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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 26, New Delhi June 20, 2015

Theoretical Perspective of Decentralisation,...

Saturday 20 June 2015

by John S. Moolakkattu and Jos Chathukulam


Decentralisation has a long history. Political thinkers from Montesquieu to Madison suggest that decentralised governance can contribute to democratic participation, better representation, accountability and policy and governmental effectiveness. It is also seen as a means to moderate potential conflict from people who are ethnically and culturally different from the majority groups. Several philosophic traditions have enunciated the decentralisation principles. The anarchist tradition is a case in point. Women’s’ and new social movements and those belonging to the Gandhian tradition have all been known for their advocacy of decentralisation. Most of the modern Indian nationalist thinkers were not in favour of a strong centralised post-independent state.

Decentralisation is a theme discussed in relation to a wide range of related subjects like public sector reform, democracy, political reform, participation, empowerment, rural development, fiscal and economic development, accountability, and capacity building. (Smoke, 2003) Although it has been described as “one of the fashions of our time” (Manor 2006: 283), there is still a lot of lack of clarity about its exact meaning. The reason why decentralisation came to be a much talked-about subject stems partly from the fact that it has been adopted by people belonging to different political persuasions across the Left-Right divide. Bardhan tells us that this includes free-market economists who “tend to emphasise the benefits of reducing the power of the overextended or predatory state” to social thinkers who are “both anti-market and anti-centralised state”, advocating “assignment of control to local self-governing communities”. (Bardhan 2002: 185) Thus decentralisation is a “fluid and flexible discourse that can be utilised by different ideological interests”. (Mohan and Stokkes, 2000: 250) While the discourse on decentralisation evolved in the rest of the world in the context of the reform of public administration or for making development and governance participatory and close to the people, Gandhi’s advocacy of a decentralised order provided an additional source of legitimacy for such initiatives in India and a certain degree of sentimentality in that sense. Words like “transfer”, “spreading out”, “dispersion”, “diffusion”, “moving”, “placing”, “shifting”, “devolution”, or “delegation” are commonly used in the vocabulary of decentralisation.

The new public management and good governance stream also added to the impetus on decentralisation. For example, Osborne and Gaebler who, in their well-known work ‘Reinventing Government’, puts it as follows: ‘In today’s world things simply work better if those working in public organisations — schools, public housing developments, parks training programmes — have the authority to make many of their own decisions’. (Osborne and Gaebler 1993: 251) But the focus of the new public management was more on improving governmental effectiveness in terms of better service delivery for which decentra-lisation was one of the means. That is not the case with good governance, which could be seen either as subsuming the new public management or is implied in the new public management. Decentra-lisation has also been propped up by international agencies, including donor organisations, which may explicitly link aid to political reforms such as decentralisation in some cases. Such externally induced decentralisation schemes are also not so uncommon.

Decentralisation is expected to bring the process of decision-making closer to the people. In that way it contributes to the deepening of democracy. (Gaventa 2006) Decentralisation reforms can spur the generation of new spaces for the development of civil society and the expansion of the citizenship idea. (Avritzer, 2002) This will lead to the deepening and thickening of democracy at the local level, empowerment of local leaders and mobilisation and partici-pation of the formerly excluded classes.

Decentralisation Typologies 

Samoff (1990: 519) tells us that in order to make sense of the different forms of decentralisation and their results in particular contexts it is necessary to understand it as “a political initiative, as a fundamentally political process, and consequently as a site for political struggle”. For long the classification of Rondinelli and Nellis (1986: 6—10), who identified four major types of decentralisation, have come to rule the roost. They are deconcent-ration, delegation, devolution, and privatisation. Deconcentration amounted to a form of administrative dispersion of central offices to the regions. Delegation is “the transfer of managerial responsibility for specifically defined functions to organisations outside the regular bureaucratic structure” without losing oversight by the Central authority. It is an ad hoc arrangement and the Central (in the case of India, State) governments do not normally interfere with the functioning of these organisations, thereby giving them some measure of autonomy. Devolution implies the formation of elected local government with the necessary statutory mandate and autonomy to operate without being unduly controlled by the central authority. Privatisation, though does not imply inter-governmental transfer, means the handing over of some of the governmental functions to private and voluntary organisations. Collins and Green (1994) have reservations about the inclusion of privatisation. For them decentralisation effectively transfers powers, functions and finance to the regions, and not mere transfer from the public to private sector as happens in privatisation. Echoing the same sentiments, one commentator explains:

