Ideas on and models of decentralisation

Asha Buch
18-02-2021

Introduction:

Covid-19 entered our lives as a health crisis, but soon it spread its tentacles and took the economy, politics and many other important sectors under arrest and crippled almost the whole world’s population.

At the onset of this deadly disease it was perceived that the main causes of poor management of this novel pandemic included inadequate health provisions, insufficient intervention of scientific advice, and a delay in governments’ decision to act swiftly in the right direction. All these are true, but above all one thing has surfaced more clearly; the centrality in every sector has made each department inefficient and therefore ineffective in combatting this disease. An urgent requirement of decentralisation in every sector is gaining momentum.

We have a choice between idealism of decentralisation and practicality of centralisation. A search for best of both world is surging worldwide.

In this paper the ideas of decentralisation in health, economy and politics will be discussed.

Definition:

In the article ‘Health Laws and universal health coverage’ published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) (1) decentralisation is defined as follows; “In the health system decentralisation involves moving decision making away from centralised control and closer to the users of health services.” This principle applies to all other governmental and voluntary organisations in the spheres of politics as well as economics. In practice decentralisation transfers authority and power from higher to lower, national to local government including the private sector.

The term decentralisation is usually used in the context of political or financial institutions. This ideology can be traced back to 19th century when Alex de Tocqueville was an advocate. He stated in the article titled ‘Decentralisation, Political Participation and Democracy’, (2) (Lund University 2010) “Decentralisation has, not only administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.”

Here are some terms related to decentralisation :

The idea of decentralisation may be perceived as a negative attitude towards most centralised government regimes. Since 1999 a large number of developing and transitional countries have adapted to some form of decentralisation programmes. India was one of them. The principle of decentralisation can be implemented in federal systems whether the political, agricultural or industrial sector.

Types of Decentralisation :

In the context of Covid -19 and health and economic structures, four main types of decentralisation appear in the literature reviewed for this paper.

(1) Political decentralisation aims to give citizens or their representatives public decision making powers through participatory forms of governance which influences the formulation and implementation of health policies and plans. This is the principle, implementation depends on how much power is devolved.

(2) Administrative decentralisation involves redistributing authority, responsibility and financial resources in order to provide public services from national government to local governments or corporations. It is very hard to keep this field free from red tape.

(3) Fiscal decentralisation is a buzz word most used during this current situation. This could be the product of the above two types of decentralisation functioning effectively. An adequate level of revenues either raised locally or transferred from the national government as well as the authority’s own funds being used to make decisions about expenditure makes fiscal decentralisation meaningful and effective.

(4) Market decentralisation involves shifting responsibility for health functions from the public to the private sector including businesses and non-government organisations. There is some danger of private interest getting priority instead of public interest in handing over too much power to businesses.

M.K. Gandhi’s views on decentralisation:

India has a rich history of decentralised political and economic systems over many centuries. In fact the Golden Age saw the federation of many Ganatantras and small scale production and industrial units. We had to think of alternative political, economic and social systems while the independence movement was in full swing. In the article ‘Gandhian concept of decentralisation’ by N. Prasad 1955, (3) M.K. Gandhi’s concepts of decentralisation are clearly explained, many of which are relevant today. He saw decentralisation of the means of production as the only solution to the massive unemployment at that time. After independence we invested huge amount of capital, with the help of foreign companies where necessary to industrialise the country instead. We hoped to get entry into the cluster of the richest countries in the world, and it seems we have achieved it to some extent, at least in financial terms. Gandhi’s idea of decentralisation not only focused on India’s economy, but he could see the ill effects of rampant industrialisation on political, social and cultural aspects through out the world. Therefore his idea of decentralisation has proved almost prophetic. This is what Bertrand Russell (cited in the article ‘Gandhian concept of decentralisation’ by N. Prasad 1955) (4) had to say as regards to Gandhi's concept of decentralisation: "In those parts of the world in which industrialism is still young, the possibility of avoiding the horrors we have experienced still exists. India, for example is traditionally a land of village communities. It would be a tragedy if this traditional way of life with all its evils were to be suddenly and violently exchanged for the greater evils of industrialism and they would apply to people whose standard of living is already pitifully low.....” In the present situation of global pandemic, the hardest hit people are those working in the supply chain and in corporate businesses. Most of them are employed by an industrialist or by multinational companies. As a result, when total lockdowns were imposed, suddenly tens of hundreds of people stood on the verge of losing their livelihood over night. The horrors of industrialisation have clearly became visible particularly in emerging economies.

