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September 28, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Sifting the national from the local

The ongoing Lok Sabha poll have shattered those idealists who choose to look upon the election as "a festival of democracy." Even by the standards of today's wicked, wicked world, the election have set some landmarks. For one, they have been the most perversely protracted in the history of democracy. They have also been the bitterest in free India on account of an unparalleled circumstance -- when did a person of foreign origin ever in the past contest for a seat in the Lok Sabha, let alone for a panchayat? Finally, the election must also be one that have produced already the largest quantum of venom spewed all round via scams, sleaze and slander.

However, the most bizarre aspect of the election must surely be the one reported from Kanpur. According to one despatch in The Telegraph of September 20, the sitting member of Parliament from Kanpur was first dunked in slush and wet cow dung before he was allowed to address an election meeting in Mihama. Similar scenes of wrath were reportedly taking place in other parts of Uttar Pradesh also. All this because the people felt they had been neglected in their everyday needs such as power supply, drinking water, roads and garbage disposal.

This was a continuation of a private television channel's sustained campaign projecting the repeated sentiments of the people that their primary concern during the present election was not national security or government stability, but water, education, health, housing and sanitation. Many in the print media endorsed the theme -- it made good copy, you see, and never mind if Parliament in Delhi is not some gram panchayat in UP.

It was left to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to muster courage for trying to induct some sense of perspective in his audience. At one of his election meetings in a state where only the Lok Sabha poll was taking place, Vajpayee urged the crowds to think of the nation when they voted and not of local problems such as drainage; such complaints, he said, were in the domain of municipal corporations and should not be conveyed to national leaders. A political analyst expressed an identical view and chided the media for not educating the voters on the need to think of larger issues during such an election.

A female columnist of a leading English language newspaper quickly attacked Vajpayee and the analyst. What are the 'national' issues and what are the 'local' issues, she asked. The real politics, she said, is the politics of land, of water and of shelter. Pointing out that 'After 52 years and 12 elections, the process of change on the ground has been excruciatingly slow,' she proclaimed that 'It is time to set aside the false and irrelevant division between the national and local issues.'

This sweeping and emotional outburst is dangerous inasmuch as it turns the entire democratic decentralisation set-up on its head. It is dangerous inasmuch as it entrenches the feeling among the people that it is only the maai baap sarkar in Delhi which has to provide them with everything and run everything everywhere from the tiniest hamlet upwards with the people themselves not having anything to do with whatever that "everything" includes. This attempt to converge national and local issues strikes at the very concept of a parliamentary government.

Consider the question of electric power in the villages. P R Kumaramangalam, the Union minister for energy, disclosed the other day that though the Bihar government gets an annual support of Rs 4 billion from the central government for rural electrification, more than 80 per cent of the villages in Bihar have no electricity. Who is to be held responsible for this? The 54 Lok Sabha MPs from Bihar or the Laloo Yadav regime? And for all you know, at least some of the MPs may have lobbied their butts off to get that annual support of Rs 4 billion.

Take the working of the Punjab government's health department between 1992 and 1997 for which period the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General was recently released. The report points out a 30 per cent to 60 per cent shortage of anaesthetists, the non-functioning since 1989 of the radiotherapy unit at the Amritsar hospital, two-thirds of the ECG machines not being operational etc. In short, almost total sloth and indifference by the Congress government that was in power at that time. One result was that 9.3 per cent of the budget allocation for the health department was allowed to lapse. Who is to be held guilty for this utter callousness? The state government's health minister and chief minister or the MPs from the state?

In both the above cases, an alert and active local populace could have agitated locally against the local authorities and, in all probability, had their grievances redressed. After all, there is a definite public and media sympathy for such humane causes. And governments, remember, are afraid of media criticism.

One small but illustrative example of local agitation occurred some six months ago in Savarkhand and Duparepada villages of Wada taluka in Thane district of Maharashtra. The breakdown of an electric transformer located in Savarkhand had resulted in a total blackout in two Adivasi villages. The villagers lodged their complaint at the local office of the state electricity board and waited for relief. When that didn't come for two days, they simply gathered in strength, marched to the board's taluka office and the tahsildar's office before squatting silently in front of the board's assistant engineer in charge.