While private sector participation in development is now accepted as a reality and a desirable option, privatisation raises questions that are radically different from those of decentralisation. For one thing, privatisation targets allocation efficiency and does not share decentralisation’s concern for equity through the redistribution of power. For another, the former focuses on the contribution of a narrow circle of economic actors (investors, entrepreneurs, and individuals with access to capital or information), whereas the primary objective of decentralisation is the dispersal of economic and political power in such a way that the mass of the people have a sense of participating in decisions affecting their life and well-being. Thirdly, once the state surrenders the ownership and management of an enterprise, it (the enterprise) ceases to be part of the “public business” for which government ministers are individually or collectively responsible. In any case, by no stretch of the imagination can privatisation be equated with mass participation in development, or regarded as a major landmark in political decentralisation. (Balogun 2000, 155)

This leaves us with three major forms: deconcentration, delegation, and devolution. (Rondinelli 1999; Parker 1995) Deconcentration does not involve any transfer of authority to the lower tiers of government. (Litvack et al. 1998:4) and is therefore the weakest of all forms. Delegation transfers responsibility to local governments or to semi-autonomous organi-sations that are not subjected to day-to-day control by a higher tier, but are answerable to it since the real power vests with it in the ultimate analysis. Devolution is reflective of genuine decentralisation in that it provides the most direct link with democracy, ensures popular participation, and seeks to achieve empower-ment of the local citizenry. (John and Chathukulam 2003) Participation and decentra-lisation are considered to have a complementary relationship in that a good decentralisation scheme requires participation of some kind to ensure that the local government is responsive to local needs. Likewise decentralisation can throw up greater space for participation by bringing the government closer to the people at a level at which the costs of participation are considerably less. Hence, participation is seen both as a means to and as a goal of (successful) democratic decentralisation. (Livtack and Seddon 1999: 17)

The decentralisation typology in the following page captures the diverse ways by which schemes of decentralisation have been understood by scholars.

According to Musgrave (1959) the utility of public sector is to be measured in terms of its efficiency in the allocation of resources, income redistribution and macroeconomic stability. Conventional understanding in public economics was that the first of these functions is suitable for local governments and the rest by the Central Government. Added to that is the fact that decentralisation can generate regional inequalities. Local government can achieve efficient allocation of resources by being more sensitive to and knowledgeable about the needs and preferences of the local citizenry. (Oates, 1972) Particularly in the West where household mobility is quite common, people tend to settle down in the jurisdiction of those local governments that can provide for public services competitively. Further, decentralisation may encourage experimentation and innovation, enabling good practices worthy of replication to emerge. According to Francis and James (2003: 326), the benefits of decentralisation include “improved efficiency of public service provision, more appropriate services, better governance, and the empowerment of local citizens”.

It may be noted that issues of social justice and inclusion have been less salient in decentralisation initiatives other than in India where the issue of caste and more recently gender have been matters of serious governance concerns. Most decentralisation schemes are urban-based as opposed to the largely rural-based decentralisation in India. Decentralisation schemes are often limited to some regions or cities within a country rather than embracing the country as a whole within its framework. As in any other country, decentralisation, particularly devolution, serves as a means of citizen education and democracy as well as incorporation of citizen input into local level planning processes. There are arguments that tend to suggest that decentralisation should not take place before the necessary capacity is created. This is a ‘chicken and egg’ type argument according to Conyers (1990) as the need for building capacity emerges only if there is strong commitment to decentralisation.

