What Is Local Government? Definition And Meaning

In the Article immediately preceding, we have considered the distribution of governmental powers territoriality from how these powers may be distributed as between the Central Government and the various political units into which all countries of considerable size are divided. And we brought out in that consideration two distinct types of government, the unitary and the federal. In the former, the territorial units, generally called provinces, are created, their powers defined, and their form of an organization determined by the central government.

They remain, for all intents and purposes, integral parts of that government. In a federation, the constituent units enjoy a juridical status and a corporate personality. Their powers are the constitution’s grant, which can neither be altered nor amended by the central government. It needs amendment of the constitution if any change is desired to be made therein, and all this means equality of status between the two sets of government the one is not simply the creation of the other.

The major territorial divisions of both unitary and federal governments are further divided into smaller areas. But the problem here is whether the smaller territorial areas should be governed from the seats of government of the major territorial divisions or entrusted with certain specific powers that they may exercise locally. The answer to this question constitutes what is known as the problem of local government.

Need for Decentralization for local government:

The government of the provinces of a unitary State and the constituent states of a federation within their jurisdictions is unitary. This is an important point. The government’s work is concentrated in the “capital” or “seat” of the government, and all-important policy decisions are taken at this place. It is there that the legislature meets and laws are passed, the High Court decides all points in the interpretation of laws, and rules and regulations are framed by the superior officials in the executive departments. The whole governmental life of a province or a state, in brief, is centralized in one place.

The position is similar to the one that necessitates the country’s territorial division into major political divisions and distribution of governmental powers between the central government and the provincial or state governments. Such is the amount and variety of work to be done that it is impossible for a single authority directly to undertake the performance of all those duties adequately, effectively, and efficiently.

In fact, the provincial government has neither the time nor the requisite knowledge of all the diverse problems peculiar to different areas. We cannot realize the full benefit of democratic government, says Laski, “unless we begin by the admission that all problems are not central problems and that the result of problems in their incidence requires a decision at the place, and by the persons, where and by whom the incidence is most deeply felt.” This constitutes the real problem of local government and from this problem emerges the need for decentralization.

Decentralization means the distribution of governmental powers and responsibilities between the Center and the local areas in which the country, if it is small in size like Britain, or the provinces of a big unitary State, or the states of a federation, is divided for administrative convenience. The provincial or state government is the central government for all local areas within its jurisdiction.

Thus, decentralization is a centrifugal movement that aims to entrust local organs created in local areas with powers local in character. The presumption is that people belonging to the locality can know best and appreciate their own problems and needs and solve them best. The local government’s entire problem is a personal touch with the locality’s affairs and their solution. If the local people are denied association with local life, they would not only stultify their talent, energy, initiative, and enterprise, but they lose all sense of responsibility.

Meaning of Local Government:

Therefore, the local government refers to the operations of corporations, municipalities, district boards, panchayats in The Country, and other bodies that are entrusted with the execution of functions relating to and concerning the residents of a given area locality. These functions do not concern the community as a whole but embrace only a portion of the State’s total population and territorial area. The essence of all such functions is that they are purely local in character and need a local solution in deference to the people inhabiting that locality.

The extent of the territory covered and the number of persons ruled over does not differ like the local government. The Corporation of Calcutta or Mumbai (formerly Bombay) exercises its authority over a vastly greater number of people and considerably more extensive area than the Municipal Committee of Patiala or Kapurthala or a village Panchayat. Yet, all local government units perform more or less identical functions and occupy the same constitutional position.

Sidgwick says that the term local government in a unitary State means organs, which though completely subordinate to the central legislature, are independent of the central executive in the appointment and to some extent in their decisions, and exercise partially independent control parts of public finance. Regarding the constitutional relationship between the central government and local government, the latter derives its powers from the former and is subordinate to the authority that created it.

But though a subordinate body has certain independence of action within the sphere assigned to it. It can make its own rules and regulations, or by-laws, to perform its functions and control its finances.

This brings into prominence the question of the functions of local bodies. According to Maclver, the State seeks to fulfill three types of functions. In the first place, some functions concern and affect the whole community and are of national importance.