Gandhiji also gave us a model of political and administrative decentralisation. Our constitution was based on western style representative democracy, but Gandhi’s vision of Panchayati Raj was based on participatory democracy which would have its foundation in self-governing village communities. We can see how it would have been beneficial in times like present health crisis. Gandhi stated that real development of India can take place only through its political system of Gram Swaraj in which the State Government would only exercise such powers which are not within the scope and competence of the lower tiers of participatory governance institutions. This principle is called ‘subsidiarity,’ and is now a general principle of European Union law - that decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate level, and powers should only be exercised when beyond the scope of lower tiers.

Centralisation v decentralisation in production industry:

Since the industrial revolution not only has economic power become concentrated in the hands of a few, but politics is also being negated by those giant industrialists. Apart from political consequences, it has reduced the workforce of factories and mills to a mere cog; making him/her insignificant and dispensable. That is why we see thousands of jobless people marching in search of a job. Industrialisation tends to gather its workforce in a huge concentrated area which in turn demands totalitarian centralised administrative powers prone to exploitation of greater number of people.

Just out side Delhi airport a giant wooden Charkha is installed. It can be seen as our tendency of clinging to our past, but in the present climate when millions of unemployed humans are migrating, this Charkha becomes more relevant. It is believed that Gandhi was opposed to machines and modern techniques. Does this mean that Gandhi was against the application of science to the instruments of production, i.e. machinery? To this question he replied, "What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.....I would welcome every improvement in the cottage machine" (5) (Young India, 1925). Replying to a suggestion whether he was against all machinery he said, "My answer is emphatically no. But I am against its indiscriminate multiplication. I refuse to be dazzled by the seeming triumph of machinery. But simple tools and implements such machinery as saves individual labour and lightens the burden of millions of cottages, I should welcome." (6) (Young India, 1926). This idea plainly supports decentralised systems of production and trade. It is time now we think about this ideology in the context of the present crisis.

Centralisation v decentralisation in political economy:

Centralisation, particularly in the economic sphere is threatening our existence just as in the health system. Decentralisation of economic and political power was Gandhi’s main philosophy stressing that economy should be labour oriented, not capital centred. Production should be in the hands of small communities. Large scale economic as well as political institutions should be decentralised. John Ruskin, Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan’s ideas of political, economic and social decentralisation can be summed up as Sarvodaya principles. They talked about welfare society, not a welfare state where people cary out their own path of welfare depending on their local resources, requirements and way of life which no other remote authority can provide. In other words the local Gram Panchayats are responsible for the progress and welfare of the people living in their area of governance, the role of state and central government is to guide, facilitate and fund their planned projects.

Centralisation versus decentralisation in politics and health system in the U.K:

It is a well known fact that there is North-South and East-West divide in wealth and opportunities in the U.K. which applies to the nations of the world too. In an attempt to empower local communities and foster local growth, devolution of political power took place during 1999. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland had their own assemblies. The devolved governments have many powers in common, including over health, social care, primary and secondary education, agriculture and the environment. They have executed their powers in the past in many instances, the most recent being at the time of the management of Covid -19 crisis. Similarly there are now 23 elected mayors in England which exemplifies dissemination of political power.