The current appeal of decentralisation has been rooted in its potentialbenefits rather than any sentimentality. The benefits include: political education; training in political leadership; political stability; political equality; accountability; responsiveness; improved decision-making and inter-organisational coordination; and the promo-tion of competition among local governments. (Smith 1985:18-30) Political education teaches people about political debate, the selection of representatives, and the nature of policies, plans, and budgets in a democracy. Training in political leadership is oriented towards the development of skills in policy-making, political party operations, and budgeting early on, leading to the gradual progression of local politicians as national politicians. Political stability is secured by engagement in formal politics, which strengthens trust in government so that ‘social harmony, community spirit and political stability’ are achieved. Decentralisation also creates a mechanism to prepare the masses for the profound social and economic changes associated with development. Political equality results from more broad-based political participation which reduces the possibility of concentration of power. Since power is diffused, it can give voice to the poor and marginalised as well. Accountability improves as local representatives are constantly in touch with the people and can be held responsible for their policies and actions. Voting in elections to local bodies becomes a mechanism to register their approval or disapproval for the representative’s performance. Since local representatives know the needs of the local people better, they tend to be more responsive and make an effort to meet them in a cost-effective way. Better decision-making and inter-organisational coordination take place since responsibilities and powers are clearly defined and distributed between Central and local institutions. The promotion of competition is achieved when supply- and demand-side benefits derive from institutional pluralism, which in turn leads to economic efficiency. (Smith 1985:30-37) These benefits are captured by another commentator in terms of three grand values: political values; governance values; and efficiency values (Wolman 1990:30).

Given the fact that all decentralisation schemes are varied and contextual, there is no automaticity about the benefits accruing from them. Instead, decentralisation may engender certain problems such as intensification of the forces of secession and ethnic identities, political instability, elite capture of power, inter-regional income disparities, and macro-economic instability caused by budget deficits, local government fiscal recklessness, and local government indebtedness. (Turner and Hulme 1997:158; Prud’homme 1995) Whether these disadvantages are inherent flaws of decentra-lisation or whether other factors are involved is a moot point.

Although the specific form that decentrali-sation takes varies considerably across countries, some of the problems are of a similar kind. They include fiscal controls imposed by Central governments on local governments, lack of accountability and autonomy, lack of qualified staff, weak institutional capacity, a lack of strategic deployment of decentralisation policies, lack of coordination and conflicts between Central and local governments, poor incentives for local government performance and so on. (Rondinelli 1990:49-54; Smoke and Lewis 1996:1290; Manor 2001) These problems have led many to doubt the value of decentralisation. Some have advo-cated centralisation on the grounds of its potential benefits. (Prud’homme 1995)

There is no consensus about what should be done to implement the decentralisation policies successfully. Some theorists, based on field experience, argue that the benefits of decentra-lisation are contingent on factors like strong enabling legal frameworks, political will, the allocation of substantial resources to local governments, high degree of central state capacity, well-developed civil society, free press, robust multi-party system, long experience with democracy, and high adult literacy. (Rondinelli et al. 1989:77-78; Crook and Manor 1998:83-84; Manor 2001; Heller 2001: 138-139)

The challenge for all governments is to strike a balance between the centralisation and decentralisation tendencies that does justice to the claims made by enthusiasts on both sides. How to do so, however, is a question with which most governments continue to grapple. A strong Central Government is also important in ensuring equity among local districts. According to the World Bank, interjurisdictional equity comes from the willingness of the central state to engage in redistribution among regions.

Paul Smoke (2002:38-39) points out that decentralising political and economic powers to local institutions requires ‘fundamental changes in attitudes about the way that the public sector works’: changing bureaucrats’ monopoly over decision-making and control of local authorities; educating local communities about how to hold their authorities accountable for their actions; educating local communities about the importance of paying taxes for the services they need; and inculcating a culture of democracy. Undertaking all these tasks simultaneously can be quite daunting. For most countries carrying out decentralisation reforms, the challenge may stem either from the inability to devise a political and economic mechanism to master the complexity entailed in the implementation of such policies or from a deliberate unwillingness on the part of the higher level political elites to share political power with local institutions. In some instances, more decentralisation may mean overloading local institutions, while more centralisation may mean less power-sharing.

