GRASSROOT DEMOCRATIC CONTROL:

THE CONCEPT OF LOCAL BOARD

Sanjeev Sabhlok

We all recognise the necessity of good governance. Yet, very few serious strategies have been proposed or designed to lead us to the desired outcome. One reason is that we often skirt the micro- issue of supervision of the government machinery. In order to be truly representative, a democracy has to be designed to leave the control over, and superintendence of, governance, with the citizens at all times. India’s democracy does not meet this criterion principally because we have never explicitly enunciated or desired this control so far.

Under the current dispensation, we have a system of representing ourselves democratically at the highest level of governance. We give to ourselves a government every few years in order to carry out functions that we cannot perform ourselves as individuals. This representation is very thin, though. As a ratio, at the national level, one out of every twenty lakh people represents us. At the state level, this is slightly better, but still very thin. The actual structure of government is many tens of thousands of times larger than the number of representatives. The question is: how do we exercise control over this massive government machinery which was presumably designed to help us perform crucial tasks but which has now run amuck with a vast number of our functionaries becoming our tormentors?

Our representatives are authorised to create laws and statutes by which we are to be governed. Some of these representatives are then empowered to execute these laws. We also expect the representatives to supervise -- through the use of mechanisms such as government auditors and committees of the legislature -- the actual implementation of these laws and the thousands of rules framed thereunder. Unfortunately, due to the way the system of supervision has been designed, most of the laws are violated fearlessly by the very same gargantuan governmental machinery which was designed to assist our representatives execute them. I believe that a vast majority of these violations are never even brought up to the notice of various committees of the Assembly or Parliament, and therefore, functionaries continue to violate laws with impunity. When the cat is away the mice will play, as they say. The cat, i.e., the citizen, is so far removed from the mice, i.e., the government functionary, that there is an epidemic of fun and games in the government machinery at the expense of the citizen.

The fundamental problem is that our representatives are simply too few. Even if there were no human failures between the process of representation, legislation, execution and supervision, it would be incorrect to expect our few representatives to do all their allotted tasks faithfully.

This shortcoming need not exist. We can easily -- and at no expense to society -- get a much greater ‘bang’ for the buck that we spend on our vast governmental machinery. Once the contentious process of framing laws is resolved democratically, each of us can resume to ourselves the power to verify that these laws and rules are being followed strictly. We do not need big concepts such as "empowerment of the citizen." Such words reek of feudalistic arrogance, for after all, who can possibly empower a citizenry in a democracy where all power originates from the citizens?

The Local Board that I envision would be attached to each local office of the government, such as each district library, each post office, each branch office of each public sector undertaking. Without having any power to legislate or to execute, its sole function would be to supervise the procedural aspects of functioning of the governmental organisation to which it is assigned. Voters of the city or village in which the office is located would be eligible to apply for membership of such Boards. Those interested would be scrutinised by a judicial authority for their mental and physical health, and solvency. Thereupon, a public drawing from among the eligible applicants would take place. At least one journalist each from an English and local language daily would be randomly assigned to each Board. Members would have as much seniority under the protocol as the head of the office, of whose Board they are members. This would ensure that our employees -- officials of the government -- do not assume to themselves an unwarranted superiority over the common citizen whom they are recruited to serve.

No expenses of any kind would be allowed to members of the Board who would be active citizens performing the duty of protecting their democracy. They would be authorised to inspect all records with due advance notice. As far as official secrets are concerned, in 99% of our public organisations there is nothing of any relevance whatsoever to national security. Except for the very tiny percentage directly looking after national security, other organisations cannot be permitted to take the plea of national security to prevent a duly appointed Local Board from inspecting all records. Some restrictions would of course be placed on the level upto which such information could be disclosed, particularly where the privacy of individuals is concerned. Members would be responsible for pointing out errors of omission and commission in procedure to the concerned elected representatives and to the people directly through the press. They would, in addition, be invited to all statutory meetings, where they would act as observers, such as at the time of opening of sealed tenders.

Unless the owner of an organisation actively supervises it, its potential for doing good is vastly diminished. Unless citizens actively supervise the organisations created by them for themselves, running on taxes paid for by them, our representatives would always be found wanting since the task we have given to them far exceeds their ability. Our representatives are hardly able to do justice to the task of creation of new laws and rules, and to their overall execution. To expect close supervision is futile.

Local Boards will ensure that the fundamental control of our country’s governance vests with citizens at all times. It may be emphasised here that Local Boards per se will not eradicate corruption nor lead to perfect accountability. For that, many other issues such as electoral reform and formulation of good policy need to be addressed. But as part of the process of deepening and strengthening democracy in India, and as part of the package of reform of governance, such direct supervisory mechanisms need to be designed and implemented. Indirect supervision has failed to check the enormous flouting of laws and rules by the government machinery.