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Decentralized development in Uttarakhand

PUCL Bulletin, October 2002

by K.N. Bhatt, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad


Creation of Uttarakhand is, in fact, an outcome of the peoples’ long struggle for survival amidst the extreme conditions of regional economic backwardness and high rates of unemployment. The local people envisaged the political entity of the new state as an instrument to fulfill their aspirations of development and quality of life. Almost two years have been completed after the coming of the state into existence. How the new state has performed during these two years? Whether the people have started realizing their aspirations, for the achievement of which they struggled? Has the successive governments of the new states initiated a process of peoples’ empowerment and ensuring their right to development? If not what is the alternative course of action left with the people of Uttarakhand? These are some of the vital questions, which today bother the minds of the common peoples belonging to the area.

In the wake of wide ranging social inequalities, regional disparities, unemployment and poverty, nations through out the world presently are striving to rebuilt their socio-economic order from below. If the aspirations of the people are to be fulfilled, the vision must evolve from the grassroots level. The need of the hour in the new state therefore is to ensure actual sharing of power with the people, seeking their fullest participation and fulfilling their hopes and felt needs. This article analyses some contemporary theoretical perspectives of participatory development and social justice. How the decentralized democratic institutions of development could be created at the local level within the existing constitutional provisions In Indian states to bring in increased productivity, efficiency and equity together? Can a new state like Uttarakhand where ideal socio- economic conditions exist for an efficient evolution of decentralized development, learn lessons from some success stories of development from below? The following paragraphs analyze a theoretical perspective of decentralized development and social justice, experiences of centralized development planning in India, existing constitutional provisions for decentralized development, implementation of these provisions in practice and evolving an alternative process of decentralized development in Uttarakhand.


These contemporary perspectives for development suggest a qualitatively different approach, where considerations of equity and justice are primary determinants of development as they shape its entire structure. It is assumed that if the development process is to be participatory, decisions have to be taken with the full involvement of the beneficiaries. This requires an examination of ends and means of development. The responsibility to create the conditions for such a process of development lies with the state, not actually to realize it. Individuals themselves are the only ones who can achieve that. Local community management for development is considered to bring about equity, productivity, and efficiency together to ensure social justice. The common belief of the policy makers regarding trade-off between efficiency and equity is challenged and it is equivocally established that the process of decentralised development is essential for a reasonably efficient economy even under the constraints posed by the forces of globalisation.

Unfortunately, the development policies even today are mostly dominated by considerations of maximizing growth of GNP, increased industrial production, improved technology, and aggregate consumption. The notions of equity, justice, participation, and freedom are made peripheral and raised only as after-thoughts in the approach to national and international development policies. However, right from the time of the emergence of development theories, there has always been the theorists of eminence who believed that the idea of development goes far beyond growth in output and material wealth. They included welfare and equity into the process of development and advocated for the improvement of the lot of the poor and give people a wider range of choices. It is perceived here that the process of decentralization alone can provide the necessary ethos and institutional framework, in which civil society comes in to its own, thinks of the state as a necessary and essential instrument for ordering the public domain, and in which cultural diversity of the large society is given its full play. ‘The process of decentralized development thus involves delegation of decision-making powers to the sub-state levels with corresponding devolution of resources. It seeks improvement in productivity through speedy absorption of modem technology, better allocation and utilization of the available resources and greater impact of such productivity improvements on the living conditions of the weaker section of population’.

Experiences of Development Planning in India

India initiated the process of planned development in 1951 with a centrally planed mixed economy model. During the course of national movement, however, democratic decentralisation with the village as a basic unit of administration had remained central to the ideological framework of our national leaders. Graam Swaraaj (Village Republics), decentralized planning for development and equity were considered as the real solution for India’s problems. Despite Gandhiji’s clear propagation of the ideal and country’s great legacy of village governance from the past, the ideal of Panchayati Raj could find a place in the constitution of India only under the Directive Principles of the State Policy, rather than making it mandatory under the legally enforceable part of the constitution.

