As a former Associate Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram and a member of the State Planning Board who was in charge of the implementation of the Left Democratic Front government's decentralisation experiment in Kerala, Dr. Thomas Isaac, now a CPI(M) MLA in the State Assembly, is the main target of the allegations. Excerpts from the interview he gave R. Krishnakumar:
Seven years after the People's Plan Campaign was launched, an impression is sought to be created that the intellectual and practical control of Kerala's decentralisation initiative is in the hands of international funding agencies such as the World Bank. What is the difference between the visions of the World Bank and the People's Campaign of decentralisation?
First, the facts. No foreign funding agency was involved in designing and implementing the People's Plan Campaign. The CDS (Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram) programme funded with Dutch aid was coterminous with the People's Plan Campaign. Its actual functioning almost coincided with the People's Campaign. How could such a programme in the making create a design for a State-level programme which involves about 40 per cent of Plan funds of a State government? The People's Campaign is the outgrowth of the political vision of the CPI(M), particularly of E.M. S. Namboodiripad, and is the continuation of repeated attempts of the Left, starting with the 1957 effort, to decentralise governance in Kerala. It is from these two aspects that the strategic vision emerged. And, as far as the techniques of local level planning are concerned we largely drew from the wealth of experience offered by numerous micro-level experiments.
Once the programme was launched, there was big criticism from the ultra-Left that this was a World Bank programme, because it coincided with the publication of the World Bank Development Report focussing on decentralisation of governments. We seek inspiration from our nationalist traditions, not from the World Bank. Even before the World Bank was born, Mahatma Gandhi had used gram swaraj as an instrument of nationalist mobilisation. We firmly believe that the role could continue to be played even in the era of globalisation.
There are four points on which the People's Plan Campaign differed from the World Bank design. One, for the World Bank, decentralisation is a part of downsizing the state. For People's Planning it is a question of deepening and widening the state. We had taken the state, which used to be confined at the local level in a village office, to the gram sabha, the neighbourhood groups and the households. Secondly, for the World Bank decentralisation is a first step in a series - they call it deconcentration, devolution and, ultimately, privatisation - wherein, they claim, power will reach each individual. So decentralisation to them is a prelude to privatisation and marketisation. On the other hand, for the People's Plan Campaign, the central fulcrum around which the whole programme revolves is local-level planning. It does not deny the market. But there is a social regulation by the community of the market forces to the extent possible. Thirdly, to the World Bank decentralisation is an instrument to pass the burden of government responsibilities to the community. Through the People's Plan Campaign, along with the transfer of responsibility, proportionate transfer of the funds of the government also takes place. Therefore, if there is any additional burden, it is not on the local community but on the State government. Finally, when the World Bank speaks about participatory development, it means the participation of NGOs (non-governmental organisations). For them civil society is to be moulded by the NGOs. For the People's Plan, more than the NGOs or even individual citizens, the focus was upon the participation of mass and class organisations. It is in the success of bringing mass and class organisations into the planning process that the sustainability of this process is dependent upon. In short, the World Bank agenda is to create an efficient local government system, which is complementary to globalisation. Our attempt is to create an efficient and participatory local government system that will become an instrument of popular resistance to the unbridling of the globalisation processes.
It has also been alleged that during the Campaign the government machinery was manipulated by extra-government forces, NGOs, agents of imperialism and anti-Left forces, as a result of which Kerala became a funded economy and the treasury went bankrupt. How do you react to this?
Only people who have no idea of government budgeting practices will raise such a claim. As part of the People's Campaign, about 35 to 40 per cent of the Plan funds were allocated to the panchayats. If this was not allocated to the panchayats, it would still have been spent by the State government. By allocating a portion of the Plan funds to the panchayats there is no additional expenditure on the part of the government. In no way did it affect the fiscal deficit of the State government or lead to external financial dependency. True, the Kerala government faced a serious financial crisis. But its roots lay elsewhere. It was much more deep-rooted in Kerala's revenue and expenditure patterns, to the discrimination Kerala was facing from the Central government, particularly in the last Finance Commission and so on. And also, it is totally baseless to say that NGOs decided the policy of the State government. If at all, the complaint of the NGOs in Kerala was that the Left government was not sensitive to their concerns. The main NGO critique of the People's Plan Campaign was about the role of the state. It stated that the government was trying to create government-run NGOs and societies, and so on. In People's Planning one objective was to transform the panchayats from mere low-level government structures into a structure where people could directly participate and to that extent develop an organic link with civil society. The campaign consciously attempted to create new civic organisations such as the neighbourhood groups, monitoring committees, beneficiary committees and so on, so that the Chinese Wall between civil society and the state is broken. Many NGOs felt their space was being encroached upon. So this accusation is wrong with regard to the experience during the Left Front government.
