The British offered him the services of any ICS officer
he chose. Das declined and won the right to appoint his
own official. He then picked a bright young 27 year old
as the commissioner. He was none other than Subhash Chandra
story did not end there. Bose did an outstanding job as
the city administrator and gained wide recognition in a
few months. Several months later, he was arrested as a suspected
terrorist and detained in Alipore Jail. CR Das again insisted
that Bose did a great job, the charges against him were
unrelated to his work as the city official, and the elected
local government could not be denied his services. Amazingly,
the colonial government relented, and directed that Bose
should continue as the commissioner even while in custody!
Files were sent to him in jail, and his orders were carried
out. This extraordinary practice continued until Bose was
exiled to Mandalay in Burma. Bose went on to become Mayor
of Calcutta in 1930, and later Congress President in 1938
hesitates to recount this story for fear of giving ideas
to our political and bureaucratic masters who, based on
this precedent, might insist on continuing in office when
jailed for bribery or murder! But the episode does illustrate
the strength of local governments even during colonial days.
Today, even a 'B' grade municipality has no authority to
appoint its own civil servants, or enforce accountability.
friend in the suburbs of Chicago told me that he pays $8000
per year as school tax to his county. Once there is a clear
link between taxes paid and services rendered, tax-payers
will demand better quality services and hold public officials
to account. In the absence of such a link between taxes
and services and because most public services are of appalling
quality, our tax compliance is low and resistance to taxation
republic is judged not by the pomp and pageantry, nor by
the display of power on state occasions. The quality of
water supply, access to public health, functioning of schools,
adequacy of storm water drains, sewerage and sanitary facilities,
and traffic regulation and order on the streets - these
determine the greatness of a republic. Thanks to over- centralization,
most public expenditure goes down the drain. The services
and public goods we get do not account for even a fraction
of the total public expenditure. All the basic ameneties
and services that make life worth living are in a state
of disrepair. Look at education, health care, water supply,
drainage, roads and myriad other public services. As a rule,
if we can afford we choose private alternatives - like in
education and health care, we opt for them at high cost.
Where private goods are not possible, like roads and drains,
we suffer in silence and fume in impotent anger.
link between our taxes paid and services rendered is non-existent.
No wonder, we all made tax evasion and avoidance a highly
creative national pastime!
are those who argue that local people do not have enough
knowledge or skills, and local governments tend to be corrupt.
When the British argued that we were not fit for freedom,
our leaders pointed out that good government was no substitute
to self-government. They had to grudgingly admit that the
British did give good government, and yet we fought for
our freedom. Today, centralized government has become a
repository of corruption, incompetence and misgovernance.
What we have in the name of governance is constitutional
brigandage and legal plunder. The struggle today is plainly
between centralized bad government and local self government.
notion that citizens have no capacity to understand their
self-interest and are incapable of taking charge of their
own lives at local level is absurd in a democracy. And yet,
we extol the virtues and wisdom of voters when they exercise
their franchise in electing state and national governments.
Many of us admire China's rapid economic growth in recent
years. But we often ignore the fact that the employment
and exports in China are powered by the millions of town
and village enterprises (TVEs) with the support and active
participation of local governments. One of the ironies of
contemporary history is authoritarian and communist China
is far more decentralized than liberal democratic India!
is true that locally elected governments are likely to be
as decent or corrupt as centralized governments. There is
no greater morality in municipal governments. But as the
government is local, and people understand the links between
their vote and public good, and taxes and services, they
will assert to hold the government to account and improve
the quality of our democracy.
April 5, 2002, Prime Minister Vajpayee and Opposition leader
Sonia Gandhi addressed the Panchayat sammelan, and both
promised to amend the constitution and make it mandatory
for states to transfer powers, functions and resources to
local governments. As the Urdu saying goes, if Bibi and
Miyan both seek the marriage, then who is the Kazi to stop
it? It is time that ruling coalition and opposition delivered
on their promise and allowed little republics to flourish
all over. Only then will fruits of freedom reach our people,
and our national holidays will be occasions for genuine
celebration, instead of meaningless rituals.