While the Planning Commission, which was virtually an executive arm of the Union government, stands abolished, the District Planning Committee (DPC), a constitutional institution mandated “to prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole” with a focus on resource endowments, environmental conservation, infrastructural development and spatial planning, (Article 243ZD) seems to have been neglected.

Even so, no one can escape the need for multi-level development and planning in India. Given rapid urbanisation, it is hard to make a sharp rural/urban differentiation at the district level and integrated planning has become a sine qua non . The constitutional goal to create “institutions of self-government” at the local level tasked to “plan for development economic and social justice”. But how far these goals are made operational and effective depends on the meaningful response of the Centre and the State governments to the institutional architecture implied in the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments.

Reviving the committees

In most States, decentralised governance with DPCs acting as the functional hub does not exist. The Devolution Report 2015 published by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj says that several States have not constituted DPCs, leave alone preparing an integrated district plan. Although 12 States reported that they had formulated integrated district development plans, most of them may not stand professional scrutiny, and citizens’ approval.

The moot question is whether the NITI Aayog which “is the successor in interest to the Planning Commission” is trying to revive District Planning Committees and institutionalise the preparation of district development plans. While outlining its functional responsibilities, the NITI Aayog proposes “to develop mechanisms to formulate credible plans at the village level and aggregate these progressively at higher levels of government”.

To be sure, this can be meaningfully done only through a critical review of the functioning of the institutions of decentralised governance in every State. The sixth report (2007) of the Second Administrative Reform Commission outlines in great detail ways to make the DPC a viable component in the process of decentralised planning. Obviously, no one listened. No Union ministry has made any scientific scrutiny nor reported to the nation about what happened to the constitutional mandate of decentralised planning and local democracy during the last 22 years.

Lease of life

It is acknowledged that the NITI Aayog is the nodal agency for UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) in India. Most of the SDGs and the 169 targets related to them are best implemented only as part of decentralised governance. Local governments (LGs) have a key role in delivering several public goods and social justice. Even here, the NITI Aayog may examine the possibilities of giving a new lease of life to local governments.

India is a federation with extreme diversity in resource endowments, poverty incidence, development attainments and potential for growth. Admittedly regional disparities are widening. Without social intervention any economy committed to market-mediated growth can only accentuate divergence.

The Centre and the finance commission are expected to play a key role in ensuring spatial equity in Indian federation. That this has not happened is well documented in a recent study by Sudipto Mundle and colleagues published in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 2016), covering 19 major States covering involving 96 per cent of the population. Using criteria relating to infrastructure, social services, fiscal performance, justice, and so on, the authors demonstrate that between 2001 and 2012, regional disparities have widened.

The prime rationale of cooperative federalism is to ensure spatial equity. Every citizen irrespective of choice of residence should have minimum public good and quality of life. Local government and decentralised planning are the avowed Indian mechanisms and strategy to ensure this. For a federal polity that is strongly committed to market-mediated resource allocation and economic growth, the architecture of a viable local governance is to be accepted as part of its national aspirations. Being indifferent to local governments on the grounds of inexperience or inefficiency is a way of ensuring centralisation, certainly not the road to transforming the nation.

Where it works

We cannot ignore success stories. An outstanding case is the Integrated District Development Plan prepared at the initiative of the DPC of Kollam district during the eleventh Five Year Plan. A district plan methodology that integrates the rural and urban space through a long process of consultation, debate and discussion with sectoral departments, along with elected representatives at various tiers of local government was evolved over a period of four years. Major development choices were made through consensus which ensured the feasibility of implementation.

For a country as wide and diverse as India, every district has to formulate its model of district development outlining its short-, medium- and long-term perspectives. The Kollam model can be a good signpost. The professional world as well as policymakers have taken note of this model.

As far back as 2008, the Planning Commission noted: “The project has given decision-makers in local governments, the District Planning Committee and other stake-holders the opportunity to consider and take decisions in the emerging area of spatial planning and the Kollam experience, particularly the methodologies developed by it, can be up-scaled to other districts.”

The report, Towards Holistic Panchayat Raj , by the expert committee on leveraging panchayats for efficient delivery of public goods and services (2013) was more emphatic in endorsing the replicability and relevance of the Kollam model. Will the NITI Aayog take note of the situation confronting the country and move towards upholding the constitutional obligations?

The writer is an honorary fellow at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram