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Managing Trustees: Ashok Khosla, SK Sharma
B-32, Qutab Inst. Area, New Delhi 16; Tel: 685-1158, 696-7938, Fax: 686-6031

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The Village, Gandhi and Governance
realising a sustainable society
by SK Sharma, People First, India

At the turn of the millennium, the world faces a grave crisis of governance. Technological advance has led to wide expansion in industrial activity and global markets and emergence of a new life style in the developed nations. As opposed to this, most third world nations are confronted by increasing poverty, illiteracy, population, environmental degradation, crime, corruption and social unrest. Liberalisation of economies and globalisation are often being projected as the panacea for all these problems.
 
The truth is far from it. The unbridled growth in industrial activity in the developed nations has led to disturbing consequences such as unprecedented movement of materials, damage to the environment, and global warming. Facing bankruptcy, the third world nations have opened their economies to the global market. This is giving a false sense of prosperity but the basic problems of poverty, illiteracy, population, environmental degradation and social unrest continue to plague them. It is obvious that merely aping the western economic model without correcting the faulty institutions of governance that foster corruption, wastage and exploitation cannot be sustained for long.

 

1 Faulty Centralised Democracies

Most third world nations on attaining independence, retained the centralised, non-transparent and bureaucratised exploitative colonial institutions. As a result, the national and state governments control most resources and decision-making whereas local governments are weak and ineffective. The colonial ghost thus still rules them!
 
On these, they superimposed Soviet type centralised planning and a controlled economy thus creating a mixed economy in a mixed-up polity. In such centralised systems, bureaucratic overheads, misuse of authority, wastage of resources and corruption are excessive and leave very little resources for the benefit of the society.
 
Many third world nations also adopted the faulty Westminster parliamentary system. With a mixed-up executive and legislature, every legislator is a potential minister. This fosters jockeying for power, abuse of authority, instability, jumbo cabinets, and bribing legislators. Legislators, who are expected to be watchdogs over the executive, often become mad or wild dogs of democracy!
 
Some nations switched to the presidential system. However, since most power remained centralised with the national government and was not shared with local governments, the presidents often assumed dictatorial tendencies.

2 Basic Structure of Universal democracy

Democracy can best be defined as how the people would want the nation to be governed. Given the choice, the common people will first retain resources with local governments to handle all local matters including administration of justice, police, education, healthcare, land, water systems and forests. To prevent abuse of authority, they will institute effective transparency mechanisms covering the sovereign rights of the people to information, consultation, participation and referendum. They will devolve their remaining resources to the state and national governments to provide higher level infrastructure, support to regions with inadequate resources and coordination, but not to interfere in local matters.

Basic principles of management dictate that the executive, legislature and judiciary should be distinct and separate as checks and balances of democracy. The executive should thus be directly elected with the legislature performing watchdog functions. The local, state and national jurisdictions should also be separate and exclusive so that each government, local, state and national is directly accountable to the people, and the national president cannot assume dictatorial traits.

Derived from basic principles, this along with certain rights regarded as fundamental to democracy, can be said to the basic structure of universal democracy. Based on 4000-year democratic ethos of India, Gandhi advocated such a true democracy in which power flows upward from the people. It is practised in the best democracies of the world such as the Swiss.

Gandhi found the industrial revolution in the West under which large populations were moving from rural areas to congested cities, disturbing. Democracy, by definition, can neither be socialist nor capitalist. It can only be egalitarian, that is, all have equal political and social rights. Gandhi’s search was for an alternative economic model that nurtured a humane society based on decentralised production systems, rooted in villages that acquire urban quality. Most essential goods that people need should be locally produced and consumed thus reducing pressure on transportation and energy consumption. He was not opposed to high science and technology but wanted it serve human needs with a human face, and not destroy human values.

3 Village Governments

Within local governance, Gandhi laid great emphasis on village governance since being at the grassroots level it constitutes direct democracy whereas all others are representative democracy. According to Indian scriptures, the village parliament consisting of all adult men and women control all village resources, officials and decision-making. Women have thus been franchised in India for 4000 years whereas they got enfranchised in the West only in this century. The village parliament elects the village head and councillors for day to day work usually for a year, and can remove them any time for misconduct. Counsellors are held in high esteem but if the community finds that any one of them has abused authority, he can be summarily removed through simple majority.

The village government gives land and other environmental resources on village lease for specific use. The community thus prevents misuse of land and protects the interests of the weak. Such grassroots empowerment regenerates the spiritual energies of the people for self-development as they are involved in day to day decisions about the community and the environment.

In contemporary times, industrial proposals will need the approval of village governments. This will nurture an environment in which industry functions in trusteeship of society, producing goods and services useful for society, investing the surplus for common good, and avoid ostentatious consumption. Such industry can also support social services such as education and health-care to supplement the programme of the village and district governments.

4 District Governments

Nation-states are often created through wars and mergers whereas district or counties are generic. They generally form a mini-catchment in which people have cultural links and can traverse within a reasonable time. They constitute the highest level of local governance. They provide professional support to and coordinate village governments. An intermediate level government is often provided as a link between district and village governments. Large cities have autonomous city governments.

Most social and environmental matters are in the exclusive jurisdiction of local governments. Social or environmental conflict at the grassroots level should be mediated at the intermediate and finally at the district or city level. The state and national governments should have no jurisdiction over such issues.

History has shown that communities have lived in harmony with each other at the local level, and that it is higher level politics, priesthood and feudal interests that have divided them. Gandhi was convinced that once control over local resources and decision-making is restored at the local level, most social and environmental issues and all social ills and discords will gradually give way to social harmony and economic self-reliance.

Ethnic conflicts are becoming a major global concern the world over. True democracy provides the framework for enrichment of every ethic identity.