The centripetal forces pull power and authority towards the centre of the system, while the centrifugal forces push power and authority towards the system’s subunits. Centrifugal forces can disintegrate a system, but at the same time these forces can increase access from local to the Central level, and can thereby contribute to decentralisation. The classical model of federalism, in fact, is based on the federal government and constituent units. Local government was not in the picture and was just a matter of concern for the constituent units of federation alone since such concerns fell in the exclusive jurisdiction of such units. The US federal Constitution, the oldest, does not mention local government at all. The very existence of a federal structure is a significant step toward decentralisation in one sense, although it is perfectly possible for units that had some kind of autonomous existence to decide to form a federation rather than be the result of such a federal arrangement. Federal states are by definition devolved, though the powers devolved by the federal government to lower level governmental units can be quite limited When a local government system is also incorporated into a federal system, what we see is a system of multi-level governance with the local government at the bottom. The growing understanding of the need to govern and solve problems at various territorial spheres and by multi-level governmental institutions is reflective of three processes that have come into vogue in modern times: globalisation, urbanisation, and the shift from government to governance.

Romeo (2003: 92) points out that politically motivated decentralisation undertaken by Central governments may be underpinned by motives which include: “extending the influence of the dominant political party by creating a new layer of local political personnel or countering political threats to the centre from ethnically based opposition forces by breaking their regional base into multiple jurisdictions”.

Theory of Decentralisation — the Idea of Subsidiarity

Modern decentralisation tends to use subsidiarity as the organising principle of decentralisation. The principle of subsidiarity has its origin in Catholic social thought. (Henkel, 2002) Pope Pius XI’s encyclical letter, Quadregasimo Anno, of 1931 provides a definition of subsidiarity which is even now widely cited.

In that document, he says:

It is indeed true, as history clearly proves that owing to the change in social conditions, much that was formerly done by small bodies can nowadays be accomplished only by large corporations. Nonetheless, just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so, too, it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organisation to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies. This is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable, and it retains its full truth today. (Cited in Henkel 2002, p. 364)

Subsidiarity is synonymous with sphere sovereignty and does not normally envisage a hierarchical structure in which local bodies are placed at the bottom of the governmental ladder. Instead it works like a partnership in which different rungs of government work symbiotically in order to enhance citizen participation and effective delivery of the services. The deciding factor from the point of view of subsidiarity is whether a particular function can be performed at a level closest to the intended beneficiaries without affecting efficiency.

From a political perspective, decentralisation is considered a key strategy for promoting good governance, greater pluralism, accountability, transparency, citizen participation and develop-ment (Crook 1994:340). Administratively, decentralisation is an important process that allows decongestion of the Central Government and reduces the workload to manageable proportions. The theoretical argument for fiscal decentralisation traces back to Madison and Rousseau, in the 17th and 18th centuries (Wolman, 1990), though they had different reasons for supporting decentralisation. Though decentra-lisation is not specifically mentioned in the Federalist Papers (FP39), Madison held that the people must be given the mandate to elect their leaders as a way of “composing the distinct and independent regions, to which they respectively belong”. (Rossiter, 1961: 243) Rousseau also favoured small government. To him, “rulers overburdened with business, see nothing for themselves: clerks govern”. According to Wolman (1990), small democratic (local) governments reflected the genuine aspirations of the people, as most of them tended to distrust the activities of the Central Government.

Decentralisation and Allocative Efficiency

Decentralisation, despite the benefits clamed by its supporters, can lead to greater regional disparities, promote instability, and undermine overall efficiency by creating more rent-seeking opportunities at the local level. (Prud’homme 1995) But there is no conclusive evidence about corruption in all settings. There is in fact conflicting claims about these. For example, Fisman and Gatti (2002: 325) found that fiscal decentralisation “is strongly and significantly associated with lower corruption.” This contrasts with the study made by Fan, Lin, and Treisman (2009: 32—33), which concluded: “In countries with a larger number of adminis-trative or governmental tiers, reported bribery was both more frequent and more costly to firms . . . The more tiers of government and the more local personnel with pockets to fill, the greater the danger that the rent of office will be ‘overgrazed’.”

