Secret behind dysfunctional decentralisation

The BMRDA Act was passed in the mid-1980s, to set up the Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, and to empower it to direct the planned development of the state capital region. Since its founding, however, the BMRDA has done nothing useful, because the state government has always preferred it that way.

Why was the BMRDA set up, then, if no one wanted it to do anything? It’s hard to be certain, but if I had to guess, I would say the answer lies with Ramakrishna Hegde.

Hegde was an unusual Chief Minister, in one very important way that we are realising more and more today. Even in the 1980s, he understood that in order to improve governance, it had to be first made more local and less centralised. He introduced panchayati raj in Karnataka before it became something that caught the imagination of Rajiv Gandhi and Parliament.

The BMRDA probably reflects the thinking of its day, by Hegde and others around him who were advocates of decentralisation within the federal setup. Unfortunately, after his stints as the CM ended, there was never enough support for these ideas to grow to their potential in the state.

What Hegde saw in the 1980s is only more true today. The Chief Minister and the state government simply cannot be the stewards of every region of the state. The metropolitan / district level of governance requires its own arena for action, in the same way that the state government is not a subsidiary of the Centre. If CMs understood that, we could have a tremendous leap forward in social as well as economic development.

Governance must be decentralised, to respond properly and quickly to the aspirations and needs of the people. It’s a practical thing. Not only Bengaluru, but also Mysore, Hubli-Dharwad, Mangalore and other hubs of the state’s economy would grow faster if we decentralised their planning and governance. As long as the state government controls the reins, that goal will take a backseat.

Why doesn’t this happen, then? It’s quite simple, and plainly evident. The political economy of state governments, with its eye on land-grabbing in particular, has refused to allow this decentralisation to happen. This also means that only a leader who is not bound by that political economy, or is not himself a part of it, can break this shackle.

BSY, in fact, said as much – that without the support of his Bengaluru ministers, he would not decentralise governance in the city. One of those ministers later was arrested for looting the state, perhaps showing the symmetry of the situation – what could be, and what actually is.

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