Another accusation is with regard to foreign funding - basically that leaders like you, who are in the forefront of the campaign for the boycott of the symbols of foreign imperialism, were not, during LDF rule, averse to seeking or accepting funds from agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank "which were trying to manipulate governments and destroy social structures".
This has been an accusation levelled particularly against me because I am now the secretary of the Anti-War Forum, which has called for the boycott of certain selected foreign goods. We have no illusion that the globalisation process can be reversed through consumer boycott. The boycott call was given as a slogan in which every ordinary citizen can participate in the anti-war campaign. It is a form of struggle just like a dharna; an individual takes a personal decision not to use certain products, which are either consumer symbols of the United States or company products linked directly to war. By making this choice consciously they are actually participating in the anti-war campaign. That is the idea of the boycott campaign. Now, I also happened to be in the State Planning Board of the LDF government, when it took the initiative for negotiating an ADB loan. The Planning Board is not directly involved in such negotiation. The Finance Department is the body involved in it. But still, I would say, that was a rational response to the financial situation that existed in Kerala at that time. True, there are serious dangers in a State government directly negotiating foreign loans. It should be avoided, that is the position of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But the Central government on whose loans the State is crucially dependent has adopted a policy that, instead of the Central government taking foreign loans and providing to the State governments, the State governments should take the initiative to negotiate the loan from selected foreign agencies. If the State government, for an ideological reason, does not do so, the State would lose that much additional Plan assistance. In the financial situation that existed then, Kerala could not take such an attitude. And therefore the Government of Kerala took a decision that it would try to negotiate terms that were not inconsistent with the declared policies of the LDF. Many people then asked, will the ADB agree to such a revision of the conditionalities? My response is that there is no unique set of conditionalities that the ADB or any international agency apply to all countries and at all times. The conditionalities for ADB loans to China are very different from that for a State like Gujarat. So what the CPI(M) leadership tried to do was to make a package of the various reforms in the public and financial sectors and with regard to decentralisation, that they had already decided to implement, into a reform package with which they could negotiate with the ADB. The loan would have been taken only if the conditions were acceptable. In fact, we had negotiated a loan for the power sector from the World Bank. We could not accept the conditions so we did not take the loan. Then the Central government insisted on an MoU (memorandum of understanding) before the State could get special funds from the Eleventh Finance Commission. We could not agree with the terms of the MoU. We refused to sign it. We decided in the Assembly that we would not sign such an MoU even if we had to forgo certain Central funds. It is in the same Budget speech that we said - we admitted - that we had started the negotiations (with the ADB). Now the whole issue is being raised as a communications strategy evolved by the globalisation reformers and the UDF government to discredit the opposition to the anti-people, anti-national policies they are pursuing.
There is criticism against the role of NGOs too, like the one you have floated in your constituency, as being that of "agents of globalisation and economic imperialism" and the seemingly anti-globalisation struggles and programmes they are organising as being a clever strategy to promote eventually imperialist interests.
There is no doubt that there is a larger imperialist strategy to utilise the so-called voluntary sector to undermine the state structure to influence civil society in Third World countries. But you have also got to realise that there are also NGOs and a large number of similar civil society organisations and formations that are essential ingredients of any social structure. Therefore, while being vigilant about the imperialist designs, we have to distinguish between civil society organisations that are pro-imperialist and pro-globalisation and those that are not. I fully endorse the position that civil society need not be a civic society. Communal outfits, caste forces are all part of civil society and they are also voluntary agencies, NGOs if you want. Civil society organisations cannot be in exclusion of politics. I do not accept this Chinese Wall between civil society and political society. They are organically linked. And today the world reality, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world revolutionary process is assuming new organisational forms of struggle. The best exhibition of this is the spontaneous mass protests against the WTO (World Trade Organisation), the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), their conferences and also the anti-war movements that sprung up recently. Only those who are unaware of these divergent trends in the world today would claim that the World Social Forum and the anti-war movement are part of an imperialist conspiracy. They do not understand the contemporary world revolutionary process.
