The Indian constitution isn’t a monument of thoughts and lines that silhouette the circumstance of our yesterday. The constitution is a living document that evolves with the aspirations of today and towards the destinies of tomorrow. It is an enigma of interpretations. It is both science and art. When I think of the constitution, I am reminded of Justice VR Krishna Iyer, the man who tied humanity and legality so gracefully in a gordian knot that until today, his judgements hover like a symbol of hope over millions on India’s margins. The ‘70s and ‘80s was really when matters pertaining to the environment emerged as a fundamental human right. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was keen on establishing herself as a leader whose stature crossed borders and thus, public policy around climate and ecosystems were shaping up well.

In the late 1970s’, in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, residents complained of pungent smell that emanated from choked open drains that split over onto the roads. Residents approached the judicial magistrate and the municipality was asked to chart out a response plan. The municipality cited a lack of funds and the general incompetence of the local systems in India drove this matter to the Supreme Court. The bench, headed by Justice Iyer, had stated that “Decency and dignity are non-negotiable facets of human rights and are a first charge on local self-governing bodies. Similarly, providing drainage systems-not pompous and attractive, but in working condition and sufficient to meet the needs of the people-cannot be evaded if the municipality is to justify its existence”.

We must remember that the Ratlam case preceded the 73rd and 74th amendment in the Constitution in which local bodies were given powers to tackle environmental issues, leaving no room for disagreement on their role and responsibilities. It was in this case that Justice Iyer began a trend for Judges to leave the courtroom and go observe the situation on the ground. In his inimitable style, he penned, “Why drive common people to public interest action? Where Directive Principles have found statutory expression in Do's and Don’ts the court will not sit idly by and allow municipal government to become a statutory mockery. The law will relentlessly be enforced and the plea of poor finance will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice.”

Even today, citizens continue to battle local bodies on matters of open drains or that of schools where teachers offer little or nothing, or taps from which clean water doesn’t flow, or for air that could have been a bit more breathable; it is from these spaces that one can look back at these judgements with a sense of amazement and gratitude. While we have understood well our right to hold local bodies accountable, the financial capability of local bodies merits deeper inquiry too.

In the social impact consulting space of today, we work closely with governments large and local. We enter the remotest of villages and engage with officials across all levels of the public system. Urban local bodies need permanent as well as buoyant sources of revenue to be able to cater to the demands posed by a growing population. The Fifteenth Finance Commission identified the notification of floor rates of property tax and timely availability of audited accounts and took a step towards financial empowerment of local bodies. Land value capture is a financing tool that allows local governments to charge fees and taxes to developers and property owners and raise revenue that can then be reinvested into community and city services. This, along with public private partnerships at the level of the local bodies, can and must be explored as strategies to strengthen financials of local bodies.

The rural local bodies tell a different story. The 73rd constitutional amendment grants panchayats control over 29 state subjects, including primary health, electricity, sanitation and agriculture, but gram panchayats usually end up waiting for approvals and release of funds. Today, gram panchayats remain fiscally dependent on grants, both discretionary and non-discretionary, from the Centre as well as the State. Broadly, panchayats have three main sources of funds — their own sources of revenue, grants in aid from the Centre and State governments, and scheme-based funds. There are also severe constraints on how panchayats can use the funds allocated to them and spending limits and guidelines are imposed. For instance, urging local bodies to celebrate national icons and national festivals itself may sometimes take a toll on their resources.

The ‘Mission Antyodaya’ survey in 2019-20 for the first time collected data that shed light on the infrastructural gaps from 2.67 lakh gram panchayats, comprising 6.48 lakh villages with 1.03 million population. It was startling to note that while no state in India fell in the top score bracket of 90 to 100, a total of 1,484 gram panchayats fell in the bottom bracket. The findings of the Survey made it clear there is now a serious need to converge resources of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Rural Livelihood Mission, National Social Assistance Programme, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, towards strengthening the functioning of local bodies. Today, more than ever, we realise the power of data in guiding us towards the realities of fiscal federalism. Setting a smooth transfer system of horizontal equity is a step in the right direction and the social impact sector have the macro vision as well as the data and expertise to tie the vision and challenges of local governments to the top rungs of bureaucracy that is running a state.

The last mile is the longest stretch but its every step taken is worth the effort. For me, India at 75 is a story that begins at the very grassroots, the same grassroots that the Mahatma described as a catalyst of self-government and independence – Swaraj.