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The Principle of Subsidiarity

Nowhere has democracy functioned well without a large measure of local self-governance" - Friedrich Von Hayek in "The Road to Serfdom"

In brief, "subsidiarity" means that the responsibility for the diverse issues of life lies initially with the individual or immediate family; only what really cannot be resolved here should be delegated to the community level.

Source : The Liberal Times

The small community is usually based on a consensual voluntarism and is thus secured by natural law. Each higher level that establishes force, must therefore, be legitimized by the lower level. Thus all state power remains a "delegate" (not a sovereign "mandate") from the bottom to the top.

What it means in simple terms is that any issue that can be handled locally at a level as close to the citizen as possible, should be done locally and only when it is not feasible should it be delegated to a higher level of government. The farther removed state action is from the citizen, the higher are the chances that the state will not function in the best interests of the citizen.

For example, take the case of school education. Even though the school is located in the community, the functioning of the school is completely out of the control of the community. It is widely known that 95 % of teachers who work in government schools do not send their children to the schools in which they teach! Neither the parent nor the locally elected political executive has any right to enforce accountability in the functioning of the school. So is the case with the functioning of the public health system. Every one in a community knows that the government doctor at the primary health centre rarely shows up and instead has his own private practice. And yet people are helpless as they do not have any control over him.

Partly as a result of our colonial legacy and partly because of the traumatic experience of partition at the time of Indian independence we have created a system of governance, which is extremely centralized. Accountability has been eroded leading to inefficiency and corruption in almost every sphere of government.

The need of the hour is a radical redesign of our governance process and institutions to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. This means true empowerment of local governments with control over every subject that effects their daily life and which can be handled locally. This entails transfer of funds, functions and functionaries completely to the local governments. Only when the citizen sees a link between the taxes he pays and the services he receives will he regain a modicum of trust in the governance institutions and shed the cynical attitude towards the state. True decentralization with proper accountability is the only way to improve the quality of public services, reduce corruption and restore people's faith in the state.


Making the Citizen Sovereign

In our fight for independence we rightly said, "Good governance is no substitute for self-governance". But when our local governments (very often our bureaucrats and 'superior' politicians only refer to them as local 'bodies' not even giving them a status of a government) seek more autonomy, the immediate response from one and all is that local representatives are inexperienced and incompetent, corruption will skyrocket, and citizens are illiterate and ill-informed. Lord Macaulay's admoninished : "Many politicians lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom - the maxim is worthy of the fool in the story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim."

If the governments at the union and state level are governing well and if corruption is negligent, may be they are justified in expressing such views even if they happen to be incorrect. But with governance at their level in such shambles and corruption so rampant, they have no business to make such accusations and withhold power on such grounds.

The state governments are behaving like some Indian parents with feudal mindset who think their children will listen best if they do not give them any freedom, withhold all power and control the purse strings. This centralization of power and control of funds may make the parents secure in the knowledge that their children will never rebel. Although this does have its benefits the ultimate consequence can be disastrous in terms of the child's future and parents well-being.

As enlightened and educated parents we all know that unless we give our children opportunities to learn, provide an environment to grow and give them freedom to make choices, they can never grow up to be independent, capable and responsible people.

This centralization of power and control of funds may make the states secure in the knowledge that the local governments can never become powerful. But the fact that such centralized control prevents the states from rising to the heights they are capable of escapes these autocratic, self-important bosses. Such centralized misgovernance eventually invites rebellion of the local representatives and disaffection among the citizens in some form or the other.

All state governments believe that the Union should not be an all-powerful bully dictating to them beyond what the constitution mandates. And they demand more financial devolution. But it is ironic that the same state government fails to recognize that the local governments elected by the same people should be given the funds, functions and functionaries to carry out their responsibilities. Once such authority is transferred, the people know how to hold local governments to account.

Experience the world over has been that those countries whose local governments are free and empowered have progressed more rapidly than where the government has been centralized. Even communist China achieved rapid growth because of local autonomy and decentralization. In our country where local governments haven't even reached the stage of autonomy - many developed countries the world over are moving towards the principle of subsidiarity. This principle of subsidiarity is a complete reversal of our top down model. Here the citizen is the focal point and that which she cannot do herself will be taken on by the immediate family and anything beyond the scope of the family will be taken care of the community. Only those tasks which are beyond the community will be delegated to the local government. And then, what the local government cannot do should go to the state level, and what the state cannot, should be handled by the Union. There is no 'centre' apart from the citizen and her family in a sane democracy. Nor can we accept hierarchies of government. We only have smaller or bigger governments, and nearer or farther governments. And the citizen is the sovereign. When will our puffed up bureaucrats and self-important politicians realize this simple truth about liberty and democracy?


Articulations on Decentralisation

Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan's Articles
Times of India Economic Times Other Articles
Local govts key to true empowerment
Fruits of freedom- for whom?
(1 February 2003)
Top Heavy
(HumanScape, 5 February, 2003)

A Truly Popular Govt - Panchayats can make the difference
(29 July 2003)

A plea for balanced federalism
(9 November 2002)
Local Courts- An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Vestiges of British Raj Continue
(14 June 2003)
Local Governments and fiscal management
(19 January 2002)
Federalism and Local Self Governments in India
Spare gram sarpanches
( 26 April 2003)
  Draft Legislation for Proposed Amendments to the A.P Panchayat Raj Act, 1994 ..
Local bodies in state need more powers
(19 April 2003)
Yes to empowerment, no to diktats
(16 February 2003)
Devolution of Powers need of the hour
(25 Jaunuary 2003)
The importance of decentralising administration
(9 November 2002)
Let us put an end to this nuisance
(01 December 2001)



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