Ward Committees: Concept and Precept.

Just another linkage in a corrupt system or genuine citizen empowerment?

Participating in a seminar on the role of ward committees in (possibly) empowering the citizenry, I was struck by two seminal discrepancies in the proposal as it is poised in the sub-headline here. One is the crucial question that must be addressed using logic; in a country where no institution has remained untainted by politics, what reason to believe that this one will be an exception. The other is more damning in its echo: is this going to be one more conduit for the proposed delivery of good governance that must be routed through the very system that does not deliver it?

My intention is to first exhaust all the misplaced optimistic notes about the ability of this new handle to weed out the precise anomaly of its stricken destiny to be subsumed in the morass of corrupted institutions. My other indication is towards the hope of a really new possibility emanating from this venture should it be reengineered to a slightly different orientation.

But first, the idea as it stands. Actually the two arguments listed out in the paras above are really enough to make a reasonable case for why this too will fail as a mechanism to achieve what it ostensibly steps out to achieve. For those who are not familiar with the ward committee concept, it might be pertinent to refer to the 74th amendment of the Indian constitution, which among other principles of local self government provide for the setting up of district committees as a means of fertilizing article 243 ZD of the amendment.

But if we need more arguments for this belief, just look at the examples strewn across the country – because nowhere except Kerala do we find any semblance of this having satisfied even its conceptual specifics, forget implementation and resultant successes.

Super-mantling vs. supplementing.

The reasons are not far to see – the kind of functions proposed to be or as were handed over to ward committees and the sheer naiveté of presumptions would shame you into withdrawing – there are cases where ward committees were expected to submit city plans; road construction and sewer plans; even grievance redressal. Nobody, of course, to ask how on earth a motley group of people selected by virtue of their personal relationships or public attributes could acquire expertise in areas that have needed, in normal course, a life time of study, work experience and qualifications. Nobody indeed to question what there is to believe that the first act of such groups would not be to build appropriate advantages to their own ilk with no democratic apparatus in place to further question them, challenge them or even remove them! Nobody to ask how to ensure that this too does not become a fiefdom of elected representatives, like councilors who appoint lackeys that become extensions of the concurrent corrupt apparatus already in place and with deep vested interests in operation at every level imaginable. Nobody to ask if indeed an election for such posts was undertaken, how different could it be from the current context – and why not to imagine the same liquor, lucre, caste community, religion combination to work out in favour of the candidates thus elected to such posts?

Makes you wonder if there has been enough application of thought on this in the first place. Might it not look like what I fear – that the setting up of ward committees is become the end instead of it being a means – to increase accountability, public participation and consultation?

There is just so much against the idea that any amount of discussion will yield heaps of undigestable roughage after the issue has been probed. No use going on about it except to suspend the idea as it stands, while we negotiate a better way around it.

If we now view the setting up of ward committees in its correct perspective – as a methodology to provide better accountability; as a delivery mechanism for good governance and certainly as a method of greater say in local affairs of the local citizenry – if that be the case, should it not be obvious that the real prospect for any of the above actually happening lies in strengthening existing channels instead of trying to set up newer and newer pipelines; of improving efficiencies instead of super-mantling newer structures that may indeed suffer from similar malady?

But even as it stands, there may be an essential step missing in this entire plan, a preparatory platform that allows the concept some breathing space while it breeds and proliferates in discourse and exercise. My proposal is to focus on this weakness of the ward committee concept and tweak the proposal to deliver better, using formal or non-formal structures already in place.

Resident Ward Committees – simply effective, effectively simple.

To that extent, I have proposed that Ward Committees can first be introduced as semi-formal consultative committees in areas where established Resident Welfare Associations could play a crucial role in its functioning by inducting one member from each existing such registered RWA into the Ward Committee. I have proposed that such structures be called Resident Ward Committees [RWC] and they have the Ward Councillor as an automatic member and a Convenor be selected from its general membership who is responsible for calling, arranging and minuting the meetings. The RWC has two simple conditions of operation : one, a meeting must be held every month and, two, at the end of the year long tenure, the Councillor is obliged to present the accounts of the ward with details of works carried out, expenses made, the balance amount and what if any is carried over.

It is my estimation that this pre-step to a formally recognized ward committee with statutory powers is not only necessary but desirable if only to break-in the habit of public consultation within both – the establishment and the citizenry, which is patently lacking today. This precursor format would also underline the essential difference I am keen to preserve from its original recipe for the formation of a ward committee which I have argued is intensely susceptible to existing political pressures and risks becoming its very extension. The RWC, on the other hand is clearly a watch dog institutive that collaborates from a distance and that only to set the targets, evaluate or moderate but never to become the executioners of the common will.

RWCs also enjoy the inherent advantages of having a lego-like flexibility when applied to the larger geography of the assembly segment or the Lok Sabha boundary, for it can quickly be aggregated along either lines. That also encapsulates the greatest logic thus far for its viability – only when the RWAs in each ward align themselves along political boundaries, such as I have proposed through the RWC, can we have what is effectively called a system of political accountability which, thanks to the overlapping jurisdiction of districts and sub-districts, is all too often obfuscated to the advantage of the political class which escapes responsibility for poor conditions of their constituencies and their poor performance on various indices.

The next steps after we initiate the RWC model will be to empower ward committees to federate with other wards on issues that affect a larger area rather than the specific ward or assembly segment. Thus, a city planning model, that requires intra-ward consultation, for example on a sewer project, can easily come together to facilitate a developmental project enlisting public support where necessary or create a buffer for rejection of the same if found to not be in the interest of the region.

Ward Committees can be a potent tool in enhancing efficiencies of our existing systems and they can be used dramatically to streamline and align aspirations with delivery. But for that to happen we need to refine – and as I have suggested – redefine the real purport and role of the ward committee. It is plain to see that ward committees can play a watch dog role only if they remain free of a political master. At the same time, if this must be developed into an institutional edifice, it is also necessary that we first create enabling conditions through well calibrated steps, take time to build the scaffolding of an appropriate model and then in the spirit of the 74th amendment and its attendant articles, infuse it with the sense of genuine public participation and purpose which is the bedrock of any democratic system.

Jumping on the bandwagon of the constitutionally amended ward committee concept without first operationalising the RWC, we are only preparing for the demise of yet another good, meaningful component of governance in the democratic milieu, at our own peril.

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