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Campaign for Empowerment of Local Governments (2003)

Empowerment of local governments is one of the key goals of LOK SATTA movement. LOK SATTA declared 2003 as the year of local governments and launched a major campaign across the state calling for genuine devolution of powers in line with the constitutional mandate. At meetings held on 26th January, panchayat presidents were invited to hoist the flag as legitimate heads of their "Little Republics", and publicly declare their elected local body as full-fledged local government. The response was electrifying - hundreds of sarpanchs hoisted the national flag and asserted their primacy as the head of the village government, which has never happened before. This show of force by the sarpanchs has set the tone for the campaign for the rest of the year.
On LOK SATTA 's initiative, elected heads of local governments at various levels, senior leaders who served as former local government heads and representatives from civil society got together on the 23rd of February in Hyderabad and formed a Federation for Empowerment of Local Governments (FELG). Subsequently FELG and LOK SATTA collectively launched a campaign to collect "one crore" (ten million) signatures in support of local government empowerment.

The campaign was officially launched on the 9th August (Quit India day) and concluded on 2nd October (Gandhiji's birthday). This was easily the largest ever non-partisan mass mobilization in any state on an issue that is not emotive, and does not have caste or religious overtones. As part of the campaign, massive public education has been undertaken and thousands of volunteers have been trained. The elected women representatives have been specially mobilized through formal interactions.

One crore signature campaign

The signature campaign was a resounding success and exceeding our own expectations the final tally stood at a whopping 1,06,32,816 endorsements from the people of Andhra Pradesh! More significantly, the campaign succeeded in making people understand the importance of local government empowerment. This historic effort, never before attempted on such a scale on an issue, which has neither emotive nor religious appeal, is unparalleled in India. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers who have toiled day and night for 10 weeks, the campaign succeeded in not only meeting the numeric targets but also in making people realize that, local government empowerment is not a trade union issue of elected representatives but an issue which will truly empower them and profoundly improve their quality of life. The most significant aspect of the campaign is that it evolved as a genuine people's movement, which cannot be ignored by the political process.

AP has an estimated population of 70 million, of whom about 60% or 42 million are adults above 18 years of age. Of these, no more than a third, or about 14 million are functionally literate. Of them, 11 million - or over 75% - have supported local government empowerment. This support was not based on starry-eyed notions of idyllic village republics, but well-considered and pragmatic arguments of governments closer to the people and more accountable to the people. Such a powerful, well-reasoned voice could not have been ignored by the political system except at its own peril.

LOK SATTA organized a massive public meeting on October 19th in Hyderabad to celebrate the historic achievement of collecting one crore signatures. Thousands of activists representing tens of millions of voices across the state of Andhra Pradesh and noted activists from other states notably, Sri LC Jain, Dr George Mathew, Dr PV Shenoi, Sri SV Raju, Sri AK Venkata Subramanian, Sri Elango Rangaswamy, Smt Shanta Sinha, Dr Bhaskara Rao, Sri Mayank Gandhi and others participated in the colorful celebrations and expressed their solidarity in support of the movement. The celebrations featured inspiring performances by local folk artists, songs, ghazals and messages from a few noted leaders. The event truly captured the spirit of people's empowerment and was broadcast live by cable channels in Hyderabad.

About 8000 people participated in the meeting, and the Lalitha Kala Thoranam (venue) was jam packed, with hundreds standing for want of seats. Nearly half the participants came from outside Hyderabad at their own expense for travel, lodge and board. Several hundreds of people traveled from far off places at distances ranging from 300 to 800 kms. The serene Lalitha Kala Thoranam turned into a sea of people who thronged it to witness an unusual and an innovative cultural fest. The need for reforming the Indian democracy was subtly depicted in the cultural programmes. Praja Natya Mandali demonstrated through their popular "palle sudullu" the pain that people endure due to centralized bad governance. This struck a chord with the audience. The event was regarded as the largest gathering in decades at a meeting unrelated to political parties, caste or religion. It had a profound impact on the public discourse in the state and firmly placed local government empowerment on center stage of political discourse in the state.

Political parties respond favorably

Delegates from Federation for Empowerment of Local Governments (FELG) and LOK SATTA called on the chief minister Sri Chandrababu Naidu, the Congress legislature party leader Sri Y S Rajasekhar Reddy as well as the Pradesh Congress Committee president Sri D Srinivas and presented a memorandum outlining the specific demands towards devolution of powers to local governments. Sri Reddy gave an assurance that if his party comes to power, the first signature to be affixed will be to empower local governments. Sri Naidu restated his party's oft-repeated commitment that they are all for devolution and requested the Cabinet Committee for local governments to study the issue. Both the communist parties, BJP and MIM also responded favourably to LOK SATTA's demands.

Government invites LOK SATTA and FELG for discussions
On November 5, 2003, the government of AP formally invited representatives of LOK SATTA and FELG to interact with the Cabinet Committee on local governments and discuss the modalities of transfer of powers to local governments. A delegation of LOK SATTA and FELG met the Cabinet Committee on 6th November at the AP Secretariat. Senior officials of various departments were present along with the Panchayat Raj minister and Home minister, both senior members of the Cabinet, and had a detailed interaction on all issues concerning local government empowerment in detail.

The government representatives gave LOK SATTA and FELG categorical and unambiguous assurances that local governments will be fully empowered and enabled to function as genuine local self-governments in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution and democracy. The government requested LOK SATTA to give specific advice on instruments of accountability that need to be put in place to ensure high standards of probity, transparency and people-centered governance. At the request of the Cabinet Committee, LOK SATTA sent detailed written suggestions along with the report of LOKSATTA Committee on Local Government Empowerment, headed by Sri BPR Vithal, member of the Tenth Finance Commission.

On November 8, the Cabinet met and according to media reports, discussed the issue of empowerment of local governments in detail. The cabinet decided to transfer all functions, powers, functionaries and resources to local governments. Subsequently the government issued a series of GOs giving effect to some aspects of devolution.



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