Local governments are grassroots democracy. Being party neither to the executive or the legislature, the local government symbolises self-governance and decentralisation.
Despite laws empowering the local governments, there have been cases when its powers have been questioned. Zhemgang’s dzongkhag tshogdu recently resolved that all people in villages and towns have to wear the national dress from 9-5pm. The debate that ensued was bitter and accusatory although an equal number of netizens supported the move.
Such discourse is good because it engages the people with whom the local government shares its power. One of the reasons for the flak the move brought was the lack of consultation with the people. Although it was perceived so, the criticism was not so much against preservation of culture or inconvenience. Local governments are referred as bottom up democracy. When the people, the pulse of any democratic set up feel left out of the decision making process, decisions could be perceived as impositions.
If people have such perceptions, then there is a need to understand how informed the people are about the powers and responsibilities, both in terms of policy and resources of the local government. We need to expound further on what powers are decentralised to the local government and to what extent are these powers limited.
We have seen this power of the local government being questioned and the tension between the powers of the local and central government over the mining issue. When Haa and Samtse decided to disallow mining activities in their dzongkhags a couple of years ago for environmental reasons, the economic affairs ministry stated that local governments couldn’t hold huge rich mineral deposits at ransom.
Citing the Constitution, which states that all minerals are a property of the state, local governments were restricted from taking such decisions. When an activity or decision is constructed within the frames of national interest, the government is empowered to take the land or decisions. But be it local or national interest issues, our elected leaders must not forget to engage and inform the people. We must not mistake the commercial interests of companies as public interest, let alone national interest.
This brings us back to the rhetoric of decentralisation. The concept was initiated more than three decades ago, but we are now told that the 12th Plan will be about decentralisation. It is claimed that to date, decentralisation was limited to decision making. Going by the discourse on the mining sector, we see that even decision-making appears to have been limited. With limited decision making powers and fund management for developmental activities centralised, local governments‘powers are constrained.
How then would the people who elect their local leaders hold the local government accountable? We understand the need for central government to set and monitor national strategic goals. But the local authorities should have more space to shape the development of their communities.
We must respect its decisions and actions that have a direct impact on their lives. Decentralisation is about balance of powers, but it is more about empowering the people and improving their lives.