Decentralisation and equitable growth:

In the article ‘Altered Governance Dynamics by S. Gopalkrishna Warrier (7) the correlation of decentralised system and equitable growth is discussed in detail. One issue has surfaced more clearly than any other is the role of unequal socio-economic society in national progress and how important it is to bring equitable growth to the fore. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need of re-thinking the role of local governments and the change in centre-state relationship. National governments almost through out the democratic world are forced to discuss the response of this health and socio-economic crisis with all political parties and heads of local governments. The importance of parallel decision making with central government announcing lockdown to promote social distancing, and chief ministers developing day-to-day action plans and communicating with the people is recognised. The very structure of the pandemic is such that it is better handled in a decentralised and yet coordinated manner. Kerala’s effective decentralised governance structure, going down to the village and corporation ward levels, and with the associated women’s self-help groups, strengthened the hands of the administration and the medical system in fighting the infection. Centralised, but bottom-up. We all agree that there are pull factors towards towns and cities in manufacturing and service industries. If the push factors are controlled, there would be a reduction of domestic migration within India. Take an example of the recent farmers’ revolt which has provoked wide spread unrest. It is a classic example of a lack of decision making powers in the hands of producers. Centralisation began since goods and services began to be produced in clusters near cities, to which labourers migrated from the villages. When lockdown happened the labour force was left high and dry. Though they continued to fuel economic growth, urban dwellers were unaware of the ecological footprint of their actions. The novel Corona virus has taught us that the expertise on how to manage local natural resources lies with decentralised panchayats. Respecting their nuanced understanding of their terrain, while supporting it with science and government schemes could be a way to strengthen the self-reliance of villages and reduce migration. There could be many more rounds of this same virus or some unknown microbes may attack in future. One fact has emerged, without socio-economic equity and decentralisation there will be no survival of sustainable growth.

Economic solutions to the Covid Crisis: Devolving economic powers.

We are looking to national governments and international organisations for actions they are taking to tackle this crisis. But we are looking in wrong place. Local states and regional authorities are better equipped to understand the problems and determine the policy for the given area. Ben Chu, Economic Editor of The Independent and Lizzy Burden of The Telegraph interviewed Raghuram Rajan; the former chief economist of the International Monitory Funds (IMF)s and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India. (8). Here are some quotes from Raghuram Rajan,’s speech, “Countries like Germany and South Korea have relatively tackled the crisis successfully. They have generated and allocated resources and powers to local regions simply because different areas are deal- ing with different facets of the problem. They have different population, health facilities and med- ical expertise to deploy. Decentralisation holds the locals responsible to deal with the problem but of course they are helped by the central government. The centre may not know what is happening around much of the country, therefore can’t attune the policy to the particular area. For example, Indian government gave four hours notice before implementing total lockdown. Some areas in the North-East did not suffer from the infection, but they all suffered the economic and social break down. We have to be sure that decisions taken lower down the level are better than the federal or central level decisions. One thing is clear that neighbourhood, local communities and local voluntary organisations have come forward to help each other without the intervention of the state or national authorities.”

The onset of pandemic has highlighted every fault line we have. Raghuram Rajan has also stat- ed that national climate policy cannot reflect every community, but at least it has bottom up consensus. Policies do not always get an approval from the community unless they are sold before rolling them out. High taxes on fuel can be an issue of survival for those who has to think about reaching the end of the month, while policy makers may think about the end of the world. His advice is, if the leaders do not except to take the masses with them in shaping policy, change the leader! We need devolution, but also a true democracy; that is to take people with you. Devolution if not man- aged in its true sense, can create inequality. His advice is “Do not decide from the centre, or it kills the democratic process.” This is something we ought to do in the post pandemic era. Let the people make mistakes and learn from them, it is their responsibility. ‘Building Back Better’ is a buzz word. Rajan also stated, “The fundamental question is; do people have education, opportunities and help from governments to search for jobs? These are the points we need to focus on. Even if the vaccine is available by the first quarter of next year, plenty of damage has been done. Developed countries have managed to minimise the damage to larger sectors of their working population, but emerging markets economy has suffered irreversible damage. In developing countries, the kids cannot go to school, they will be permanently out of school, the level of education will go rapidly down ramping up the numbers of child labourers and unemployment.”

