(Sample Material) Gist of IIPA Journal: The Working of Panchayati Raj: People’s Empowerment Arvind K. Sharma

(Sample Material) Gist of Important Articles from IIPA Journal

Topic: People’s Empowerment Arvind K. Sharma


The key to fostering participation, as understood in its empowerment dimension, lies in Decentralisation the essence of which is delegation of decision-making prerogatives.

Decentralisation is variously understood and practiced, and has a variety of nuances attached to it. The term is used both in a narrow, techno-managerial sense to conn no to deconcentration as well as in a more profound and influential way to refer to the process of devolution designed to effect redistribution of political power in society.

The protagonists of new public management—a reform movement currently in progress in a large number of Western public bureaucracies — have argued that introduction of market mechanisms in public systems might be the ultimate in the practice or dccentralisation in the sense that power is decentralised to the individual user of public services, who exercises choice between Competing suppliers.

In whichever form it might be practiced, decentralisation could become an effective instrument of redefining power equations. The concepts of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ developed by Hirschman are useful analytical tools for understanding power relationship between citizens and public organisations Voice and exit in essence represent alternative citizen empowerment strategies. Empowerment, under exit, is achieved via an impersonal route, through the operation of the Invisible Hand; a dissatisfied customer makes an exit from the scence by taking his business to another provider. Under the voice option, empowerment is accomplished through political action; the citizens voice protest by becoming politically organised.

The exit route espouses introduction of markets in public services; an act of exit on the part of customer, in theory, triggers market forces which will induce recovery on the part of a supplier which has declined in comparative performance. The alternative strategy, the voice option, seeks to underpin democracy.

Briefly, one seeks empowerment via the market under one category while under the other it is sought through the political route.

The Market Route

Those advocating the exist option argue that introduction of market mechanism in the public domain builds citizen power through publication of public services; the individual user in enabled to exercise choice between competing service provider.

Under this model, inefficiency is punished and quality rewarded through power of the individual to take her/his business elsewhere.

By breaking the monopoly of the monolithic State as the provider and by introducing choice and participation the market model seeks to redefine power equation between the State and the citizen.

Criticisms against this approach to empowerment are numerous, and rather too well known. Most importantly, the considerations of disposable income, mobility and information inevitably an elite bias in the provision of public services based on the market model. In other words, because of these constraints, markets is out of the reach of the poor. Secondly, in the public service context, ‘choice’ is more apparent than real; what does one do when there is not where else to go to? How can, for instance, one change one’s electricity supplier? Choice is precluded from services provided by monopolies.

Beside, how does not introduce markets in services concerned with social control where supply of public regulatory service is correctively enforced (public security, environmental planning, town planning). Equally, where is the question of making choice available to consumers is respect of services whose supply must be rationed? Likewise, the market model is clearly not applicable to services which must be consumed on a collective rather than individual basis, e.g., reads, street lighting.

Collective needs need to be addressed collectively so that a consensus based on the views of all the constituents and sections of society may emerge. The market model, because it accentuates individualistic perspective, actually militates against efforts to build and articulate collective concerns and organise collective action. In this sense, it has been argued, market mechanism is an assault on local democracy.

The alternative route to empowerment invokes what is essentially the local self-government option. The local self-governing institutions (LSGIs) are in essence created through the process of devolution. However, in making public services available locally, the decentralisation device may also be used. Therefore, both devolution as well as decentralisation may be used in installing the strategy of decentralisation for citizen empowerment.
A brief discussion of the concepts of decentration and devolution may be in order at the present juncture.


Decentralisation, in its deconcentration aspect, is spurred by what are essentially functional consideration, e.g., preventing the central system from becoming too unwidely; securing speed and economy in delivery of public goods and services. Certain of field agencies illustrates the phenomenon of deconcentration. Delivery from a single location imposes constraints of logistic (for the providers of services) and causes delay and hardship (for the recipients); these handicaps can be removed if delivery is effected from a large number of locations that are physically proximate to the localities.

Physical dispersal of delivery systems to a large number of convenient locations is identified by the label of “localization”. Localisation is motivated by the desire to provide clients an essay access to pubic agencies and takes the shape of physical relocation of goods and services form a single central point to sites within local communities. A concomitantly discernible phenomenon, a deconcentration progress, is that of decongestion: decongestion of the headquarters form the essence of this process. The primary criterion by which to judge decongestion is the extent to which the central system is enabled to shed its workload. Deconcentration, therefore, has essentially an instrumental character, it emphasises functionality and is oriented towards securing operational effectiveness of public organisation. It is decentralisation is strictly administrative, rather than political sense: deconcentration is geared to fostering administrative rationality.

An over-simplified version will picture field agencies, created through a process of deconcentration, somewhat as follow:

(a) Field agencies stand in a subordinate relationship to the headquarters, unlike the LSGIs which hare the ‘coordinates’ of the central system (state governments). The former have derived, not original, jurisdiction.
(b) A principal-agent relationship obtains between the centre (headquarters) and its local territorial formation (field agencies).
(c) The field units are simply executants of the orders of instructions handed down to them by the headquarters, and no more. The former may be viewed as ‘the long arm’ of the centre; they exercise delegated authority with detailed stipulation of referral of cases to the headquarters.
(d) Policies and priorities are framed by the headquarters which coordinates the field agencies’ operations and performs an overall supervisory role vis-à-vis them.
(e) Field agencies function through the headquarters appointed personnel and do not appoint their own.


If deconcentration denotes the managerial dimension of decentralisation, devolution may be thought to refer to its political aspect. Power sharing or power equalization in society forms the principal motivation force behind the process of devolution. The value being maximized via this route is that of redistributive politics, i.e., redistribution or reallocation of power in society so as to enable the local communities to have a voice, a say, a role in the society’s power structure.

The LSGIs-signifying efforts to form institutions of autonomous governance at the level of localities, may be thought to form the most classic example of devolution, Traditionally, the LSGIs are known to have constituted the most well known device to widen and deepen popular participation in the process of democratic governance. The argument having been that If only the decision-making power was transferred to sub-national constituencies and new levels of governance created, will it be possible for the masses at large to achieve a voice In determining policies that after their lives. That the LSGIs were potent vehicles of converting a representative democracy-with its periodical ritual of elections into a participatory democracy, which will permit people at the grassroots a genuine participation in power.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the LSGIs, as contrasted with the field offices, is that they command a coordinate and not subordinate relationship with the central system (which devolves power) (in our context the state governments).

Local governments units are corporate bodies with legislatively constitutionally defined function and delegations. They have the power to levy taxes and employ their own personnel. The have legally recognized territorial jurisdictions (geographical boundaries).

Representative assemblies, elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage, are the hallmark for the LSGIs. It is in this sense that the process of devolution, whose culmination marks the formation-of the popularly elected people’s assemblies- mini legislatures-in localities, signifies an effort to bridge the gulf between power (which is lodged and Centre and in the states) and the people, who live at the local level. Governance by popularly elected representative forms, so to say, the chief trademark of political devolution; this stands in a clear and sharp contrast with the managerially oriented concept of deconcentration, leading to formation of field offices manned by Centrally/state appointed bureaucrats who govern though a system of remote control.

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