Cooperative federalism: How local governments are undermined by states

Instead of empowering local governments by devolving more powers, functions and responsibilities, state governments simply treat them as mere implementing agencies.
Village Panchayat Meeting
Village Panchayat Meeting
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This piece is a part of TNM's reader-funded Cooperative Federalism Project. Indian residents can support the project here, and NRIs, please click here.

When we talk about cooperative federalism in our country, we focus on the relationship between Union and state governments and tend to ignore the role played by local governments. Since the enactment of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, the spirit of cooperative federalism has been automatically extended to the third tier of government–local governments, namely, village panchayats, municipalities and municipal corporations. So, one must understand that cooperative federalism is also the relationship between Union and local governments as well as state and local governments. 

Village panchayats and municipalities are state subjects, so it is the duty of the concerned state government to enact laws and work for the empowerment of local governments. However, instead of empowering local bodies by devolving more powers, functions and responsibilities, state governments simply treat them as mere implementing agencies. 

Not a level playing field

There are various factors, which denote how the local governments have been deprived of powers and are not on the same level as the state when it comes to governance. 

For the Union government to function properly, Parliamentary elections will happen on time. Similarly, for the state governments to function, Assembly elections take place once in five years. But many state governments do not even conduct elections for panchayats and municipalities at the set time, which means they aren’t able to work in a participatory manner.

There are also various schemes and programmes initiated by the Union and state governments at the panchayat or municipal level, which get implemented without the local government bodies having any say in the decision or planning.

Additionally, elected representatives from Parliamentary (MPs) or Assembly elections (MLAs) get a proper salary and other perks, but this doesn’t apply to elected local government representatives. They are only given an honorarium, which is not very much.  In the case of Tamil Nadu, an MLA’s salary is Rs. 1.05 lakh and an MP’s salary is Rs 1 lakh but local government representatives like Panchayat Presidents receive only Rs 1,000 as honorarium. While the present DMK government recently increased this to Rs 2000, this is still far from enough. 

Moreover, these elected local government representatives do not get funds on time and these delays make it challenging for them to carry out even basic maintenance work in their area.

The above factors clearly show how the spirit of cooperative federalism that should exist between the state government and local governments is undermined. This needs to be addressed so that the latter can function on a level playing field.

The scenario in Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, elections for posts in rural local governments in nine districts have been scheduled for October 6 and 9, 2021, but urban local government elections are still due to take place. Recently, the Supreme Court had given the Tamil Nadu state Election Commission four months time to complete the polls.

While it is commendable that the newly formed DMK government in Tamil Nadu has been working to conduct elections to local governments in a timely manner, something that was ignored by the previous state government, certain actions set a wrong precedent towards empowering local governments.

On Gandhi Jayanti, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK  Stalin took part in a Grama Sabha meet in Pappapatti Village Panchayat and he himself presided over the meeting, which was blatantly wrong. As per the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, every meeting of the Grama Sabha shall be presided over by the elected Panchayat President. A Chief Minister occupying the democratic space that has been allotted to an elected local government representative goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism. Not only that, he spoke highly about what the DMK government has done for the development of this village panchayat and mentioned about 202 promises made in the DMK Assembly election manifesto that have been implemented so far.

It clearly shows that the Chief Minister misused the Grama Sabha platform to achieve political gain amidst the rural local government election, which is going to be held in the next few days. The video of the Grama Sabha proceedings which was posted on Twitter and Facebook through his official handle was later deleted. And one should not forget the incident that took place before the Assembly election when the DMK party misused the Gram Sabha platform to raise slogans against the previous AIADMK government. Seeing this trend, some MLAs also presided over Grama Sabha meetings, which is totally wrong.

The participation of the Chief Minister in a Grama Sabha is a welcome move, but he should have acted as an observer or special representative, who would listen to the needs of people and their deliberations towards the development of the village panchayat.

Social justice vs political justice

Social justice is the basis to ensure political justice in any society. The present DMK government, as a strong advocate of social justice, must understand that it is their moral responsibility to ensure political justice in Tamil Nadu. The government should address the issues mentioned to level the playing field for local governments as well as promote participatory platforms like Grama Sabha in rural areas as well as ward committees and area sabhas in urban areas. The proper devolution of powers to local governments and the functioning of these participatory platforms will definitely pave the way to uphold the spirit of cooperative federalism.

Gurusaravanan M is a TNM member and Chairperson, Institute of Grassroots Governance. Views expressed are the author's own.

This piece is a part of TNM's reader-funded Cooperative Federalism Project. Indian residents can support the project here, and NRIs, please click here.

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