Economy of India

The Indian economy, in relation to private versus public and centralised versus decentralised de- picts an interesting journey. From the first five year plan to the 1980s, large scale, small scale and cottage scale industries controlled by private sectors played a leading role in generating employment. But they did not have backing from efficient governance at local and provincial level. Our national growth was very law. After 1990s most of the countries embraced the policy of open market, so did India under the leadership of Mr. Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narsimha Rao. India man- aged to increase productivity and compete with the global market, but we have failed to sustain meaningful employment, utilise human resources and last but not least remove the Indian economy from the vicious circle of poverty. This seems to be the result of having faith in trickle down theory and not allowing local capabilities of production and growth to develop. In theory the aims of public sectors are to promote redistribution of income and wealth, create employment opportunities, promote balanced regional growth and encourage the development of small-scale and ancillary industries. We opted for dominance of private sector instead of public sector for which we are paying the price. In response to economic crisis in 1990s, India rushed towards capitalist and centrally planned economy. The state of Kerala started decentralised economic system which distributes decision making powers to local agents in 1996. This was accompanied by delegation of authority to individuals and small organisations. The seeds of decentralised economic and political systems sawn all those years ago have come to fruition in the form of successfully keeping the Corona virus at bay.

Health care system in India:

Having looked at the ideas of decentralised systems in political and economic sectors, let us turn our attention to the effects of decentralised or centralised systems on the welfare of Indian citizens. An article on ‘Health Care System in India’ paints a picture of the health care system. (9). In India there is a parallel health care system. In theory health care is universal in India. But there is huge discrepancy in the quality and coverage of medical treatment. Health care provision is vastly different between states, and between rural and urban area. Disparities between states mean that residents of the poorest states often have less access to adequate healthcare than residents of relatively more affluent states. Insufficient healthcare provision means that many Indians turn to private healthcare providers, although this is an option generally inaccessible to the poor. To help pay for healthcare costs, insurance is available, often provided by employers, but most Indians lack health insurance, and out-of-pocket costs make up a large portion of the spending on medical treatment in India. On the other hand, private hospitals offer world class treatment at much lower cost compared to some developed countries. The irony is her own citizens can hardly access those excellent health services.

Health care system in Europe:

The health care system in European countries vary. The U.K.’s National Health Service

launched in 1948 has three core principles: it should meet the needs of everyone, it should be free at the point of delivery, and it should be based on clinical need, not on ability to pay. According to the findings of the study - ‘Devolution: what it means for health and social care in England’ from the Kings Fund, the U.K.’s health service is one of the most centralised systems. (10). It is because the biggest chunk of tax revenue is raised by central government, not local government. This impairs local government’s power to determine spending priorities. By comparison in Sweden, almost half of revenues are spent at local government level. Decentralised approaches are applied in Sweden, Denmark and Norway which has resulted in better management of the Covid crisis. Germany’s success in battling the Corona virus pandemic has drawn international attention. Their aim was to fight the virus locally, and keep politics out of it. The biggest failures came from the countries where politics controlled centrally over this health cum economic crisis. Germany’s regional authorities created and policed social distancing rules, worked with all sizes of businesses to manage lock- downs and safety measures and prepared the health-care infrastructure for the illness’s onslaught. Meanwhile the Indian government declared drastic measure without providing legitimate period of notice, without consulting all the stake holders and preparing an infrastructure which has landed the most vulnerable people in an irreversible situation. German public health services are provided by about 400 public health offices run by municipalities and rural district administrations instead of one central authority. Such a decentralised system allows laboratories attached to universities and hospitals or privately run laboratories to carry out test/trace and track services which act autonomously of central control. As one of the employees put it, “I don’t have to wait to get a call from the health minister before I can go ahead with a test,” By comparison the U.K. is far behind in putting a robust test/trace and track system in place. More examples of decentralised systems can be found the world over in political and economic sectors which benefits the health care systems.