A large number of volunteers who had actively participated in the People's Campaign during the LDF government had opted out from it after the new government took office. You were one of those who led the LDF campaign, but you too have been confining your activities to your constituency, Mararikkulam, instead of continuing to support the decentralisation process at the State level Won't you all be described as sectarian in your commitment towards decentralisation?
Those of us who had been very active in the campaign, in the new environment described above, find that our space for action is getting increasingly limited. The government does not adopt an enabling approach and we have decided to get actively involved in any local body where the panchayat/municipality has expressed its willingness to pursue the ideals of the People's Plan Campaign. So, while participating in general critique and propaganda against UDF policies, we are actively involved at the grass-root level. We do not want to remain at the level of propaganda. We want to get actively involved at the ground level decentralisation process so that we can evolve new models to exhibit fully the potential of democratic decentralisation, given such a place. But I happen to be representing Mararikkulam (constituency in Alappuzha district). And as an MLA I consider my role at the local level to be a facilitator to the panchayats. Many of the MLAs are sore that their traditional roles have been taken over by the panchayats. Instead, I believe that every MLA has to redefine his role at the local level in the context of decentralisation. So I have been helping the panchayats there to evolve an integrated development programme that focusses on poverty eradication but through the creation of sustainable employment and productive ventures, which are also environment- and gender-sensitive. And it takes a lot of effort to draw up such a programme and evolve a social consensus. So at the kickoff stage I was personally involved in these activities and it absorbed a major part of my time.
The Mararikkulam experiment has attracted a lot of attention because of its many innovative features. The panchayats have been successful in getting an additional Plan support of Rs.8.5 crores from the Union Rural Development Ministry. The UNDP has also accepted a proposal approved by the State government to develop a panchayat-level human development report. This is the first time that a local development report is prepared and it will have many methodological path-breaking features. Similarly, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) has agreed to support a feasibility study of a decentralised social security system in the area. I hope to take up with UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) the possibility of support for an attempt to reorganise the coir industry in the area. The IUCN is attempting certain pilot environment projects. Many voluntary agencies are also involved, like the KSSP (Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad), COSTFORD (Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development), the Kerala Health Studies and Research Centre and so on. It is our attempt to demonstrate the new role that NGOs should adopt in the context of democratic decentralisation, how NGOs, instead of lording over the panchayats, should integrate with local-level efforts and community leadership of the panchayats.
How do you view the UDF government's record regarding decentralisation after it inherited the People's Plan effort?
With respect to decentralisation, many expected the UDF government to dismantle the decentralisation process, just as it did (it to the district councils) in 1991. In fact most of the MLAs in the UDF want it. But the government has been forced not to dismantle completely the structures that had been created. The main reason is that at the grass-root level, cutting across the political divide, there is a strong public opinion that the devolution and decentralisation should continue. No political party in Kerala can ignore this. That is a major achievement of the campaign. Secondly, the campaign has won international recognition. So much so, a major part of the funding and money that the government is getting is premised upon a decentralised governance system. Even the ADB is allotting a third of its resources for decentralisation. Many of the foreign development projects in Kerala, for example, for drinking water supply, are premised upon the panchayati raj system. But the heart of this particular UDF leadership is not in decentralisation. Therefore the measures are half-hearted. The training programmes have fallen through. They dismantled the resource persons' support structures, so much so the panchayats are terribly weakened. Things are slipping. Thirdly, they have accepted the World Bank agenda of decentralisation. The most expressive statement of the new perspective is the urban policy statement of the UDF government, which say that municipalities should withdraw from being service providers and become facilitators of services. And, to make it (the provision of services) viable for privatisation, obviously, the service charges should be raised significantly. Then they go on to say that since urban bodies may be reluctant to do that, they are going to establish an urban regulatory authority over and above the elected bodies, which would decide the service charges and oversee their collection. This is preposterous. Instead of the integrated participatory planning process, which has been initiated through the People's Campaign, they are thinking of strengthening traditional town planning and extending it to the countryside. So they claim they are going to bring a new Town and Country Planning Act. So they are formally going to disassociate spatial planning from the economic and social plan.Precisely, the present controversy is being fanned by the UDF to undermine the credibility of the opposition against the reforms that they are bringing in and to take the position that even the Opposition LDF's programme was designed by the West. The implied question being, `so what is wrong in us seeking the help of the West, the World Bank, the ADB or the Dutch, to redesign the decentralisation process?'... I think it is the beginning of the end of a unique experiment. But we shall not give up. We shall resist these moves tooth and nail.