Six-tier federalism a must
SAILENDRA NATH GHOSH
Mahatma Gandhi had called the system of governance by elected representatives unsupported by pillars of participatory democracy, a sham. Without anchorage to participatory democracy at the grassroots level, the organs of representative governance can easily drift away from people’s moorings. Because of this, the parliamentary democracies of the U.K. variety and presidential democracies of the French or the U.S. model have been steadily losing their democratic character and are fast becoming pocket boroughs of corporate interests and militarists.
Half a century of our experience under a two-tier federal system of governance by elected representatives, too, has fully vindicated Gandhi. The party-rivalry based system of governance by representatives has been the vehicle for spreading divisiveness and adversarial relationships. By creating deep animosities within, it weakens resistance against neo-colonialism and other external enemies. Besides, it becomes an instrument for promoting the nexus between politicians and criminals. Things would have been very different if the people at the grassroots level had been vested with powers to take basic decisions about their own lives and livelihood.
We will discuss later what a sea-change participatory democracy could make in the political, social and economic climate of the country. At this stage, let us give only a hint of what changes it could have made in the Gujarat situation, which is now haunting India. If real powers had been statutorily vested in village communities, all religious communities and ethnic groups would have had an opportunity to share power at the fundamental level. The fear of a centralist Hindu Raj would have faded, jehad would have lost its support base, and Godhra’s barbaric killing would probably not have taken place. Even if any acts of wickedness did occur due to external instigation, the self-assured gram sabhas could guard, village after village, against criminal and communal elements and build fortresses of communal amity. Instead of the state government’s overriding control over the police, the zilla parishads and the block-level, mandal and village panchayats would have had control over the police at respective levels.
People’s direct participation in decision-making is possible only at the village level, in ‘face-to-face communities’. This participatory process could possibly be extended to the mini-block level too. But to provide for people’s participation at these two basic levels, we would need to introduce six-tier federalism, even while recognizing that at the block and district levels, along with the state and the national levels, representative democracy would be inescapable.
Six-tier federalism is very different from the present-day two-tier system in which panchayats are merely a grafted arm. Despite the tall talk about ‘panchayati raj’, the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution is feeble in its provision. It says in Article 243A: ‘A gram sabha may exercise such powers and perform such functions at the village level as the legislature of a state may by law provide.’ This reduces the gram sabhas to the status of the state legislature’s – in effect, the state government’s – hangers-on.
As against the existing two-tier federalism, with condescending provision for panchayats, the six-tier federalism would include:
(i) A government at the level of a village – or a cluster of villages, depending on population density – answerable to the gram sabha.
(ii) A government at mini-block level consisting of representatives from the gram sabhas to take decisions about inter-clusteral issues but requiring endorsement from assemblies of people inhabiting the mini-block, quarterly or at least three times a year. This means a mix of participatory and representative democracy at the mini-block level.
(iii) Governments at the block, district, state and the union levels answerable to the legislatures elected for the respective levels.
There should be no scope for partisan politics or party-backed candidates at the village, block and district levels. Only the individual’s merit and service record would count.
Each level of government would have clearly defined functions, each being independent in its own sphere, none having the right to override the other, or the right to order superseding of the other.
The gram sabha’s constitutional right and obligation would be to manage the land, water and forest resources for the benefit of the community. It will have to see that the village is self-sufficient and independent to meet all its vital needs and how it can produce surpluses to import the necessities for which it has in any case to depend on others. This means, the villagers as a collective will have to discuss the mix of crops (cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits, milk, cash crops) they would need to produce in the next season by mutual cooperation, the varieties within each species of crop, the requirements of plot-wise soil amendments, the pattern to be adopted for surface and groundwater use during the ensuing season and the construction needed therefor, the current potential of bio-fuels, solar and wind energy and micro-hydel within the village or cluster of villages.
The village assemblies would also have to review periodically (i) the status of tree farming and pastures (ii) the quantity and quality-wise sufficiencies or shortcomings of cottage industry products and other local manufactures (iii) family-wise consumption needs and availability of resources (iv) the pattern of diseases and local availability for their cures (v) the measures needed for health and education and the estimate of resources needed therefor, and (vi) the permissibility of locating proposed industries within their area.