All such functions must belong to the national or central government. There are other functions which are of a universal character, but which for their efficient fulfillment, or on other grounds, may be assigned to the provincial governments.

Lastly, there are functions of particular concern of the locality, such as water supply, sanitation, maintenance of hospitals and libraries, and public utility services, like a supply of electric energy, tramway, or omnibus transport. These services reference the local needs, and it seems reasonable that the locality should have direct and fairly complete control over them.

The efficient performance of all these functions requires local experience and knowledge of local details. As Laski put it, Local Self-Government offers the best opportunity to the people to bring local knowledge, interest, and enthusiasm to bear on the solution of their own local problems.

It isn’t, however, possible to rigidly separate the functions of local bodies. As MacIver says, “merge into national interests in variant degrees,” particularly with the emergence of the Welfare State, there are hardly any matters of local concern that are not matters of national concern.

Subjects like education and health, for example, are local in character and require a local solution. Still, they are of national importance, and the central government cannot remain unconcerned about them. The local government’s control over subjects that vitally concern the locality can never be absolute in this era of a conscious, consistent, and sustained economic and social planning process.

Therefore, the local government’s problem is not to draw sharp lines between the functions of central and local governments. The real problem, as MacIver says, “is to assure at once  the reality and responsibility of local government.” So long as the local body does not exceed its powers or is not found guilty of some flagrant piece of negligence, the central government should not interfere in its performance.

Professor Jenks rightly remarked that So long as the local authority does its best and keeps within the law, however mistaken that may be, the central government has no right to interfere, even at the request of the persons suffering the consequences of the mistake.

Functions of Local Government:

The functions of local bodies, broadly speaking, fall under two heads: direct services to the public and indirect functions. Under the latter, the local bodies must conduct their members’ election to provide legal advice and action, assess the property for taxation, plan, control, and audit local finances. The functions performed under the heading direct services are important in the interests of public welfare and are sub-divided into three groups:

 1. Functions Relating to Cultural Developments:

This category includes providing instruction, controlling environments by planning the town or the city, maintaining and supporting art galleries, museums, zoos, libraries, and other places of public recreation such as parks and gardens and centers for games and sports.

2. Social and Physical Functions:

The local bodies look after sanitation, provide a proper sanitary drainage system, conservancy arrangements, and other conditions necessary for preserving public health. Closely connected with it is providing medical relief and other arrangements for checking the spread of diseases and epidemics. Then, come services like construction, maintenance, and repairs of roads, the lighting of streets and thoroughfare, promotion of local safety against fire and other accidents, and regulation of structures and traffic.

3. Under the third category comes functions of providing and regulating water supply, peat, light, public transport, collection and disposal of waste, and food supplies regulation through healthy markets.

Some major local bodies render certain public utility services such as revision of water supply, gas, electric, light, bus or tram, and local train services. There has been a remarkable expansion in the activities of local bodies in Britain and the United States. But the scope of these functions is somewhat limited in India. In the undertaking of ambitious civic schemes desired to inculcate aesthetic, cultural, and economic activities, the Acts creating local-bodies do not offer sufficient scope. However, an appreciable change has been made in the case of panchayats.

Assessment of Local Government:

The institution of local government is at its best in countries that are governed on democratic lines. It is the experience of many countries that all local concern matters are ultimately best administered by a properly organized local government system. Local government means regulating and administering local affairs by the people inhabiting the locality through representative bodies composed mainly of elected representatives.

These local assemblies of citizens, says De Tocqueville, “constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science. They bring it within the people’s reach. They teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions, it cannot have the spirit of liberty.”

This foundation aspect of local government is described as “grass-roots” democracy, a phrase that has become popular. Local bodies serve as a training ground in the art of self-government. The experience and knowledge acquired in local governance can best be utilized for the central government’s wider affairs.

Laski says that the local government institution is educative to a higher degree than any other government part. It cultivates a sense of civic duties and responsibilities and inculcates among citizens a corporate spirit of common administration of common interests. Whoever learns to be public-spirited, active, and upright in the affairs of the village, says Bryce, “has learned the first lesson of the duty incumbent on a citizen of a great country.”