During the planned development efforts of the fifties only, the study team headed by Balwant Rai G. Mehta on Community Development Projects and National Extension Services, 1957, had again emphasized the need for democratic decentralisation through setting up of Panchayati Raj institutions for ensuring public participation in community works and an efficient implementation of development programmes. The recommendations of the Mehta Committee and a number of similar other expert committees on Panchayati Raj were left for implementation on the goodwill of the state governments, in the absence of a proper Constitutional safeguard and enthusiasm for sharing power with lower units of local self-governments, the state governments in turn reluctantly experimented with the idea. Consequently, a myth was gradually developed that the centralised governance and development only can benefit the disadvantaged and the poor.

Five decades of our planned development experience thus reveal that the popular participation in development planning remained a distant dream. Our state sponsored top-bottom planning model gradually witnessed a highly centralized system of development with ever increasing administrative controls. As rightly pointed out by an analyst ‘the upward shift of functions from the district to state and from state to the Union has not in the least contributed either to strengthening the centre or to making planning more effective. Indeed, it has had the opposite effect on both counts. The machinery of government became excessively flabby, at the centre as well as states. Planning has become so out of touch with ground reality that it is in danger of losing credibility. The strategy followed in the first four decades of planning, in fact, is now being squarely blamed for our relatively poor growth and mounting balance of payments problem, which finally led to the adoption of structural adjustment programmes in July 1991 with wide raging packages of reforms in trade, industry, finance, and other important sectors of the economy. It is now clearly realized that the development performance of India would have been much better and distribution of benefits more equitable, if only we had effective planning at the sub-state, particularly at the grassroots level.


After an ongoing delay of over 45 years in post independent India, the ushering in of the Gandhian Vision of Panchayati Raj Institutions through 73rd and 74th constitutional Amendment Acts in 1992 is a bold and historic initiative. It seeks to deliver power to the people to realise their right to development. The Indian Constitution has been amended for creating the autonomous institutions of local self-governments and decentralized development both in rural and urban areas respectively. Provisions under the constitutional mandate envisage not only the full participation of people in decision-making process, preparation of economic development plans, and ensuring social justice, but also in the execution of such plans. The Acts also specially lay provisions for establishing an autonomous State Finance Commission for sharing of financial resources directly to these local bodies and make them economically independent. In short, the real spirit of the constitutional mandate is to ensure a development policy, which creates sustainable improvement in the quality of life of the people, and evolves a social order based on the principles of equality, prosperity, and security.

The relevant sections of the Constitution of India under Part IX, Part IXA, the 11th and the 12th Schedules, underscore the provisions for ensuring true democracy at the grass roots level and transferring power to the people. Article 243 G and Article 243 W pointedly define the power, authority and responsibilities of Panchayats and municipalities, etc. respectively. It states that subject to the provisions of the Constitution, the Legislature of a State may, by law, endow the Panchayats and the municipalities with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government. The 11th Schedule and 12th schedule listed therein envisages for the transfer of multiple developmental activities to be performed by the Panchayats and urban local bodies respectively.

Before the 73rd, 74th constitutional amendment Acts, ‘it was not mandatory to elect office holders below state level at district, sub-district, village of municipal levels. In other words according to an analyst, Indian democracy was a parliamentary system at central and state levels with bureaucratic governance at lower levels. The current power pyramid, needs to be reversed. Everything that can be decided and implemented optimally at the local level should be kept at that level leaving the rest to be taken up at the district, and thereafter the state level. Only the residua ‘powers should belong to the centre… It is also necessary to move beyond the confines of the representative-democracy. Forums must be created so that ordinary citizen can directly intervene, deliberate, and decide the governance and development processes. Democracy, from being a ritual of periodic elections, needs to be extended to the grassroots levels’.

Implementation of the Acts

The Constitutional mandate with its wide-ranging prospects for evolving a true and transparent democratic social order requires the state governments to introduce legislative measures immediately for the revitalization of the institutions of local self-governance. It is, first and foremost, very encouraging to find turn of the state government to activate these democratic institutions at the local level for transforming the practice and quality of development in the country. Commenting on the post 74th constitutional amendments experiences, Drez and Sen have rightly pointed out that: ‘It is, first and foremost, very encouraging to find plentiful of evidence of active engagements with the new possibilities of local democracies on the part of the Indian public… However, the experience confirms that the results of state initiatives to promote local democracy are highly contingent social context. Indeed, the reforms associated with the Panchayati Raj amendments have followed very different course in different states. At one extreme, Bihar has barely reached the stage of organising Panchayat elections. Kerala on the other hand, has gone far beyond the constitutional requirements and initiated a visionary campaign of ‘decentralized planning’ through Panchayati Raj institutions’. It is unfortunate to note that despite an active engagement of the common public most of the state States governments have failed in their duty in truly transferring power to the people even after a decade of the constitutional mandate.

