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This paper reviews the lessons of democratic decentralisation in Madhya Pradesh (MP), a poor and semi-feudal Indian state that emerged as a leader and bold experimenter in institutional design in the 1990s. Despite inauspicious beginnings, political leadership in MP set out to use decentralisation as a lever to expand and improve basic service delivery. The architects of the MP strategy were fully aware of the social and economic constraints, but they believed that through careful design, proper support to build social capital, and the achievement of early successes, the initiative could unlock powerful forces for community development. This article focuses on two initiatives, one to improve access to school and another to promote direct democracy at the village level. The authors find that, while the first phase of decentralisation has resulted in some significant improvements, especially in the area of education, the second stage has been far less successful.

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