They left only after getting an assurance about a replacement transformer being got quickly from a sub-divisional office some 25 kilometres away. On the next day itself, the new transformer was in place and the night saw all homes lit up in the two villages. These villagers were also the ones who patiently listened to the recent meetings of all the candidates for the assembly and Lok Sabha election. They hadn't needed to throw cow dung, dry or wet, at any of those who sought their votes.

Indeed, those who refuse to accept the gulf between local and national issues would appear to be betraying ignorance of Parliament's objectives and functions in a Constitutional democracy like ours.

It must never be forgotten that making laws is Parliament's major preoccupation. Changing and complex socio-economic problems constantly demand new laws and, therefore, Parliament is expected to spend a good deal of its time on legislative activity. And this law-making activity in India is restricted to those subjects on which our Constitution permits parliamentary jurisdiction. For instance, choked municipal drains or pot-holed municipal roads are beyond our Parliament's pale. For that matter, municipal councils and municipal corporations themselves fall exclusively in the state government's ambit and not Parliament's.

Even Prime Minister Vajpayee cannot, by law or by force, prevent the Kanpur drains from being clogged. He can, at best, employ persuasion to remedy the matter for a while. After that, when the public merrily dumps polythene bags and garbage -- and cow dung -- in the drains till they choke again, must Vajpayee visit Kanpur again? And again, and again?

An important characteristic of the parliamentary system is that the Cabinet is predominant and virtually monopolises business in Parliament. It is the government that decides on policy and, to legislate on it successfully, requires a majority in the Lok Sabha. This majority comes from MPs, spread across the country, who are agreed on certain basics but are meant to discuss and debate for fine-tuning the intended policy. The predominant capabilities of the MPs are thus meant to be such as can contribute to thought on national issues; their predominant concerns are meant to be national, not the spilling drains of Aligarh. For that purpose, wide reading, study and interaction with various thought processes are a "must."

All this is not to say that an MP must be a stranger to his/her constituency. It is undoubtedly his or her moral duty to improve the lot of his or her constituents. But how, pray, is Maneka Gandhi expected to help the 1.6 million people in Pilibhit who complain of lack of housing or toilets for women? The task is truly Herculean in a country where poverty is so ubiquitous, the financial resources so limited and where state governments are largely autonomous in key spheres that bear directly on people's living conditions. Besides, to generate a national level activity in an MP's constituency entails wading through a maze of procedures and priorities not known or noticed by those at the constituency level.

Each MP must necessarily be held accountable in his or her use of the novel MPs Local Area Development Scheme started by the Narasimha Rao government. Under this scheme, each MP was given a choice to suggest, to the district collector concerned, works to the tune of 10 million rupees per year to be taken up in his/her constituency. This really was a tangible tool by which each MP of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha could directly help his constituency as well as use it to keep in close touch with his electorate. A system of participatory interaction with voters would help determine priorities and follow-up of the progress on the works selected every year. Community interest would develop and, in the entire process, new leadership would possibly emerge.

Unfortunately, media and public gaze has not focussed on this area of MPs' powers and responsibility. None so far, for instance, has pointed out that as against the Budget allocation of Rs 7.9 billion to this scheme for 1997-98, the actual expenditure under it that year was Rs 4.9 billion (Expenditure Budget 1999-2000 Vol I, page 7, of the Government of India). Why this sizeable shortfall of 38 per cent in such a crucial scheme meant to directly benefit 790 constituencies spread over the country's 466 districts every year? No investigative report has come to throw light on the issue.

Indeed, so minuscule is the attention on this MPs Local Area Development Scheme that the Vajpayee government forgot to put down in its electioneering report card that it had doubled each MP's quota to 20 million rupees per year and that, therefore, the Budget provision for the scheme is Rs 15.80 billion for 1999-2000.

As a matter of fact, this scheme can be an excellent yardstick for giving the party ticket for a Lok Sabha election. The sitting MP being required to show his utilisation of the scheme and the new aspirant being required to prepare his constituency manifesto on the scheme would go a long way in sifting the chalk from the cheese and the national from the local issues.

Arvind Lavakare

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