Local bodies' polls: Key issues absent

Electoral promises, even if met, may not contribute to decen-tralised governance and development.

The elections to Zilla and Taluk Panchayats in Karnataka will be held in two phases on February 13 and 20. The major political parties in the state are gearing up to the elections and wooing the electorate through promises in their manifestoes.

The manifestoes of the two main political parties (Congress and BJP) outlined policies and programmes towards panchayat bodies and rural people in the coming years. Assurances relate broadly to farmers development, empowerment of panch-ayat raj institutions through increased devolution of grants and provision of basic services such as drinking water and sanitation.

A pertinent question that arises here is: why problems of drinking water, poor sanitation and bad roads continue in Karnataka’s villages despite two-and-half-decade experimentation in decentralisation. In 2014, only 10.2 per cent of 59,753 habitations were able to access 55 litre per capita per day (LPCD) and above norm.

That means a majority of the habitations are still getting less than 55 LPCD. With tardy progress in the coverage of rural households with individual toilet, the goal of making Karnataka and open defecation free state has become elusive. In many villages, open drainage system is incomplete and roads are pathetic. The streetlights facilities are comparatively better; but still face problems of voltage fluctuation, frequent power cuts, non-metering, huge accumulated dues to ESCOMs.

An important lacunae in the rural decentralisation in Karnataka is the lack of bottom-up, participatory and integrated plans providing long-term vision and perspective to local development. As per the Constitution, gram sabhas are expected to identify and prioritise the needs of the people, and integrate the same into the gram panchayat plan. Such plans are to be integrated horizontally (rural-urban) and vertically (gram panchayat to zilla panchayat).

This, however, does not happen in practice. The research at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) shows that district plans in Karnataka are prepared by non-official members who list out departmental activities based on existing schemes and hike 5 to 10 per cent every year to their previous year budget allocation.

Since the district plans are not prepared in an integrated and participatory framework, they do not reflect the needs and priorities of the people, especially those belonging to marginalised sections and women.

The contributing factors for the above are, to name a few, fiscal problems of low revenue yield, lack of provision for untied grants, capacity constraints among elected leaders, irregular and inconsequential ward and gram sabha meetings, dearth of enlightened public and NGOs and lack of officials specialised in planning at sub-district level.

Basic services

As a result of the above, the delivery of basic services (drinking water, sanitation, streetlights and so on) is adversely affected. Despite several schemes and considerable expenditure on drinking water provision, many parts of Karnataka continue to face drinking water problem because of poor planning, poor governance and corruption.

Drinking water sources are installed in villages, not on the basis of long-term perspective, but on the basis of available fun-ds, influence of MLAs and MPs, and in a hurried manner at the end of year without properly ascertaining whether such a so-urce will sustain in the long-run.

The same is the case with rural infrastructure. Available funds are not used in a manner that will completely solve the problem of bad road or lack of drainage in one locality. The funds are used to build a small length of drainage in one village or locality. As a result, drainage water and waste matter does not flow out of the village but stagnates right in the village as the drainage is not constructed for the entire length.

In the absence of meaningful planning, the development funds are equally distributed among elected members or wards leading to thin spread of resources on a large number of works resulting in either incomplete or non-creation of permanent assets.

For a meaningful planning and development at the district level, the utmost need is reliable and authentic data and proper maintenance of accounts. Despite the recommendations by the 11th, 12th and 13th Finance Commissions with grants, no such data are available and accounts are not properly audited annually at all the three tier of panchayats. Hence the 14th Finance Commission earmarked grants for maintenance of data and auditing of accounts at the gram panchayat level.

For strengthening of decentralisation in Karnataka, the pertinent issue therefore is the need for long-term vision, accurate data at the local level, adequate resources and creation of permanent assets. These issues do not, however, figure in the election manifestoes of major parties. With the current status of planning and poor governance, the electoral promises, even if met, may not contribute to decentralised governance and development.

(Rajasekhar is Professor and Babu is Associate Professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)

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