The argument runs that if natural resources are managed at the local level, by communities or local government, then they will be looked after better, and more efficiently, resulting in improved opportunities for sustainable liveli-hoods. Systems of accountability are more effective and transparent as a result, and local leadership can make effective demands on the central state. Such decentralised arrangements thus allow more community participation and therefore the voices of people are more likely to be heard in policy decisions.

Agrawal and Ribot’s (1999) “actors, powers, and accountability” approach to empirically characterise decentralisations is common. In India, the categories are functions, functionaries and finance. In this approach, researchers first focus on which actors are receiving new powers, what those powers are, and the kinds of accountability relations in which those actors are located. The domain of local discretion is important since it is the domain of freedom around which democratic local government, citizenship, and civil society can form and develop. Even if elected, local authorities who do not hold discretionary powers are not worth the name.

Elite capture and upward accountability can compromise the effectiveness of representation and service delivery. The failure of the Central Government to empower elected local authorities also undermines their effectiveness and legitimacy. Local authorities need discretion over meaningful matters in order to serve the population.

One area of concern for local governments that have come into being as a result of a robust legal framework is how to accommodate customary authorities where they continue to hold sway over the community. Under some conditions, customary authorities can pose a threat to the development of local democratic government and to effective decentralisation by remaining as a parallel power centre. In other places, they often acts as intermediaries between the local councillors and people. The challenge is to come up with schemes of decentralisation that draw on the strengths and wisdom of traditional authorities while reinforcing and legitimating modern local government institutions and processes.

Participatory Development

Traditionally, periodic elections alone were seen as the means of ensuring citizen participation and accountability. Elected representatives took decisions behind closed doors. This has been found inadequate at a time when there is a wide recognition that local elections that are infrequent need to be supplemented by avenues for direct citizen engagement in decision-making, and this can help forge accountability. The presence of an effective mechanism of downward accountability presupposes the existence of a vibrant civil society. But if the participatory budgeting experience of Brazil is to be taken into consideration, conflict can emerge as to the representative status of the elected members vis-a-vis the citizens. Whatever, care has to be exercised to ensure that participatory processes do not undermine the representation of the elected representatives on whom alone responsibility can be pinned.

Participatory development received a boost with the publication of the works of Robert Chambers (1983; 1997), an expert on participatory methods based in the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, who critiqued conventional development practice for their lack of participation and insisted on the ability of the local and illiterate people to gather data, analyse those and make observations about their life situation, which could serve as the basis for addressing their needs. Unlike the earlier methods like Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), where the researcher often collects information from the public for his/her own use, in Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), the information collection itself is a quick, cheap and participatory process involving the local people who also get empowered to act on the basis of the information. More recently, some have referred to these approaches as Participatory Learning and Action and Participatory Action Research.

In comparing RRA and PRA, Chambers (1997) noted that although RRA does draw on people’s local knowledge, the collection of data is done by outsiders for the purpose of taking away this knowledge and applying it to plans, publications, and projects developed by people outside the local community. Although PRA also seeks to discover local knowledge by engaging with local people, its purpose is to draw on people’s wisdom in ways that strengthen their capabilities and empower them to take local, self-willed, community-led action; to use their own skills to monitor and evaluate the action they take; and to build locally owned institutions that can become self-sustaining. Participatory methods also create the potential for developing new and lasting democratic institutions. The application of PRA requires a change of mindset. Community practitioners must renounce their “expert” role to become co-learners with community members, believing in and developing the capacity of the ordinary people to take charge of their lives.

From Participatory Democracy to Deliberative Democracy

The most definitive account of participatory democracy in modern times from the angle of political science was provided by Carole Pateman (1970). Her account drew on the political thought of Mill, Rousseau and GDH Cole. She concluded that active participation is a means of citizen’s self-empowerment and make them experience a sense of political potency. She, however, extended this notion beyond the governmental level so as to embrace other forums like workplace democracy as in the former Yugoslavia. While Pateman spoke about extending participation from the governmental sector to other arenas, Macpherson (1977:108) said even within the governmental sector itself democracy needs to deepen in several sites. He called for a “pyramidal system with a direct democracy at the base and delegate democracy at every level above that”. Because the base of the pyramid is direct democracy with a provision for recall of the delegates at the higher levels, it is possible to exercise control over the representatives by the citizenry, according to him, although he is fully aware of the debilitating effects of social and economic inequalities in achieving such a democracy.