 

5 Multi-Stakeholders Upper Houses

The Rio conference on Environment and Development recommended multi-stakeholder councils at the local, state and national levels for resolving social and environmental conflicts for sustainability. Such councils can be effective only if they are a part of mainstream governance.

When Britain adopted democracy, a House of Lords was instituted to protect feudal interests. Similar upper houses have been instituted in many democracies to protect various vested interests.

Concerns for social and environmental sustainability demand, based on the recommendations of the Rio Conference, multi-stakeholder upper houses in all democracies at the local, state and national levels. They should consist of apolitical representatives of various interest groups such as disadvantaged communities, farmers, labour, industry, religions, women, academics, professionals and NGOs, elected or nominated through an appropriate process.
 
The elected deputy chief executives can be the chairpersons of such upper houses. These upper houses will deliberate upon resolving conflicts of interest for sustainability, try to moderate political decision-making for sustainability through the elected deputy chief executive, and perform various watchdog functions on behalf of the society.

6 Regional Planning

Most developing nations adopted Soviet type centralised planning. Under it, the national and state governments controlling most resources, allocate funds for various social, environmental and economic programmes, including social and physical infrastructure, and allocate them to local governments in the from of schemes with preconceived conditions and stipulators often not suiting local needs. This leads to wastage, heavy overheads and application of resources often not suiting local requirements. Centralised planning is linked with development economics. Development economics is a fake discipline that imposes programmes and schemes on local communities thus aliniating them from the decision-making processes.
 
The only scientific method of planning is regional planning. Regional planning takes the available resources into consideration to prepare plans covering socio-economic, infrastructure and environmental issues, expressed in analytical, quantitative and special plans. These plans are reiteratively coordinated at the local, state and national levels. Satellite imagery and geographic information systems now facilitate such planning. This type of planning was practised by many traditional societies. India has such a full-fledged such scientific planning discipline called vastu shastra. Colonial rule disrupted India from it traditional knowledge base and, in the name of modernity, insensitive leadership continued to pursue centralised systems.
 
Development economics, based on centralised planning, is a fake discipline. What we need is housewife economics — local governments handle housekeeping while state and national governments provide higher level infrastructure and coordination, but cannot interfere in housekeeping. Effective transparency mechanisms covering the sovereign rights of the people to information, consultation, participation and referendums prevents wasteful bureaucratic overheads, abuse of authority, corruption and wastage.
 
It is only through such true democracy that local communities can educate themselves, use the environment in a sustainable manner, and ensure adequate health-care to contain the population. It can also generate adequate resources to enable the state and national governments to provide higher level infrastructure including transportation. Needless to say, resource management should be through scientific regional planning, now facilitated though satellite imagery and geographic information systems.

7 The Reform Process

Power having got centralised, the political system is not willing, nor able to restore it to local governments and the community, nor institute effective transparency mechanisms. Thus, most constitutions instituted in the name of the people, have become a Frankenstein that is destroying its creator, the people, and the people apparently can do nothing about it. Centralisation can lead to further centralisation, not to democracy. All talk of people’s participation begs the question.
 
People First has conceptualised a legitimate process of reforms. Through lateral thinking, it has conceptualised that contemporary democracy need, apart from the familiar institutions such as parliament and judiciary, a new institution, Sovereign Rights Commission with authority to direct referendums, except on issue fundamental to democracy or the integrity of the nation. There can, for example, be no referendum on making the state theocratic or a region seceding.
 
Impressed by the concept, the then Speaker of the Indian Parliament, circulated document of People First on such a reforms process in the golden jubilee special session of parliament held in August 1997 to mark 50 years to independence. Justice MN Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India, presently Chairman of the recently constituted Commission for Review of the Working of the Constitution, has
endorsed referendum as the supreme sovereign right of the people, intrinsic to democracy. He has also praised the concept of Sovereign Rights Commission as providing a legitimate, non-violent process for transforming the society.
 
To take the movement forward, People First has recently drafted a constitution on the above principles titled "Constitution for Free Bharat (India). It can be viewed on our website www.peoplefirstindia.org and views registered on its bulletin board. We have demanded that the Review Commission may organise consultations, public hearing and local referendums in various parts of India. Based on these, it may refine the draft Constitution, and place the present versus the proposed Constitution for decision before the people through referendum along with the next national election two years from now. If the people vote for the present Constitution, it will get revalidated. If they vote for the proposed Constitution, the Commission can authenticate it, this time truly, in the name of the people and it will become the law of the land.

8 General

Thomas Jefferson, the key person behind the framing of the US Constitution, said that no one but the people themselves should be the ultimate repository of all authority of society. This can be best institutionalised through an institutional mechanism for directing referendums. All nations, developed and developing, need such an institution. The global society should pressurise non-democracies to institute such an institution to democratise their polity.
 
In an internet poll conducted by Time magazine, Einstein and Gandhi have been declared men of the millennium. Both were searching for truth. Einstein evolved vital truths that led to further development of sciences. Gandhi reiterated the truth that was evolved in the villages of India four thousand years ago. Most social and spiritual leaders the world over, have been reiterating this truth time and again, but society tends to forget it. It needs to be institutionalised in the third millennium, if the earth is to survive. Born in the nineteenth century, realised in the twentieth, Gandhi is truly the apostle of the third millennium.

People First is a trust promoted by Development Alternatives, India, dedicated to instituting good governance for sustainability. Ashok Khosla, President, Development Alternatives, and SK Sharma are its Managing Trustees.

For further information, contact at email; people@sdalt.ernet.in or visit our website: www.peoplefirstindia.org

 

[ The Problem : Pseudo Democracy ] [ The Goal : Universal Democracy ] [ The Process : Referendums ]
[ Political System ] [ Economic Systems ] [ Environmental Systems ] [ Social Systems ]

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