Local institutions train men not only to work for others but also to work effectively with others. The citizens develop common sense, reasonableness, judgment, and sociability, the qualities of moderation, accommodation, and social dependence, which are so essential for the success of democracy. It is a process of political socialization.

De Tocqueville especially argued that the local government was valuable because it associated citizens and the government. It fosters in the citizen a sober love of the laws of which he is himself the author.

When all administration problems are not central problems, the obvious inference is that those functions of government that affect mainly or solely the inhabitants of a limited portion of a country should be placed under the special control of this section of the community.

Local knowledge brings about a closer adaptation of administrative activity, for there is a consciousness of common purposes and common needs.

The neighborhood, says Laski,

Makes us automatically aware of interests which impinge upon us more directly than upon others.

The central government is very often indifferent to these interests. If it interests itself in them at all, its transactions are Subject to red tap ism, which unnecessarily delay the plans requiring immediate execution—moreover administration. Which is not local is unresponsive to local opinion.

Thus, it is bound like things to miss shades and expressions of thought and sentiment, the perception of which is in a real degree urgent to the success of the administration. The central government, in other words, cannot grasp the genius of the place. Being government from without, it fails to evoke either interest or responsibility from the people it seeks to control.

It may well evoke indignation, but it does not succeed in eliciting the creative support of citizens. It is a matter of common knowledge that what is done by our common counsel in the solution of our common problems gives us a degree of satisfaction that is unobtainable when it is done for us by others from outside.

Both John Stuart Mill and De Tocqueville argued that local institutions of government promote virtue in their citizens. The small unit of government, which they hold, fostered civic morality by linking political power with the consequence. A citizen of a locality feels that he is a trustee of the public good.

He delegates his authority of governing himself to his fellow citizens and assesses whether they are deserving or unworthy of that trust. If they betray the trust reposed in them, the confidence is withdrawn, and others who are deemed worthy of the job are entrusted with it. It is a continuous process of responsibility and vigilance, which is the essence of a democratic arrangement.

Moreover, the central government inevitably aims at uniformity and not variety. Local problems need variety because they are peculiar to the needs of a particular area. Uniformity is usually cheaper because it is almost always easier to make a single solution and apply it wholesale than to make various solutions and have them piecemeal. But uniformity is only a mechanical solution to all problems. Problems peculiar to a particular locality are not standardized in character. They must be individually solved concerning the conditions which demand their solution.

Local government aims at the division of governmental functions, which lightens the burden of the central government. If the central government is overloaded with work, it becomes incompetent, and it would do things tardily, expensively, and above all, inefficiently. At the same time, centralization means the presence and functioning of a strong. Bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy may create conditions for an effective and efficient government, which is undoubtedly the nature of a good government. Still, a good government is no substitute for self-government. Unless local bodies are entrusted with active powers, the central authority will stifle all local initiatives and destroy that well-spring of local knowledge and local interest without which it cannot possibly exercise its functions.

Local government, therefore, is necessary for efficiency and responsibility. Inaugurating the first Local Self-Government Ministers Conference (India) in 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru observed: “Local Self-Government is and must be the basis of any true system of democracy.

We have got rather into the habit of thinking of democracy at the top and not so much below. Democracy at the top may not be a success unless you build on this foundation from below.” It is only through local government that self-government becomes real.

To put it in the words of Bryce,

The best school of democracy and the best guarantee for its success is the practice of self-government.

The local government secures the economy. Local authorities perform local functions out of funds raised locally. Equity demands that services rendered exclusively or mainly to a limited population living within a certain area should pay for them.

The incidence of such services should not be shifted to others who expect no gain therefrom. As the area inhabitants have to pay for the local services, it is natural for them to demand proper control over those services. It has three results. In the first place, participation in local bodies’ work tends to develop a sense of mutual interest in their common affairs and trains them to work for others honestly and efficiently.

Secondly, the people entrusted with local affairs management will manage them more efficiently to keep their bill of costs as low as possible. Finally, by making responsibility widespread, the local government’s institution encourages a spirit of self-help and self-dependence.

The institution of local government is, such, a great advancement in the realization of true citizenship; Burke has cogently said, “To be attached to the sub-division to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle, the germ as it were of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and humankind.”