Shifting the centre of citizenship idea from one centred on state-citizen relations to a pluralist model (Young 1990) has led to new definitions of the concept such as participatory citizenship, inclusive citizenship (Gaventa 2002; Kabeer 2002), active citizenship (Lister 1997), and citizenship from below or “insurgent citizenship” (Holston 1998). Seen in this way practices of citizenship extend beyond “taking up invitations to participate” or “invited” spaces of citizenship to creating “own opportunities and terms of engagement” reflecting greater agency. (Cornwall 2002, 50) Miraftab (2004) has referred to it as “invented” spaces of citizenship, suggesting to include both invited and invented spaces of citizenship. This idea has resemblances with the type of subjectivity with which people participate. One can distinguish between people’s participation with a focus on formally ensuring that a certain number of people are present regardless of whether they have the right subjectivity informing their participation. The distinction between engineered participation and citizen participation (John and Chathukulam 2007) is useful here.

Participatory democracy declined due to its utopianism and its failure to confront the complexity, size and scale of advanced industrial societies. The assumption that people are enthusiastic and capable of participating in arenas of governance closest to them is quite naive and does not adequately take into consideration factors like the burden or cost of participation. (Warren 1996) Dryzek (2000) says: “Deliberation as a social process is distinguished from other kinds of communication in that deliberators are amenable to changing their judgements, preferences, and views during the course of their interactions, which involve persuasion, rather than coercion, manipulation, or deception. The essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government.” (Dryzek, 2000: 1)

Although deliberation is a constitutive element of democracy, it is only recently that it has been brought to the centre-stage of the democratic discourse. The ideas of Habermas on civil society and public sphere have contributed considerably to this new focus. (Habermas1989) More particularly, the value of deliberation has been underlined by his idea that individual preferences can be changed through active interaction including patient attention to the voice of others. This penchant for deliberative democracy reflects a dissatisfaction with liberal political theory, particularly the interest aggregation model of politics.

The theme of decentralisation through a net-work of communities was echoed by political philosophers like Charles Taylor. He thought that devolution, based on the principle of subsidiarity, can be good for democratic empowerment inasmuch as it will help citizens to identify with the political community. The creation of inclusive communities is the concern of a host of scholars. (Tam 1998; Taylor 1990) Market individualism and authoritarianism are to be replaced by enlightened individualism and pluralism in such inclusive communities. In this way, active citizenship and democratic power relations can be made to thrive, and a sense of mutual responsibility can be developed. A participatory exercise should lead to dialogical action and in a dialogue, the participants see and act “unencumbered by any corrective device, any conditioning, any pre-conceived image of one another, or any fear or design of any kind. Otherwise no one really relates to one another, and the dialogue is transformed either into a multi-monologue, a sheer waste of time and energy or into an opportunity for some to manipulate others with greater subtlety”. (Rahnema 1990, p. 206)

Deliberative democracy is a form of partici-patory democracy formulated by a host of writers mainly coming from the Western countries. Shapiro (2003) in fact thinks that participatory democracy can be subsumed under deliberative democracy. Despite this, participatory democracy continues to have its sway globally, particularly in the non-Western world. Deliberative democracy represents a form of democracy where issues are discussed and consensus achieved through the ‘force of the better argument’, as Habermas says. Influenced by the post-modernist dislike for consensus, we now have agonistic forms of democracy which see agonism as opposed to antagonism as the very stuff of politics. (Mouffe 2000) Deliberative democracy, although having several strands, has a number of common defining features. According to Heffrey D Hilmer (2010: 51),

...deliberative democratic theorists emphasise rational public deliberation among free and equal citizens about matters of common concern. The goal of deliberation is to come to an understanding of what is in the best interest of those deliberating—the common good or, in Rousseau’s famous terminology, the “general will” of the community. Ideally, the process of deliberation transforms private preferences into public claims that pass or fail the test of public assessment. Of equal importance, the deliberative process is understood to legitimate subsequent policies. Thus much of deliberative democratic theory focuses on the mode of participation—that is, deliberation among citizens. 

