Rediscovering the State

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Insisting that the notion of representative democracy has changed and the fundamental shifts have taken place in the governance systems, Dr Haseeb Drabu was seen pushing his ideas of empowering the lawmaker to the House this season. Part of his foresight is outcome of the changes that key decisions in economic and development policymaking are leading to, reports Masood Hussain

An image of J&K State Legislative Assembly

You are absolutely correct. I have never known what my budget was” NC veteran Ali Mohammad Sagar told Finance Minister Dr Haseeb Drabu in assembly last week. “These bureaucrats do it within themselves and take our signatures and then malign us.”

Sagar was referring to Drabu’s ideas of how lawmakers have been at the margins of policymaking, the limitation of their roles in the House, elbowed out in policymaking by the strong bureaucracy in the secretariat and squeezed by the rise of new power elite, the Panchayat’s at ground zero. He feels that the legislature will get seriously marginalized. His belief is that the prevailing systems of governance are too archaic to permit a role to the representatives because the labyrinth that has evolved over the decades is babu-centric. The system, he insists, is rigid and vast making delivery of services and any sort of accountability impossible.

With system evolving at its own place, the challenges are interesting.

Firstly, winding up of the Planning Commission of India has done away with the state’s tension of presenting its case and seeking a developmental plan. Now GST regime taking over later this year will somehow do away with the surprise of how much a state can earn out of tax. Incomes will be pretty predictable – the most consuming states will make most of the money. With incomes known even to commoners, most of the state budgets would become mere expenditure statements. Barring the Finance Commission awards, the funds will flow to states as their share from the central tax pool and central sponsored schemes that are tied with specific projects and activities.

Secondly, at the ground level, most of the funds to the base level will go directly to the Panchayat’s. The emphasis on direct benefit transfers (DBT) for most of the schemes and linkages of Adhaar with various services are more or less a robotic exercise. Barring amending, updating the laws already on the statute books or merely legislating on areas falling under the state list, are apparently the only activity that is left for the MLAs in J&K’s bicameral legislature. Most of the appointments are now being managed by specific recruitments agencies which may or may not be linked to political interventions. Even the jobs in government are getting scarce. In this situation, the MLAs are left with Constituency Development Fund (CDF) that is peanuts, if compared to the devolutions that Panchayat’s in any assembly constituency will eventually have.  By way of an example, the last union budget gavce Rs 3.25 lakh crore to Panchayat’s across India. So why should people follow an MLA when a Sarpanch has more per capita funds available with him?

Thirdly, on the implementation level, there is another crisis that hits the developmental activities, and the service delivery thus diminishing the role of the MLA. These twin activities are normally basic to the gospel of main political activities in the state.

J&K’s civil and developmental administration have evolved asymmetrically. Its foundations were set up by Sir Walter Lawrence in 1892 when he started land settlement and objective was revenue collection. Based on his concept, J&K has now 22 districts led by Deputy Commissioners. They sit over the pyramid that started with a village chowkidar. But the entire system was built to manage revenue set ups – record keeping and land revenue collections.

When Sheikh Abdullah introduced the single-line administration, its nucleus was around the Deputy Commissioner.

In 1950s, blocks emerged as the new basic units of planned development. Though Panchayat’s existed in one or the other but there role was recently rediscovered as the new developmental units at ground zero. Now on, centre will be routing most of the ground zero funds directly to the Panchayat’s. In the last one decade, the Panchayat’s have not evolved to the status they were supposed to and part of the blame should go to the state lawmakers who are unwilling to share the space with the crowds, also elected by the same electorate.

“I recommended the abolition of land revenue collections when I was the economic adviser simply because the cost of collecting this revenue was many times more than the sum collected,” Dr Drabu said. “This has reduced the status of the Revenue set up to mere record keeping and transaction. The massive proliferation of the patwar halqas that were set up earlier would soon become redundant with the digitization of the records.”

Panchayats are making blocks almost redundant. The maze of new service delivery systems within the block are the main crisis to the service delivery. There are educational blocks, health blocks, police stations and other service points scattered within the district. For five services, one person has to go to five places. There are areas falling under one police station, a different developmental block, a new tehsil making it a maze for people. Some areas even fall under “developmental no-mans lands”. “These are outposts of corruption and delivering services within this set up is hugely difficult, costly and time-consuming,” Drabu said. “There has to be some rationalization on this front. Why can not one place have all the services that can deliver better?”

But Drabu foresees system getting serious disruptions once the Panchayat system takes over and seeks its rights within the law, governing the set-up. So what is the alternative?

Dr Haseeb A Drabu

Drabu talked on this subject intermittently during his interventions after the budget and the grants of his ministries. His idea is simple: separate the civil administration from the developmental administration and give a clearly defined role to the lawmaker. His idea is to take the development from being bureaucratic centric to legislator oriented governance (LOGS) set-up. But before that he wants alternations in the existing administrative and developmental demarcations so that they become governable. He told lawmakers that even if their current Constituency Development Fund (CDF) is tripled, it would not help them reclaim their status, eroded by parallel set-up at play.

Drabu wants an assembly segment to be the basic developmental unit that will have a lawmaker sitting virtually as its Chief Operating Officer (CEO). He will oversee at the overall developmental pyramid comprising the blocks – may be two or three. The Panchayats that operate within that territory can operate like his assembly. With the most of the service delivery points operating from the constituency, there is clear possibility of the lawmaker tying in all the developmental funds in line with the priorities of his geography. Thus the functional and the administrative system will work in tandem. This will help the lawmaker to have the advantage of prioritizing the developmental budget within the diversity of schemes and scale – the basic through Panchayat, slightly bigger through block level and the bigger ones under the district plan. This will eventually do away with the lawmaker requiring having his own CDF kitty. Drabu believes this can bring efficiency and improve transparency.

It was only after his appeal to the House that they must talk on this subject that Drabu got the response from the opposition benches who indicated support to the idea. On this basis, the Law and Parliamentary Ministry agreed to have half a day discussion on the subject on the last day of the budget session. If approved, this can help emerge lawmaker more powerful, literally like a Mayor of his own area. This can make babus play second fiddle to the elected representatives. But will babudom permit sharing control with the elected?

This could mark the beginning of a new systemic architecture that can help J&K to stay in tune with the times. Certain practices may have to be reinvented. For example, the importance of Question Hour in the state assembly stands considerably dwarfed by the RTI act. This archaic system entitling lawmakers to have the privilege of seeking some information from the government is no more relevant because the law gives the same right to a common man.

Certain changes are already afoot. Planning department is having a skirted role now. The classification of the public accounting has already changed: from plan, non-plan to income and expenditure and now capex and revex. Some of these changes = including the most recent one about creating Universal Basic income – are either being copied or favourably comments in neighbouring states. Now the Treasury department is going to start, apparently, its last year of operations. With these changes already set in motion, if the lawmaker’s role gets revamped, J&K can have a brand new system of expenditure and development. Will Delhi permit J&K lawmakers to have a status that their counterparts have not even thought about?

 

 

 

 

 

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