What has happened in practice, in these once again is merely a bureaucratic transfer of power that treats the lower level units of the self-governments just as another units of bureaucratic control. The system rather than being responsible to the people, who formed them, still remain loyal in turn to upper echelons in the bureaucratic hierarchy. It has generally resulted in utter failure and mal-functioning of existing local self-governments in the country.

On the other hand, the example of Kerala, where these constitutional provisions have actually been implemented after 1996-97 with the aim of evolving a system of participatory development, presents a fruitful model of social development. After the adoption of this system, the state government transfers about 35 to 40 percent of its total plan funds directly to the Panchayats to facilitate these institutions for undertaking development projects at the local level. ‘During 1997-98, the total resources devolved worked out to Rs. 10,250 million and in 1998-99 Rs.11,780 million, not counting funds from centrally sponsored schemes and the loans that could be taken out by the local bodies with government guarantee. Before 1996-97, their share in the state’s annual plan averaged only around Rs. 200 million. The small state of Kerala today has become a unique example of people’s participatory model of development with high levels of human and social development. A Summary of the proceedings of a five days International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala organised during May, 2000 in Thiruvananthapuram reveals that: ‘the Kerala experience is demonstrating that the efforts in the devolution of power and finances to local communities, when sustained by political will, can prove that local resistance is also an effective response to the market driven logic of globalisation which has little place for the felt needs of the people… The role of the local bodies offers today the only hope in benevolent, decentralised state’s presence, where the centre may hold and the peripheries may continue to define the political vision and trajectories of economic growth and the distributional gains of it…

The democratic decentralisation campaign in Kerala will be significant in the history of India for it establishes a politics of social change which restructures the systems of power of production and relations, especially between government, the state and the people who image the alternatives and build them. Decentralisation is ultimately going back to the people for a referendum, and, in the last instance, this is a political issue, not just for Kerala but also for all India.

Initiating Decentralized Development in Uttarakhand

It is the first and foremost duty of a new state coming into existence after the 73rd, 74th constitutional amendments Acts to review its existing system of development and governance. The continuation of the provisions for merely a bureaucratic governance at sub-state level units of administration would not lead anywhere. If the new state of Uttarakhand fails to initiate a process of decentralized development and peoples’ empowerment in the true spirit of the constitution, the local people will remain in a state of deprivation with the widespread conditions of regional economic backwardness, poverty, and unemployment. The success story cited above in case of Kerala, in addition to a bold and historic initiative by the state government, is attributed by some analyst to various positive socio-economic conditions existent in the state. These factors include high literacy rates, sharply reduced deprivation and absolute poverty, better medical and health facilities, successful land reforms, mass organizations to strengthen the case for local democracy, and better redistributive policies of the government for social sector planning including social provisioning of education, health, economic assets, improved working conditions, and bargaining power of the labour force.

The existing socio-economic attributes in Uttarakhand, like Kerala, also suggest an ideal condition for immediately starting the process of decentralized development in the new state. During the course of past two decades, literacy and educational levels in Uttarakhand have recorded dramatic achievements. The state today ranks among the top ten Indian states in terms of higher literacy rates. This may be supplemented from the provisional Censes, 2001 totals, which show an overall literacy rate of 72.28 per cent with respective ratios of 84.01 per cent for males and 60.26 per cent for females in Uttarakhand. Similarly, the tremendous potential of natural resources could be transformed into wealth by the touch of a highly disciplined and educated human labour force in the economy of the state. The sturdy, healthy, well educated, and laborious hill women is undisputedly accepted as the practical work force in the area. The varying altitudes, vegetation, soils, climate, beautiful landscape and geophysical features of the area, extending from the snowy Himalayan peaks to the highly fertile foot-fills, the Bhabhar, Tarai, and Duns, present a unique potential for initiating a host of cultivation, manufacturing, and production activities.