The moot point, as Pateman asks, is: “how do we reconcile the demands of deliberative and participatory democracy?” (1970: 136). Mutz (2006) says that participation may undermine deliberation and vice versa. Deliberation that requires expression of differing views with friends and associates in face-to-face settings would prevent many people from partaking in such forums, thereby under-mining participation as such.

According to one commentator,

Arguments for more participation too often reek of a sort of moral conviction about how citizens should conduct themselves and engage in the world... Insisting that people are something they are not can also lead to desperately unrealistic expectations. There are practical arguments against participation, given the cognitive limitations and difficulties faced by citizens, and complexity and dilemmas of the modern political process. More participation is not always the right or even the viable option. (Stoker, 2006: 150—1)

Fung and Wright (2001: 7) talked about ‘Empowered Deliberative Democracy’, that seeks to build democracy and participation on the capabilities of the ordinary people and enable them to translate what they deliberate into specific actions for their betterment. Cases of democratic decentralization that satisfy their criterion include the Kerala experiment in participatory planning and participatory budgeting in Port Alegre in Brazil. In either case, marginalised groups were able to claim political space and achieve outcomes beneficial for them contrary to the traditional appropriation of such decisions by the landed interests. In such cases the manner of defining citizenship entails the ability to assert one’s rights and expand the political space for such assertion. The transformation of individuals from subjects, clients and beneficiaries to citizens capable of engaging in decision-making is what is meant here. (Stewart, 1995)

A number of thinkers, concerned with theories of political renewal and the invigoration of the public sphere, have advocated a radical form of democracy. Commentators like Chantal Mouffe and William Connolly have highlighted the political and democratic implications of diversity and value pluralism in communities. Unlike mainstream notions of community built around a broad consensus, radical democracy does not see the need to forge consensus out of difference. Instead it argues that social diversity gives rise to incommensurable value pluralism, which in turn may generate conflict and dissent leading to the expansion of political debate reflective of the diverse interests that communities represent.

Decentralisation in India has been guided by mixed motives. Apart from providing the local populace some control over the local affairs by attempting to make the local bodies self-governing institutions, the 73rd Amendment sought to achieve goals that local governments in other countries have not contemplated. Social justice has been one of the key goals of decentralisation in India. Apart from providing representation to the excluded groups, it is seen as a key agency for local economic development through local planning. How these contradictory goals have brought ambiguity and a lack of direction in the decentralisation process is a matter that needs investigation.

One development associated with decentrali-sation is to go beyond the putting in place of elected representatives and take recourse to mini publics like the Gram Sabha and neighbour-hood groups. In some countries like the UK, this has been known as ‘double devolution’. This is aimed at democratic renewal suggesting “a rethinking of the role of local authorities and particularly councillors, which has at its root consideration of the interaction of representative and more ‘direct’ democracy at local level. Here the representative is re-cast as facilitator, moving ‘towards a job that is more proactive and community focused than the current role’.”(Barnett 2011: 279) While this sounds great as an idea, operationalising this concept has been found wanting.

NGOS, CBOs and SHGs in Local Governance

With the shift from the narrow notion of government to governance, several actors have been drawn into the process of governance. Along with this shift, it is widely recognised that civil society organisations can play an important role to make local governance more transparent, participatory and accountable. Non-governmental organisations, which constitute an integral part of civil society, have been actively engaged in working with local institutions to achieve useful synergies. Over the past two decades, the number and types of NGOs have expanded greatly, and they have played an ever-increasing role in grassroots mobilisation, service delivery, and policy-making. The space of NGOs expanded as many governments are being restructured. The revival of democracy, especially of the partici-patory kind, has made it necessary for NGOs and local governments to redefine their roles and look for new forms of collaboration. (Meyer 1999:18) NGOs also act as intermediaries, providing links between governments, donors, other NGOs, and local communities. The NGOs have an important role to play in strengthening the capacity of local bodies. Many NGOs have skilled personnel and wealth of experience which could be made available to the local governments.

