic Development

It is often argued theat democratic countries are more prosperous, which is obviously not true considering India’s case. However, the reverse seems to be true i.e. the more prosperous countries seem to gravitate towards democracy. For this, I studied the fastest growing economies in the world. Currently, the fastest growing economies in the world are Ethiopia (+9.7%), Turkmenistan, DPR Congo, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Cote d’Ivoire and Papua New Guinea. Only half of these countries are democracies and some have become democracies quite recently. In fact, a few of these are guilty of several human rights abuses.

India, touted as the world’s largest democracy, registered a very mediocre rate of growth till the economic reforms from 1991 onwards led to a respectable rate of growth of economy! China, which is hardly a democracy, has grown at a very respectable rate of growth for almost 40 years!

Thus, natural resources like oil and the right economic policies seem to influence economic rate of growth more than the form of government, democratic or otherwise!

Democracy and Efficiency

Increase of efficiency in administration is rarely cited as a reason for introduction of democratic institutions. Lord Ripon introduced local democracy as ‘an instrument of social and popular education’! In fact, he felt that efficiency may actually go down in short run when inexperienced leaders are elected to office, although it would improve in the long run. In this connection, I would define efficiency as precision, speed, unambiguity and knowledge of facts for the decision-makers. Even in the V.P. Naik Committee Report, the main justification for a separate post of C.E.O. of Zilla Parishad in the local sector is that he will be able to look after the small grievances of direct importance to the people, thereby leaving the Collector free to devote his time for broader issues such as law and order, property rights and land acquisition for highways and large irrigation projects.

My experience with local government in India is that working with elected bodies gives a better direction to the efficiency of the organization in terms of right priorities. Working without an elected body can give rise to what I would call ‘targetism’. The head of the department decides some quantitative targets to be achieved and the field machinery tries to achieve the targets without assessing how much benefit these targets are giving to the common man. This striving for targets also leads to bogus reports, which were alleged for the number of completed bio-gas plants and for number of IUD (Intra-uterine devices, a target used for family planning) cases in Maharashtra. Whenever it is difficult to verify the achievements, bogus reporting is resorted to highlight the efficiency of officers. A professor from the IIPA used to say, ‘When truth is the casualty, monitoring becomes a mockery!’ I agree that even elected non-officials may not object to bogus reporting if awards are linked to these reports. However, a non-official has to get elected again and he has to focus on items which make the people in his constituency happy. Priority for completing incomplete works, for example, is a target that comes from elected non-officials; the officers being generally happy with the quantitative utilization of the grants.

Local government in urban India

I would comment on the local government in urban India first since it has a longer history, owing its origin to Ripon Resolution of 1882. I must say that elected bodies do put the real priorities before the city in sharper focus. It is true that the administrative powers are with career bureaucrats, but the Budget of the City is approved by the elected body. Whether the city needs a hospital or a stadium, which roads in the city are to be taken up for repairs first and whether water supply in the tail-end of the pipeline is adequate or not is decided by the elected councillors. It is thereafter, for the career officials to take remedial action. When a city becomes very big and has more than a hundred elected councillors, it often happens that many junior and light-weight councillors cannot get time to ventilate their grievances in the Corporation meetings. It is, therefore, necessary, for senior officers to visit different Ward Committees by rotation so that maximum participation is achieved in the governance and grievances from remote areas are also known to the administration. Needless to add,adequate finances must be made available to the Ward Committees.

Local government in rural India

Decentralization to the rural self-government institutions is relatively more recent. Ancient Village Panchayats have a long history in India;however, adequate devolution of finances to them started mainly after Independence. In the Panchayati Raj structure in India today, as democratic decentralization in rural areas is called, we see two broad models for development. In Kerala and West Bengal, the Village Panchayat is itself a large enough unit, comparable in population to the area under a Primary Health Centre (PHC), i.e. about 30000. In Kerala, the revenue village is itself a large unit, with each district having only about 100 villages. Thus, an average Village Panchayat in Kerala has only 1.6 villages. In West Bengal, a village is a small unit, but each Village Panchayat has on an average 10.95 villages. Again West Bengal is densely populated like Kerala and an average Village Panchayat is spread only over about 10 to 15 sq. km. of area.This has allowed Kerala and West Bengal to have a Village Panchayat-centric Panchayati Raj by allotting employees such as doctors, engineers, agriculture assistants and veterinary doctors to work with a single Village Panchayat.

The other model, which I will call the Maharashtra-Gujarat model, is the Zilla Parishad (District Council) centric model.Here the district council is strong, with all Class III and Class IV employees being employees of the Zilla Parishad. An I.A.S. officer in senior-scale is appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of Zilla Parishad in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, he is called the District Development Officer. The V.P. Naik Committee on democratic decentralization recommended this model in Maharashtra and I suspect that this was inspired by the success of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which till then had a successful history of 80 years in Maharashtra. In other words, the C.E.O. of Z.P. can be considered as the counterpart of municipal commissioner for the rural areas. About two-thirds of the departments are quite similar in the Municipal Corporation and the Zilla Parishad viz. general administration, education, health, public works, water supply, finance, social welfare etc. To differentiate, the Zilla Parishad has agriculture, irrigation and animal husbandry while a municipal corporation has solid waste management, sewerage, town planning and building permissions. Since a Zilla Parishad is coterminous with rural areas of a district, the C.E.O., Z.P. has to work in close coordination with the Collector in Maharashtra, although he is not his subordinate.

During his tenure as Minister for Panchayati Raj, Shri Mani Shankar Aiyer, compared the comparative devolution in different states on three ‘F’s i.e. devolution in terms of functions, functionaries and finances. On this devolution index value (2012-13), Maharashtra has achieved the highest devolution with average of the three ‘F’ indices at 62.39, followed by Karnataka 58.82 and Kerala 56.64. However, as far as the devolution to the lowest level is concerned, the Kerala model is the most noteworthy.


After the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution of India, the State Election Commissioners, constituted under these Amendments, hold elections regularly to both the urban and rural bodies in India, irrespective of whether the state governments want it or not. Although devolution of subjects listed under the Constitution is discretionary, a significant devolution has been achieved. Representatives elected for a period of five years and answerable to their voters are in position in both urban and rural areas making local democracy truly functional.

The C.E.O.s of ZillaParishads, usually appointed at about four years’ service in the I.A.S., are young and inexperienced officers and in Maharashtra they occasionally have conflicts with the elected representatives over transfers, recruitment and tenders. However, as M.K. Rustoji had observed in his study of Andhra Pradesh administration, ‘Interference in field administration is not to an extent that impedes work. It is more often used to cover up inefficiency.’ As an officer becomes senior and more experienced, he understands the democratic functioning better. Appleby observes, ‘Top level administrators closely approach the politician in ability to weigh forces, sentiments and demands. They especially understand the country; or large parts of it!’

On the whole, local democracy in India contributes to overall happiness since voters must be kept happy for the representatives to be elected again. It contributes to redressal of grievances and increases the overall welfare. It is doubtful whether it gives rise to faster economic growth rate orto more efficient and quicker administration!

(The views in this article are the author’s own and not of the Institute where he is a Visiting Professor. Citations to quotations are not given since many are available on the Internet. The author can be contacted on jmphatak@yahoo.com)
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