Decentralisation and gender equity in South Asia


M. Mukhopadhyay

Decentralisation, in its simplest definition, is a form of governance that transfers authority and responsibility from central to intermediate and local governments (ODI 2002). In much of the development literature decentralisation of government has been treated as a technical exercise involving administrative and institutional reform to improve performance and planning and to make allocative decisions efficient and transparent. The idea of decentralisation is linked to subsidiarity which means that what can be done efficiently and effectively at the lowest level of government should be done at that level and not at higher levels (Issac 2000). Economists justify decentralisation on the grounds of allocative efficiency, enhanced policy responsiveness and effectiveness especially of poverty reduction programmes. The assumption is that because decisions are being taken in a local constituency citizens will have more control over decisions taken and it will reflect their preferences.

However, governance is about the exercise of power and thus a political project determining which citizens will be included in the process of decision-making, whose interests will be met through allocative decisions and how and by whom those in authority will be held accountable for unfair, unjust and exclusionary practices. Since to govern is to exercise power there is no a priori reason why localised forms of governance should be more just, equitable and inclusive (Heller 2001). Mapped onto existing systems of political patronage and culture decentralised government can
prove to be just as discriminatory, and in the context of South Asia, operate along the fault lines of gender, caste, and class