The NGO approach to capacity development and training will be different from the conventional governmental approach and is likely to go beyond the rigidities that characterise the latter. The NGOs as well as community-based organisations (CBOs) can play a mediating function to conscientise and empower the citizenry and also engage in advocacy on their behalf. But in all these, one has to accord primacy to the local elected representatives even as pressures are brought to bear on them to take people-friendly decisions.

Another area of interest for decentralisation-watchers in some parts of the world, especially in places like Kerala, is the organisation of a large number of self-help groups (SHGs) of relatively poor women centred around each local body with support and partial funding by the State Government. This is in contrast to most areas where the SHGs function independently. The working of the Kudumbasree Mission in the State in partnership with the local bodies has been found to be serving a number of functions. Not only do these women derive monetary assistance for their various income-generating projects, particularly under the Women Component Programme, in addition, the Panchayat-linked SHG women have been identified as a useful conduit for the effective implementation of Centrally-sponsored schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and for ensuring a minimum level of participation in the Gram Sabha. The SHGs thus provide a support structure to the Panchayat even as they derive economic benefits from it.

Second Generation Governance

Local government is seen as the institutional reflection of webs of relations, the framework within which interaction can take place, and as a consensus-builder, building links across disparate networks. (Healey, 1997) Ideas of ‘metagovernance’ and ‘second generation’ theorising on governance draw on deliberative and inter-subjective approaches. (Sorensen, 2005) Here local politicians have a ‘metagovernance’ role in constructing and influencing local networks. (Sorensen and Torfing, 2009) ‘Metagovernance’ ‘involves the organisation of the conditions for governance in its broadest sense’. (Jessop, 2003: 107) For Jessop and others, it represents the ways in which the state has ‘modified and reconfigured its presentation and operation to adapt to changes in the politico-social environment’ (Kelly, 2006: 607), and is essentially concerned with changing ‘technologies’ of state power.

Others have seen it more in terms of the negotiation of a set of values, norms and principles designed to facilitate interactive governance and societal learning—‘governing how to govern’ (Kooiman and Jentoft, 2009: 823), and fundamental values of respect, equity and inclusion are proposed. However, actors in the network are seldom accountable to elected local governments or represent the populace in the strict sense. (Bogason, 2004; Johanson, 2006) Inasmuch as it allows the possibility of non-elected actors entering the political sphere, it is a matter of concern as well. (Andersen 2004)


Decentralisation has become a new mantra not only in the public sector, but also in large organisations, including the corporate sector. In this area we have dealt with some of the theoretical aspects of this process. The manner and goals of decentralisation reforms in different parts of the world vary. This makes comparisons to measure the degree of decentralisation difficult. Those that tend to emphasise its political spinoffs are less concerned about questions of allocative efficiency. Those initiatives focused on allocative efficiency in turn are less concerned whether decentralisation leads to genuine democrati-sation. The question of decentralisation as a mechanism to dispense with social justice is an additional factor to be considered, particularly in contexts like India. Ultimately the success of decentralization will depend on achieving a balance among these seemingly contradictory roles.

The current trend is to make decentralisation more participatory and deliberative by extending it beyond the realm of the level of representatives to an appropriate level so as to reflect some nascent form of direct democracy. While this is generally seen as a welcome development, its potential to undermine the legitimacy of the elected representatives should also be taken seriously. What matters most is the degree of political commitment that the higher level political leadership, particularly that of the dominant parties, has towards effective devolution, given the lack of pressure from the grassroots for realising it. The CBOs and NGOs can play a role in generating such pressures from below as well as play an advocacy and capacity-building role in support of the structures that have been created in the wake of decentralisation reforms.


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Dr John S. Moolakkattu is a Professor and the Director, School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam (Kerala). He can be contacted at e-mail: Dr Jos Chathukulam is the Director, Centre for Rural Management, Perumpaikadu P.O., Kottayam (Kerala). He can be contacted at e-mail:

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