The vigorous development of local government is the only means of realizing every progressive State’s welfare purpose. Welfare services require a flexible technique to cater to individual cases. The local bodies, on account of their nearness to the people, their wider representative character, their natural familiarity with the details of the situation, and their intimate knowledge of the means and wants of the inhabitants, are eminently suited to evolve such a technique. The State has really found in them its most effective instrument for social amelioration.

Soviet Russia was the home of socialism, both national and local. The town Soviets, which were the Russian prototypes of Indian Municipal Committees, besides exercising the usual municipal functions, also regulated the local community’s entire political and economic life.

Commerce, industries, retail trade, cooperation, housing, land partition, criminal justice, recruitment and mobilization, protection of the revolutionary regime, supervision and application of the national progress, etc., all came under its jurisdiction; the Soviets also supervised and controlled all the organs and institutions of government functioning within their area, and would voice the dissatisfaction of the local community with any of them when necessary. They acted in the agents’ dual capacity (if the central government and the local community’s representative bodies).

Compared with local bodies of advanced countries, the functions of municipalities in India are less extensive, principally in three directions. Namely, police, trading enterprising, and the big group of social services comprising health housing, sickness, and unemployment insurance. Some of these functions are not even legally permitted to the municipalities. Apart from the legal restrictions, the main difference between Indian municipalities and their foreign prototypes is that in respect of legally permitted functions, like education or water supply, the actual development standard here is deficient.

Then, the government of the local bodies in India is neither local, nor is it self government. They have not the means to extend their activities even if permitted by law. Their own resources are not Sufficient. They have to depend largely on the State governments’ financial help through grants-in-aid, loans, etc. The authority that pays must also control and direct.

Accordingly, the local bodies’ autonomy vanishes under all encroaching control and direction of the Deputy Commissioner. The Control of the State government is ubiquitous, and a minor lapse may mean suppressing a local body. The action may even be politically motivated.

Critics of the local government assert that local home rule narrows the people’s outlook and breeds local patriotism. Such an attitude stifles the life of the community. What is political virtue in the local context becomes parochialism on the national stage.

The good local citizen of the nineteenth and twentieth-century France or Germany was often the bad national citizen. It is further pointed out that devolution of authority to local bodies multiplies administrators and divides responsibility.

The obvious result is inefficiency, delinquency, waste, and incompetence. The officers of local bodies succumb to all sorts of local influences as they are locally selected and locally directed, and local control. Devolution of authority also deprives local bodies of central direction and advice.

With scanty resources at their disposal and a meager source of information and knowledge at their command, local bodies cannot perform their functions adequately and effectively. If they do, they do it tardily and inefficiently.

The local government’s critics say it is true to a great extent, particularly in a country like India, where the vision of the people is blurred by the barriers of localism, regionalism, caste, and religion. To love one’s homeland locality is man’s instinct, and there is nothing wrong in it provided it. It does not inhibit men from performing their higher duties towards their country and its people as a whole.

Our membership of the State bestows upon us the benefits of devolution of authority and the privileges of working for others with others living in our neighborhood. Once this becomes the norm of man’s political behavior, the local government fulfills the purpose of the common consciousness of the common good. It binds the people living in different areas in a community of feelings and interests, and in these feelings, a narrow localism finds no place.

Willoughby suggests a concrete reform. He says that the State or provincial Government should appoint local officers, but a local advisory council in each area, consisting of the eminent and trust Worthy citizens, may be associated with them.

The advisory council should be given the responsibility and duty of advising local officers with local problems, to bring to the attention of their superior officers all cases of lapses on the if part and failures to perform their duties properly and diligently, to suggest to such authorities proposals which they deem advisable, and to protest against the action of the government where they believe that their areas are not receiving equitable treatment. But this is not the real solution to the problem. Nor does it advance the local government’s cause, which aims to inculcate the spirit of intelligent and creative citizenship.

Whatever be the local government’s defects, “grass-roots” democracy forms a vital element of democracy for the modern State. The absence of healthy local political roots is a disaster. Robson has cogently said, “Democracy on the national scale can function healthily only if it is supported and nourished by democratic local government ?”

