Arvind Kejriwal has been unleashing a weekly dust storm against corruption, crony capitalism and now black money. The only way the loose sands of corruption can be stopped from flying into our eyes, he says, is through Swaraj, or the rule of the people.
Kejriwal has made a blueprint for this utopian state in his book, Swaraj. It visualises each panchayat and town to be empowered economic and political entities. At present, they are at the mercy of bureaucrats, and are caught in the web of corruption woven between elected sarpanches and state officials with gram sabhas having no say.
Swaraj draws inspiration from ancient India, when India was a land of many village republics, and village assemblies were all powerful; a fact that has been lauded by historians like G M Trevelyan, besides Annie Besant and Charles Metcalfe.
In 1930, the then Governor General Charles Metcalfe wrote how the village communities were little self-contained republics which seemed to last forever. “These, he said, contributed to preservation of India and its people,” Kejriwal writes. Aware of the fact, the British took away the power from the hands of the village assemblies and put it in the hands of a British collector, which later passed on to Indian bureaucrats, he writes.
Self-sufficient town assemblies still decide through public vote on local issues in the United States, he says, citing an example of the town assembly of Oregon. When Walmart wanted to set up shop in the state of Oregon, the townsmen voted it out saying it would close down many neighbourhood shops. On the other hand, in India, people have no say in the laws of the country, he says.
Kejriwal’s colleagues carried out an experiment under a “Swaraj Abhiyan” in Delhi by activating assemblies at the lowest level in the city.
The activists went to councillors in a couple of places in East Delhi, and persuaded them to hold mohalla sabhas and ask the people what they wanted the local funds to be spent on. Each ward in a town has at least 10 mohallas with a population of 4,000 each.
The councillor was happy to get the attention from the voters, and agreed to bring to weekly meetings the local officials from the municipality.
But these projects have ground to a halt now. Says Manish Sisodia, who was part of the abhiyan, it cannot succeed unless laws are changed. Today, the officials are accountable to the government, and not to the people. He says without a change in law, it is a tough job for councillors to get all officials to attend the meetings regularly.
The gram sabha and mohalla sabha, which would include every resident of the area, is considered a foolproof barrier to corruption in Kejriwal’s scheme of things.
Says Kejriwal: Untied funds (not tied to grandiose central schemes) should be given to every gram sabha, and they should have the power to spend it the way they like. “It is possible the villagers keep the money. But that is better than the money being looted by middlemen. Besides, it is is more likely that a mother in the village rather than the education secretary in the state capital would care to spend money for the child’s education,” he says.
In the case of taxes, he says public authorities have been inefficient and should give the job to local community. India Against Corruption (IAC) has demonstrated this with collection of house taxes near Kejriwal’s residence in Kaushambi in Ghaziabad, where the RWA (Resident Welfare Association) was made to collect house taxes. Here, even defaulters paid up.
So, while Kejriwal and IAC are now busy raking up the muck in the present system which has lasted 60 years, what it is offering is a total reversal. And yet, it is not based on any new concept. It is almost the same as the 73rd amendment that calls for total decentralisation.
Kejriwal’s living model is Kerala where the state government transfers 40 per cent of its funds to panchayats. The panchayats control education, health, irrigation and water supply, among others. Teachers and doctors report to the panchayats; innovative water and solar energy schemes have been tried in many villages.
Kejriwal says at least 50 per cent of funds should be transferred to the panchayats.
“Those who go to a hospital for getting medical treatment should be empowered to appoint and suspend the doctor. The administration should go directly in the hands of people. All government employees should be appointed by the gram sabha and also suspended or dismissed by the gram sabha. This right, or the power to appoint and suspend all government employees, must rest with the gram sabhas,” he writes.
“By changing the law, steps should be taken that gram sabhas have the power to call any BDO (block development officer) or employee of the government at the village level to attend their meetings, and to obey orders passed by the gram sabha. At the district or block level, the people could give orders to government employees. The people should have the power to summon the ration inspector, summon the BDO, summon the tahsildar, summon the sub-divisional magistrate or summon the collector of the district.”
Kejriwal asks, “If Kerala and Madhya Pradesh to some extent have made this possible, why not the rest?”