Models of decentralised systems:

Gandhi’s views on decentralisation were manifested in his concept of ’Swadeshi’. It implied three aspects; first, production, consumption and trade of goods and services should be controlled locally. Second, reliance on the local polity or indigenous political institution such as Gram Panchayat. Third, self-reliance on society, and village community. Like western utopian socialists such as John Ruskin, and Thoreau Gandhi fervently hoped to uplift the village community in economic, political and moral aspects. “If the village perish, India will perish too. It will be no more India.” Is a widely quoted statement of Gandhi, which it seems was prophetic.

Fortunately there are many models of decentralised constructive programmes in India. 6th May 1934, Vinoba Bhave and his fellow constructive workers founded Gram Seva Mandal (GMS) near Vardha city. (11) They visit nearby villages, understand their issues and discuss solutions depending on available resources. They support three main Gramodyog such as action research in Khadi and village industry, cold press organic oil and organic farming. Providing dignified livelihood to rural India is their aim. Over the past decade, 11 districts of Vidarbha have witnessed over 1.4 lakh farmers committing suicide. The main cause behind this is the centralised textile industry. The mill owners decide the price of cotton and the farmers have no option but to accept it. Mill owners purchase materials from cheaper sources — be it from all parts of the country or from abroad. So, GMS decided to grow organic cotton from indigenous seeds and instead of selling cotton to the open market through middle men, they began a project: ‘Cotton to fabric’, where cotton is bought directly from farmers and the final cloth is given back to them, leading to higher minimum support price (MSP) of the product. GMS provides an example of the first principle laid out in the concept of Swadeshi.

When Vinoba was consulted about the first Panch Varshiya Yojana, he told Jawahrlaal Nehru that this percolation theory will not feed or give occupation to the millions. He saw the evidences of poor of India being sidelined by distributing opportunities for development among the rich and educated few and while millions waited until employment opportunities flowed to them, so Vinobaji said, “Let us leave Delhi and hit rural India. And that’s what he did. Vinoba launched Bhoodan movement which is an example of decentralisation of the biggest industry-agriculture. After owning farming lands for more than seven decades, huge number of farmers are facing a problem of survival. Here is another model of decentralised industry making a difference. ’Jatan Trust’ (12) based at Vadodara-Gujarat is one such model. It is a non profit organisation helping people to understand the environment and address their problems. The emphasis is on organic farming. Jatan trust pro- vide practical lessons to school children, information on healthy organic food to house wives, importance of organic farming to the farmers, guidance to research scientists and provide policy makers valuable insight into how decentralised measures can be effective applied in framing through appropriate policies.

Another model of decentralised and cooperative enterprise is an organic clothing brand Weaver- Bird (13) which works directly with the farmers, weavers and tailors to design sustainable clothing for men & women. This model is set up to empower artisans and farmers, provide fare wages and work towards environmental sustainability. They use organic cotton which is free from toxic fertilisers and pesticides, hand spun, hand woven cloth dyed or printed with natural dyes. There are many more such small units linked in the supply chain of Khadi all over India.

Lessons to learn from Covid -19

There have been many pandemics and deadly viruses affecting some parts of the world in the past when millions lost their lives. None have been so widely spread and all consuming as the cur- rent Corona virus. We cannot miss the opportunity to learn lessons from our collective successes and mistakes if we are to survive as human race. Scientists form Indian Council of Medical Re- search (ICMR) and Department of Health Research began to work with colleges from Maulana Azad Medical College and WHO Regional Office of South East Asia and published a journal titled

