About the Seminar

India is unique in history in having a sustained democracy in a poor country with a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Today, its economic strength is also widely recognized and celebrated. The role democratic processes play in the sustenance and diffusion of this economic strength into the wider reaches of Indian society is a central question that must be engaged. In order to create an environment in which such crucial questions can be discussed and alternative solutions offered by politicians, policy makers, thought leaders, NGO activists, and scholars, the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, together with the Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India (FDRI), are launching a high-level annual seminar series hosted on the Berkeley campus.

The inaugural seminar, titled “Local Governance and Empowerment,” will bring together Indian and American thought leaders to examine democratic governance at the local level in India today, and to ask questions of efficacy and justice in the functioning of the local institutions that lie at the heart of Indian democracy.

Session One: Framing the Issues

Some people identify governance with what national governments do, but it should extend beyond to cover not merely governments at different levels but also other bodies and organizations in society helping in the management of different aspects of social life. After its many widely-noted 'failures', the centralized state has lost a great deal of legitimacy everywhere, but in a country of India's size and diversity the failures of the centralized state are particularly acute. Devolving authority to local governments is supposed to make governance more responsive to community needs. It is, in short supposed to empower Indian citizens. What does empowerment enable people to do? How does real empowerment occur? Have social and political movements made people more aware of their democratic rights? Has the recent Right to Information Act started to change matters in this respect? These are some of the questions the panels will address.

Speakers: Pranab Bardhan (UC Berkeley), Thomas Isaac (Minister of Finance, Kerala)

Session Two: The State of Local Panchayats

The surge in Indian politics of historically subordinate social groups has made political devolution politically imperative. But with the exception of 3 or 4 states, effective devolution of state government power to local panchayats is yet rare, even though panchayat elections are now much more salient and frequent than before. We need to understand the various constraints on effective devolution and local democratic functioning. What are the problems within Indian social, economic and political structures that can and do block this? In particular what role do social stratification, methods of political mobilization, and land distribution play in this? Why is the delivery of public services at the local level (education, health, drinking water, etc.) so poor in most parts of India? How does one reform the system of incentives and disincentives (rewards for good performance and punishments for bad) that currently exists?

Speakers: Mani Shankar Aiyer (Union Minister of Panchayati Raj), Aniruddh Krishna (Duke University), Vijayendra Rao (World Bank), Nirvikar Singh (UC Santa Cruz)

Session Three: Urban Governance and Citizen Empowerment

Urban areas are being transformed by migration and rapid economic change. These changes leave urban governments with the unenviable task of delivering services with an infrastructure that was not built for the either the growth in population or the kind of economic changes that India is currently undergoing. Urban areas face the obvious challenges of providing social services such as clean water, electricity, housing; transportation, roads and health care. Town and city governments also need to ensure that any open and green spaces they have are not subsumed by rapid and often unplanned development. These issues raise a series of political and administrative concerns. Can urban governments raise the quality of life in Indian cities in the face of these demographic and economic changes with an institutional framework that is that has overlapping jurisdictions and administrative structures that may not kept pace with contemporary needs? Are there ways to reconfigure citizen participation to ensure better government responsiveness to popular needs?

Speakers: Jaipal Reddy (Union Minister of Urban Affairs), John Harriss (Simon Fraser University), Arvind Kejriwal (Parivartan), Ramesh Ramanathan (Janaagraha)

Session Four: Empowerment Catalysts: Media and Social Activists

NGO's, self-help groups, and other community organizations can act as catalysts and watchdogs in the process of making governance more accountable to the local people. Why are they differentially effective in different parts of India? What are the constraints they face? How accountable they themselves are to the public they serve? Is there a conflict between the domain and functioning of panchayats and that of various more specialized resource user groups (around forestry, irrigation, etc.)? How does the media cover issues of local governance and empowerment? How can media in this age of mass media and television ratings be made more accountable to local issues?

Speakers: Rajeev Dhavan (Lawyer), Chandan Mitra (Rajya Sabha MP, and Editor, Pioneer), Kalpana Sharma (Senior Journalist, India)

Session Five: Good Governance: Lessons Learned

What have we learned about the conditions under which good governance is possible and under which bad governance occurs? In this last session, the speakers will reflect on the one hand upon lessons learned from the experience of governing, and on the other, on the lessons learned from the conference proceedings. What factors do we need to keep in mind in order to adopt and adapt best practices in governance as we go forward?

Speakers: Pradeep Chibber (UC Berkeley), Digvijay Singh (Former Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh)

About the Organizers

Center for South Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley
The Center for South Asia Studies (CSAS) supports teaching, research, and outreach activities relating to South Asia at UC Berkeley. The only US Department of Education-funded National Resource Center for South Asia in California, CSAS is committed to enhancing knowledge of the region among students, academics, and the public at large. UC Berkeley has been a premier site for the study of South Asia in general, and India in particular, for the past century (Sanskrit courses date back to 1906). With over 40 faculty members conducting research in the area of South Asia studies, Berkeley offers 85 to 120 courses with significant India content every semester, and instruction in over six Indian languages. The University of California, Berkeley, is recognized as one of the top universities in the United States and was recently ranked as the second greatest university in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India
The Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India (FDRI) is a US based non-profit organization dedicated to the study of the democratic and constitutional institutions of India, and evaluation and promotion of reforms of these institutions. FDRI believes that key reforms in the Indian governance structure can afford all citizens the opportunity to reach their full potential and lead to a renaissance of the Indian Republic, making it a confident, prosperous leader in the global arena.

Until recently, FDRI was aligned with Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan's Lok Satta grassroots movement in India, which has done pioneering work in mobilizing grassroots support for political and democratic reforms, from listing candidates' assets and criminal records, to judicial reforms, to the newly enacted Right to Information Act. However, since Dr. Narayan has decided to take his campaign directly into the political arena by establishing a political party, the Board of FDRI has decided that the cause for reforms can best be served by providing thought leadership in critical areas through an informed interaction of academia with political and other leaders.


This conference was made possible due to the generosity of the following groups and individuals:

Durga and Srini Madala

Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India

Ann and Kanwal Rekhi

Lata Krishnan and Ajay Shah

Abha and Venkatesh Shukla

Anita and Sridar Iyengar

KPMG (Arun Kumar)

Shanti and Sam Mathan