Apart from the abundance of natural resources and well-educated human resource base, a rich cultural and social heritage can enormously contribute to the success of participatory governance in the state. The hill society has a prolonged tradition of close community living and harmony with its natural environment. Traditional village Panchayats and forest Panchayats have performed well in bringing social welfare and delivering justice to the people. Law and order even today is managed in the rural areas of the mountainous part by combining revenue and police administration. The people belonging to the area are trusted everywhere for their honesty, hard work, communal harmony, and tradition of community living. In case of social hierarchy of rich and poor and asset distribution, class-gaps do not exist so sharply as is the case in other sates of India. Distribution of land is almost equal. Only about 13 percent of the total geographical area is under cultivation, owned by the individual households. Under the decentralized system of development, provincial government will have to transfer common property rights of the land to the local self- governments. In fact, most of the land under government control including reserve forests of today needs to be transferred to the village and urban local self governments to be managed, protected and developed by themselves without any bureaucratic interference. Similarly, the property rights in case of water resources also need to be given back to these local self-governments.

The state could make legal provisions under its Panchayat Raj Act for the transfer of property rights of the courses of the river valleys falling within the respective boundaries of the sub-state level units of governments.

Only after ascertaining the property rights under the law in case of jal, jangal, zamin the new state could make the system of democratic governance and development a reality. The peculiar geophysical features widely scattered natural resources, village habitations and varying ecosystem of Uttarakhand also necessitate devolution of power to the people to protect the flight of capital from the area and for managing the economy according to local needs. Fullest participation of people and their empowerment could ensure the twin objectives of creating employment opportunities and a speedy increase in production, asset creation, and value addition.

The higher echelons of the sate machinery may concentrate on development of basic infrastructure facilities, encouraging research and development activities and providing people access to healthy markets in order to fetch better prices for their produce. Failure to deliver power to the people at the foundation stage of the new state may again alienate and frustrate the local people. The flight of capital may experience more accelerated pace and the eco-sensitive Himalayan zones may lead to further destruction in coming years, particularly after strengthening of the globalized market forces.


The failure of the centralized state planning, apart from other things, has primarily paved the way for today’s dominant neo-classical paradigm of competitive markets as an alternative, where the states have practically no role to play. However, the available literature on the theme clearly suggests that there existed no situation even in the so-called pure capitalist economies of the world, where market forces operated under the ideal conditions. Each nation operates its political economy within certain regulated framework in accordance with the required socio-economic reality.

The market mechanisms could be effectively utilized to ensure distributive justice in a democratic way. Therefore, an ideal alternative model of development for a new state like Uttarakhand would be a combination of decentralized development with a healthy exposure to market forces. After the initiation of people’s campaign for decentralized development in 1996, Kerala is demonstrating a unique and successful model of decentralized planning for social development to the world in our own country. Several other such lessons for development from below could be found and innovated for the ownership and management of an economy suitable to our social realities which may be different from the sole state ownership on the one hand and unrestricted private ownership on the other for ensuring people their right to development and social justice.

In order to evolve such a people’s participatory and transparent process of development, the new state needs to initiate reforms at two levels. First, the state legislature would be required to pass a comprehensive law for the democratic devolution of power to the people for creating institutions of local self-governments in the true sprit of the 73rd & 74th constitutional amendment Acts. Secondly, start a massive campaign for the development planning from these grassroots level institutions and educate people for a comprehensive technical exercises of making sectoral plans, assessing local needs, financial outlays and implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of their own development projects. Adoption of these measures certainly requires a strong political will amongst the ruling political elite in the state, as neither the existing elected representatives nor the bureaucracy would easily like to share power with the people. If the state fails to evolve these constitutional sub-state level political institutions for grassroots level governance in near future, the only alternative course of action, the local people are left with, is to organise themselves for yet another struggle for their own empowerment and development.

Evolving a process of decentralized development remains the only hope for the local people which can be used not only to ensure collective property rights over their natural resources of Jal, Jangal, Zamin, but also bring in economic prosperity and social harmony.

The author has used the name ‘Uttarakhand’ instead of ‘Uttaranchal’. This was the term used in the movement for the creation of the state. Common people still adhere to the name they had coined.

(References have been omitted due to space constraint. — Chief Editor )