When these rights and obligations are transferred to the gram sabha and their executive arm, the gram panchayat, they would have to be clothed with the constitutional power of levying taxes. They must be freed from dependence on the district administration’s disbursements.
No doubt, in many areas sarpanches make personal gain at the expense of the community. But this can happen at present because the panchayats, once elected, have no continuing answerability to the village assembly every month. Once the gram sabhas are empowered and two-tier federalism yields place to a six-tier federal system, things will begin to change in the desired direction.
Ambedkar was skeptical of Gandhi’s concept of each village becoming a republic. He was afraid of the despotism of upper castes and moneyed men. ‘What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism,’ he asked. There were reasons for his fear. But the solution lies not in denying powers to the people and vesting these in the politicians and bureaucrats. There was, and is, the need for a concomitant measure, namely, trade union-type organization for poor people’s solidarity in the villages to prevent the usurping of panchayat power by local despots.
Six-tier federalism is important from another perspective. Today, the provincial mandarins have become very powerful but they do not necessarily represent the true interests of the people in their respective states. If in a new constitutional set-up, there are elected legislatures at the district and block levels, the members of these bodies could keep watch over every move of the provincial figures and keep the latter’s self-interested pursuits in check. That could also be the best means to minimize corruption at all levels.
In the existing system a person without any record of service to the people can straightaway stand as a candidate for state assembly or Parliament. In the new constitutional set-up, there will be an urge among the people to examine each candidate’s record of service at the local self- government levels.
The proposed constitutional change aimed at empowerment of people has the potential to revolutionize the power structure. It will, in consequence, curb the arbitrariness of ruling politicians and bureaucrats and challenge the elected representatives to develop oneness with the people at the peril of their support base. Naturally, it will raise many questions: Will the separateness of village republics weaken the unity of the country? What changes will be necessary in the all-India and state-level services (IAS, IPS, etc.)? Will these changes affect their efficiency? What changes will be necessary in the domain of administration of justice?
If the gram sabhas are entrusted with all the functions mentioned above, they will claim precedence in levying taxes and retaining the major share of tax revenue: will this create problems in meeting the costs of defence forces, inter-state transport, satellite communication, and so on? If the gram sabhas object to the location of certain polluting industries, will this impede overall national development?
Details will have to be worked out by several panels, if necessary. But there is no doubt that the benefits far outweigh the transitional uncertainties. One thing is certain. The country’s unity, instead of weakening, will be greatly strengthened. The analogy with the disunity that prevailed in the middle ages is misplaced. At that time, there were many kingdoms with their own narrow interests. In contrast, what we propose will be autonomous bodies of people’s power seeking the fullest development of each locale’s potential and interdependence between all areas based on mutual cooperation. Moreover, we are in the era of electronic communication, which can keep all services in fine fettle. We need to stick to the core principle: strength lies neither in centralism nor in pluralism lacking rootedness in unity. Vitality and strength come from organicism.
As in animal biology, so in social biology and polity, organicism has to be the governing principle. Centralism in a polity can lead to overheating at the top, comparable to a meningitis-like phenomenon in one part and drained-out vitality in the rest of the body.
Organicism is based on the principles of autonomy of organs, load sharing, buffering and containment of pressures (shock absorption) and all-inclusive interlinkages serviced by a most efficient information and instant response producing system. Of course, there are limits to applying this biological design in refashioning society. But its essence has to be the basis if the ideal of a society embedded in people’s power and structured in separateness and differentiation of functions between different levels of governance is to be realized. This differentiation is necessary to guard against interference in grassroot level functions. This concept of separate circles in the governance system will cause no harm because the bridging between different levels will be done by the compelling need for interdependence.