Covid-19, Science and Governance: Lessons from India (14). In their papers the researchers advised to adapt a model of community and civil society-led quarantine and monitoring which is similar to what countries like Sweden did. An internal assessment carried out by the ICMR reckoned that the 40% reduction in infection which the lockdown could deliver was ‘theoretical’. In practice, the lockdown would likely reduce cases by 20-25%. A suggestion to quarantine travellers was not followed. The research-based warning of the possible spread of the infection was ignored. The Indian government took over a month to act on warnings from its scientists to begin preparing for the com- ing pandemic. On 24 March, an unprepared government went ahead to impose a nationwide lock- down, with less than four hours’ notice, on a country of more than one billion people. Again the decisions taken by central government bodies failed to protect lives and livelihoods of millions. We cannot begin to dig a well when the forest is burning. We cannot wait until the next pandemic to put things right. South Korea was preparing for such health crisis since the SARS outbreak in 2002. The government need to learn to keep our house in order and create a robust, equitable and sustain- able infrastructure which should be inclusive of all levels of society. As an interim relief, the urban poor population needs to be ensured of food, shelter and healthcare systems. But for long term and sustainable security there is no alternative to strong grassroots level partnership with communities across the country.

Conclusion:

Decentralisation of government is the topic most studied since the onset of the novel pandemic. It presents as a response to the problem of centralised system in all areas and has been seen as a solution for economic decline, government’s inability to fund health and all other related services and inefficiency of undemocratic and overly centralised systems.

Economic, health and political inequality harms social cohesion which breads violence. Decentralised political and economic systems have helped to reduce inequality and conflict between central and local governments and between various social classes. This seems to be the key to successfully controlling the Corona virus’s devastating affect

Soul searching is taking place world wide. From churning the ocean in an effort to find treasures we all ended up having a bigger or smaller portion of this deadly disease. We are beginning to understand and accept what has gone wrong and trying to find a solution by sharing collective responsibility.

I am reminded of when Jawaharlal Nehru said to Gandhi in 1945, “I read the Hind Swaraj many years ago. I still think it is impractical to implement the principle expressed in it.” In reply Gandhi said, he did not feel to change anything but a few words. The time has come to examine each and every concept explained in Hind Swaraj, (written by M.K.Gandhi), put those in perspective in the present situation and be willing to implement those which are still relevant. Self reliance and decentralised economic and political systems will come up as the central theme which we can accept as ‘New Normal’ and use to plan our future. Dr. Li Wen Liang from Wuhan-China who died of Covid- 19 said, “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” Let us be that voice.

This paper was written as a part of a five day international webinar on ‘Re-thinking the Role of Local Government in the Post Covid world’ organised by The Gandhian Studies - Kerala University and The Centre for Rural Management - Kerala in December 2020.

Reference:

(1) https://www.who.int/health-laws/topics/governance-decentralisation/en/ (P 2)

(2) Alexis de Tocqueville – cited in Vo (2010) (Lund University Department of Political Science) (name of article: Decentralisation, Political Participation and Democracy)(website: lup.lub.lu.se>student-papers>records) (P 4)

(3) Gandhian Concept of Decentralisation (cited in mkgandhi.org. written by N.Prasad, source: Har- ijan 5 July 1955) (P 5)

(4) Gandhian Concept of Decentralisation (cited in mkgandhi.org. written by N.Prasad, source: Har- ijan 5 July 1955) (P 5)

(5) Young India 1925 (P 7)

(6) Young India 1926 (P 7)

(7) Altered Governance Dynamics by S Gopikrishna Warrier. Quartz India (qz.com) (P 8)

(8) Raghuram Rajan (https://youtu.be/VU9d5iyudYs) (P 10)

(9) Health Care System in India https://www.internationalstudentinsurance.com/india-student-in- surance/healthcare-system-in-india.php (P 12)

(10) Devolution: what it means for health and social care in England www.kingsfund.org.uk/devolution (P 13)

(11) https://yourstory.com/2017/08/gram-seva-mandal-vinoba-bhave (P 14)

(12) http://jatantrust.org/ (P 15)

(13) companies.fibre2fashion.com>weaverbird) (P 15)

(14) https://steps-centre.org/blog/covid-19-coronavirus-science-governance-lessons-from-india/) (STEPS: Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability)(P 16)

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