Local government means the operations of corporations, municipalities, district boards, panchayats in India and other bodies which are entrusted with the execution of functions relating to and concerning the residents of a given area or locality.
These functions do not concern the community as a whole, but embrace only a portion of the total population and territorial area of the State. The essence of all such functions is that they are purely local in character and need local solution in deference to the requirements of the people inhabiting that locality.
The extent of the territory covered and the number of persons ruled over do not make any difference in the nature of 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. And yet all are the units of local government performing more or less identical functions and occupying 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 appointment and to some extent in their decisions, and exercise a partially independent control over certain parts of public finance.
As regards 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, yet it 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 to control its finances.-’
This brings into prominence the question of the functions of local bodies. According to MacIver the State seeks to fulfill three types of functions. In the first place, there are some functions which 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 which are of peculiar concern of the locality, for example, water supply, sanitation, maintenance of hospitals and libraries, running of public utility services, like supply of electric energy, tramway or omnibus transport. These services have reference to 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 is not, however, possible to rigidly separate the functions of local bodies. “Local interests,” 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 local solution, but they are really of national importance and the central government cannot remain unconcerned about them.
The control of local government over subjects which vitally concern the locality can never be absolute in this era of conscious, consistent and sustained process of economic and social planning.
The problem of local government is, therefore, 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 on the request of the persons suffering the consequences of the mistake.”