Moreover, the society which functions like a spiral, i.e., a continuum, has an inherent urge to throw up transducers which derive power from some sources (formations) to transfer it to others. Thus, the designed differentiation for functional purposes, the inevitable pull for integration with the surroundings for reasons of existence, and the society’s innate transductive power which would together make up an organismic unity at each level. This is very much in accord with the Gandhian concept of oceanic circles. As the circle spreads, new levels of unity would have to appear on the basis of the operation of the aforesaid principles. Notably, this is radically different from the pattern of centralist, pyramidic, hierarchical structures.
Multi-tier federalism would limit the Union government’s role to external affairs, defence and defence industries, currency, intelligence collection and coordination, communication, space, foreign trade policy and a few other subjects. Much of the state government’s powers will also be distributed among district governments and other structures of governance encompassing narrower circles. At the state level, home affairs would not be the exclusive preserve of the state government: it would have to be a concurrent subject to be shared with the district and other levels. Under a concept of multi-tier federalism, inter-zonal, inter-state and national councils will have very important coordinating roles governing several spheres. The limiting of the Union or the state government’s functions is not to weaken these organs but to distribute the load and bring efficiency in every domain.
If such multi-tier federalism had been visualized in pre-independence days, there may not have been a Partition, for no religious or ethnic community would have had any basis for fear of domination by another group or a centralized authority. Such federalism can be the lasting solution for problems in the Kashmir Valley, Bodoland and the like. It could have been the solution for problem areas like Kosovo in Yugoslavia, were it accepted by both sides in time, before the situation went out of control. This is real self-determination. It is more potent than an atom bomb for defence, for it is capable of forging unshakable people’s unity and setting off favourable waves of thought among peoples in the neighbouring countries and the world at large. It is also the best propeller for socio-economic development for high peaks of universally shared prosperity.
The relation between the pre-eminence of gram sabha and the pattern of national development needs a little clarification. If the purpose is to follow a western pattern of development, which is based primarily on minerological resources, and is pro-elitist in orientation, the autonomy of gram sabhas may not be very helpful. If, however, the purpose is people-friendly development which relies primarily on ecological resources and capital saving, labour-intensive methods for maximum employment generation aimed at universally shared prosperity, then gram sabhas will be the greatest propulsive force.
Let me elucidate this point. If the national assembly, under advice of the ‘nature-conquering’ school of scientists and technologists, decided that agricultural development is to be based primarily on chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, irrigation water through high-dam-connected trunk canals, and electricity generated from central power stations, it would expect the local panchayats to only play a passive recipient role.
Since agro-chemical companies decide the product-mix and prices, the irrigation water supply is decided by multi-purpose river valley projects, and electricity generation-cum-distribution and price are decided by hydel and thermal power stations afar, the panchayat would only be twiddling its thumbs. But the local panchayats, because of the traditional ecological practices and an unwillingness to depend on external supplies, might decide that the key inputs would be composts, tank silts, farmyard manure, green manure, blue green algae, floating ferns and other local biota.
If the national assembly decided in favour of a big dam to produce massive quantities of hydel and also to supply water to cities, the local panchayats might demand the setting up of check dams for water and the use of run-of-the river techniques, photovoltaic and decentralized methods for tapping solar power and wind energy. They may also demand rooftop water harvesting and widespread soak pit installations in towns and cities, rather than ruin village ecosystems in the manner of parasites. In most cases, the local panchayat’s approach would prove more in accord with life sciences, more ecological, less expensive, and imbued with a higher civilization ideal.
Where the elite might want an international airport in a new district to invite multinationals to that area, the local panchayats might not agree to the further shrinkage of arable lands. Participatory democracy will demand that in national programming, the pride of place should shift to afforestation of high lands and wastelands, desiltation of rivers, excavation/rejuvenation of canals, restoration of farm ponds and local reservoirs, and the preservation of estuaries and coastal fisheries. To the West-oriented elite, the priority would be express highways, flyovers, more mechanized seaports (which destroy the estuaries), more airports, and massive power stations. These elites would like the gram sabhas to play a subservient role, as docile implementers of the elite’s programmes, as buyers of people’s support to the elite’s causes masquerading as the cause of national economic power.