De Tocqueville relevantly argued that local institutions have a special role in preserving liberty and independence, and decentralization of political power is necessary for democracy. Local democracy gives many people a voice in matters, touching them almost immediately. It associates citizens with one another, with the process of government, and with the rules of government of which they are in part the authors.

Access to the government broadens popular participation and fosters public virtue in the people’s participants and energy. “Popular government,”  as Carl Friedrich says, “includes the right of the people, through their majority, to commit. mistakes.” The decisions that local people make may seem unwise from experts’ and technicians’ standpoint, but the citizens will discover it in time, and they may learn a vital lesson in self-government.

Local government is the best school of citizenship. Such homilies as democracy stop beyond the parish pump and charity begin at home indicate that grass-roots democracy holds a special place in American folklore. They are accustomed to thinking of dispersed power as more democratic and more conducive to liberty than concentrated.

The relation between Local and Central Governments:

The powers, functions, and constitution of local bodies are determined by statute. Within limits fixed by the law creating local bodies, they are independent subject to such powers of direction, Control, and advice, which have been specifically retained by the central government. But how far is controlled by the central government desirable?

This is, of course, one of the most baffling problems of local administration. There is no uniform practice followed even by the most advanced democratic countries. In France, local government is highly centralized, and from the Commune, right up to the Ministry of the Interior, the whole administration is linked up with one chain. This centralization and uniformity in France contrast sharply with the local government’s decentralized character in Britain.

The principle accepted and followed in Britain is that a local area has the inherent right to conduct its affairs in its own way and consistent with its requirements without the central authority’s interposition unless supervision is clearly demanded in the public’s interests. But in Britain, too, the centralizing tendency, during recent years, has assumed alarming proportions.

The position in the United States is rather appreciable, and there is complete local autonomy. Every township IS a local democracy, a republic within a republic. The authority of the superior officials of state government over the local bodies’ affairs has been constitutionally reduced to the minimum.

If local authorities exceed the powers vested in them by law or abuse their authority, there is the usual judicial redress method through courts. In India, the recent Panchayat Acts passed by the state legislatures have revolutionized the local government’s nature.

It may generally be said that matters assigned to independent local organs should be those in which local separation of interests is clearly marked, local knowledge most important, the need of uniformity least evident, and the cooperation of private and governmental agencies likely to tell most.

The interests concerned are clearly common to all parts of the State. The advantages of uniformity are overwhelming control over the administration should be national and not local. But a rigid separation of local interests is rarely complete.

A carefully adjusted cooperation of local and central organs is often required to obtain the best results. Experience has shown that the central government should exercise some control over local bodies because, as Sidgwick points out, the central government has greater enlightenment derived from greater general knowledge, wider experience, and more highly trained intellects.

But such control should be exercised with a view to the efficient discharge of local duties and responsibilities. Undue interference and direction are bound to destroy local initiative and local responsibility; excessive central control may also encourage favoritism in the local services; thus, vitiating the local government’s very idea. Whenever the party spoils intervene, efficiency disappears, and development at all levels is severely retarded.

While we do not discount the practical utility of central control over local bodies, it may be emphasized that the degree of control should vary in proportion to a local body’s efficiency. Were all local bodies of the same standard of efficiency, the problem of supervision and apportionment of functions would have been easier. But this is not so. Everywhere the central government is continually faced with the difficulty that all local bodies are not equally efficient.

This may be essential due to the differences in local areas’ size and local bodies’ resources. The smaller municipalities, howsoever noble the ideal of the citizens’ public spirit, cannot be expected to maintain the same services as the larger bodies. They depend on the central government’s doles, which necessitates more rigid control of their activities. Moreover, the traditional View that local functions are the locality’s concern has lost its validity.

There are no local functions in that sense now. The making and maintenance of local roads, lighting, drainage, cleansing, etc., have, under modern scientific analysis, been found to involve important national aspects as well. Under these conditions, there can no longer be any clear-cut demarcation of spheres of influence between central and local governments. They must collaborate, consistent with the Welfare State requirements, over the entire field of governmental activity.

This means a close integrated partnership between central and local authorities for high achievements in municipal administration. However, it is essential to avoid reducing local authorities to the position of mere agents of the central government if they are to continue to make their indispensable contribution to the democratic way of life.

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