Nagaland Local Bodies (ULB): Are we truly strengthening Local Governance?

After two decades, Nagaland is finally set to conduct the Urban Local Body (ULB) elections marking a key moment in the state's political and economic landscape. My only memory of local government in the state comes from drowsy afternoon Social Sciences (SS) classes in high school, where local governance seemed abstract and distant. Today, it is heartwarming to see the public's participation and excitement for the upcoming elections, reflecting a tangible shift towards decentralization and the empowerment of local communities.

While there is real enthusiasm for this democratic process, it's crucial to reflect on missed opportunities. The lack of empowered local governance in Nagaland has affected public service delivery and development, as highlighted by NITI Aayog and UNDP citing gaps in infrastructure, healthcare, and essential services. This underscores the economic principle of decentralization, enhancing accountability and improving resource allocation. The upcoming Urban Local Body elections is crucial in addressing these deficits.

Decentralization is globally recognized as essential for effective governance when implemented properly, involving the transfer of authority, responsibility, and resources from central/state governments to local bodies. This empowerment enables local governments to manage political, fiscal, and administrative affairs, ensuring more responsive community services.

For Nagaland, this means improving public goods delivery like water, healthcare, and urban planning, as well as enhancing resource allocation and community participation in local development. Rather than rapid, comprehensive decentralization, a systematic approach tailored to Nagaland's unique political, economic, and social factors is crucial. This approach is vital for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) outlined in Nagaland's SDG Vision 2030, emphasizing localized, ground-level interventions.

The Constitution of India provides a detailed framework that delineates the responsibilities to thecentral and state government, through the Union, State, and Concurrent Lists. However, it delegates the power to shape local government to the state governments (Entry 5 of the State List of the Indian Constitution) and encapsulated in the Nagaland Municipal Act 2023. Thus, the power to decentralize and empower ULBs to meet the specific needs of their communities effectively rests with the state governments.

Once elected, how much political, administrative and fiscal autonomy will the elected ULB leadership, and the institutions have? For example, who serves as the chief executive — the elected official or the state-appointed CEO? The former is a trend favoring states and countries aligning with principles of democratic decentralization. The response depends on whether it is an arm of the state government, an agent of the state or as a separate tier of democratic governance. 

We must be careful not to lean towards centralization, a case in several urban local bodies in Indian states where state-appointed officers hold significant authority, control municipal staff, and manage expenditure, relegating elected officials to advisory roles and presiding meetings. Although the CEOs' & Commissioners’ actions are legally limited, these restrictions are rarely enforced. Despite decentralization efforts, state and national sector ministries often dominate, restricting ULBs' autonomy over key functions. This imbalance often results in functional deficiencies, fiscal constraints, and decision-making gridlock. While elected representatives exist within ULBs, true decentralization could remain limited.

However, within the Indian framework, many Indian states have successfully addressed gaps in decentralization. Under the 1996 People’s Plan Campaign, Kerala initiated decentralization efforts, becoming a global model for local governance. This initiative granted significant autonomy to local governments. Mayors and Chairpersons of urban local bodies in Kerala now manage local affairs with considerable autonomy, supported by 28.09% of the State Plan Outlay and a portion of state tax revenue. This fiscal, political, and administrative autonomy, within the state's legal framework, prevents local governments from becoming extensions of the state or central government, ensuring they remain true 'local self-governments.'

Decentralization is not a one solution fits all remedy; it comes with its own set of challenges. Boex, Williamson and Yilmaz in their World Bank primer (2022) onFiscal Decentralization, Local Public Sector Finance, and Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations highlights the importance of not only devolving powers to the local governments but also ensuring that these powers are accompanied by necessary resources, autonomy and capacity to effectively carry out decentralized functions. 

It is not unusual to encounter the reluctance of thehigher-level government officials and elected leaders to relinquish control. This fear often stems from concerns about misuse of fund, administrative inefficiencies or concerns about giving up power and control over resources. However, progress for Nagaland necessitates finding a healthy balance between control and autonomy. 

Amidst the fanfare of the Urban Local Body elections which it truly deserves, the priority should be to develop a strong framework for local self-government. This includes crafting a vision for financing local development plans, empowering elected individuals andstrengthening the institutions they lead. To ensure effective local governance, it is crucial to balance decision-making autonomy with accountability and transparency. Strategic investments in capacity building, fiscal decentralization, and administrative autonomy can transform Nagaland into a model of local governance. This balanced approach aligns with the Nagaland Vision 2030, aiming to create a "well-governed, peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous state." By implementing these strategies, we can ensure that public services are accessible to all, fulfilling the promise of inclusive development.

Limabenla Jamir, Development Policy Consultant
Currently with Local Public Sector Alliance, US and works on decentralization, inclusive governance, inequality and conflict.