A segment of the national elite may desire agriculture to be market-driven and producing more cash crops to generate income in terms of foreign exchange. But the local panchayat might like to cling to a ‘food-first’ principle and decide which crops in what proportion would need to be produced by the particular village society and how the responsibilities and resources would be distributed. The former pattern tends to pull every nook and corner of the country into the vortex of the international commodity market, international technology market and international capital market. The common people can only have an aversion to these.
This elitist pattern increases inequality and unemployment and is eco-destructive and socially ruinous but has the veneer of ‘modernism’. The elite cannot, however, have an ethereal existence. Environmental problems and social forces will force them to see reason. They will ultimately have to see their long-term interest of survival – maybe, after a good deal of resistance.
Six-tier federalism satisfies the various identity (national, linguistic, ethnic and localist) urges of all the constituents. It alone can enable all individuals and communities everywhere to use their creative power and play an active part in national and international life. Six-tier federalism, by meeting the aspirations of all segments of the people, is the answer to the demands for splitting even small states. If this is adopted, the question of Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir will cease to be an issue, because all states at all levels will enjoy even greater powers. Six-tier federalism invests more substantial powers in the people than is envisaged in the so-called ‘self-determination’, which places power only in the hands of the dominant ethnic or religious or political group.
Doubts will no doubt be raised as to whether such decentralization will give greater opportunities for anti-social activities, such as smuggling or letting in illegal immigrants, at the local level. Far from it. Giving the local community the primary responsibility to find sustenance for itself and keep all members of the community employed by local self-development will encourage trends to limit growth of the local population. Moreover, six-tier federalism pursues the ideal of society functioning in ‘oceanic circles’. If any circular formation is lax, it will be detected by another, because each circle is in between the smaller and the larger circles and is watched by, and organically linked with each.
This manner of people’s empowerment will provide what we call, in biological terms, a ‘holocenoetic linkage’, in which every cell in a tissue is connected with every other cell. In our existing set-up, a wayward group in any area needs to be tackled only by the respective state government and the Union government. In the proposed set-up, the corrective steps will flow from lateral forces too. The closing in on the errant unit, from all sides, will be far more effective and quicker. The development of organismic unity and autonomous functioning-cum-load-sharing will promote unshakable unity and a feeling of oneness at each level.
There is no doubt that six-tier federalism will have to be accompanied by sustained drives in other spheres – for communal and ethnic harmonization through positive means (as distinct from using these as ‘vote banks’), exchange of cultural troupes between states or parts thereof, for fusion of cultures, and for psychic unity. What needs to be understood is that six-tier federalism will better promote the cause of Indian integrity as part of the humanity, which is clamouring for universal brotherhood and sisterhood transcending the barriers of faith and ethnicity.
We have discussed above the changes that need to be made to make participatory democracy a reality. At the level of governance by elected representatives, too, there is need for radical change. The premise that democracy has to be partisanship based, that there has to be a ruling party or coalition of parties to be opposed by a party or a coalition is not correct. In any case it is unsuitable for countries that need to save themselves from exploitation by global powers and pull themselves up by their own united efforts from the morass of poverty, inequity and traditions of variegated disunities.
The concept of partisanship based democracy infuses divisiveness and makes it ingrained in the body politic. In India, it has led to such ugly party mongering that constructive criticism has become a rarity. Power lust has gripped all parties and opportunistic vote-catching tactics have come to becloud consideration of every issue.
Democracy, to be sure, needs plurality. But plurality does not need to be based on rigid adversarial relationships between parties.
In a democracy, there is need for continuous debates on political, economic and socio-cultural issues and perspectives. But the reality is that party formations have banished brainstorming debates, within and without, on deeper issues. These have been shoved on to party leaderships, which are too busy to spare time for introspection. The parties that claim to have ideological differences have really skin-deep differences. The ease with which members of the political class change party affiliations and secure entry into opposite camps clearly shows the superficiality of these ideologies.
The crying need is the widest possible spread of discussion clubs, non-party associations, and issue based and idea based movements, in which socio-economico-politico- cultural ideas and all questions of life will come up for debate.
Partyless democracy and widest possible indepth debates are both preferable and feasible. But that requires a separate monograph.