Derailing decentralisation

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

The concerted media attacks on Kerala's People's Plan Campaign and its main organisers lead to the inevitable conclusion that the attempt is ultimately to wreck the programme of decentralisation of powers and planning itself, which is already viewed with disfavour by the Congress(I)-led government.

in Thiruvananthapuram

"If decentralisation can be part of the neo-liberal strategy to weaken Third World states and assist in selling off the people's assets through privatisation, can it also be an alternative mechanism of development and therefore a means of resistance to First World-dominated globalisation."

- Local Democracy and Development: People's Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala by T.M. Thomas Isaac and Richard W. Franke.

IT was with a serves-them-right smugness that a section of people in Kerala, especially politicians within the ruling United Democratic Front(UDF), celebrated the recent series of reports in leading Malayalam newspapers debunking the seven-year-old decentralisation experiment in the State as "an imperialist plot" to destabilise the economy of the State.

In a series of articles written from different centres each day, the mainstream newspapers alleged that the intellectual and practical control of the People's Campaign for Decentralised Planning, which caught world attention, was actually in the hands of foreign funding agencies. The campaign and the people associated with it, including researchers who ventured to study it, were alleged to be participants in a "CIA plot".

Several such allegations had appeared over a month earlier in Padhom, an obscure journal with an anti-Communist Party of India (Marxist) orientation (but edited by a Left intellectual who is also the Editor of the cultural weekly of the CPI-M), targeting politicians, academicians, social activists and institutions that had any association with the decentralisation campaign.

The quarry included the scholar-turned politician, Thomas Isaac, one of the architects on the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government's People's Campaign; Richard W. Franke, an anthropologist from the United States and a keen student of Kerala's development experience; the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), the People's Science Movement which provided seminal contribution to the development of the concept, the techniques and the running of the campaign; and the research institution, the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram.

The CPI(M) and Isaac, especially - as the member in charge of decentralisation in the State Planning Board that implemented the campaign between 1996 and 2001, as the CPI(M) MLA who is the spirit behind the local-level decentralisation experiments in his constituency, Mararikkulam (in Alappuzha district) and as the secretary of the newly formed `Anti-war Forum', which called for a boycott of foreign products in the context of the war in Iraq - were the main targets of the attack. It was alleged that the struggles and activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and voluntary agencies such as the ones in Mararikkulam, and that launched by the architects of the decentralisation experiment, were, in fact, part of an ingenious strategy of imperialist forces to checkmate opposition to their globalist agenda.

The integrity of the researchers, among them Franke, research institutions such as the CDS and some others abroad, and the KSSP too was questioned, with regard to "foreign-funded research projects". Doubts were raised about the Isaac-Franke book on the People's Plan Campaign, and research linked to decentralisation conducted in five panchayats by the KSSP's Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC) using funds from the Dutch government (meant for developing research capability in Third World countries) disbursed under the CDS' Kerala Research Programme. Isaac, the LDF government during the tenure of which the Campaign was implemented, and the KSSP were criticised for favouring the use of funds from international agencies with hidden agendas, but later having no qualms about campaigning for the boycott of foreign goods.

Isaac told Frontline: "Under the aura of the Editor of Padhom, who is unfortunately a party sympathiser and respected intellectual, a group of irresponsible, ultra-Left positionists have been attacking CPI(M) leaders for nearly more than a year. Since it was an unknown journal, the preposterous charges it raised were often ignored. Of course, no rational discourse is possible because they were simply baseless assertions. But a group of people who had been expelled from the CPI(M) three years back - the `Save the CPI(M) Forum' - saw in this a political opportunity to discredit outrightly some of the CPI(M) leaders and sow confusion in the CPI(M) rank and file. They took the initiative to take this magazine to the mainstream media."

THE idea of decentralisation has been held dear by the Left movement in Kerala for long and was a recurrent theme of all its governments since the first Communist Ministry suggested a law for the purpose. However, complete decentralisation remained an unrealised goal in the State, bursts of hope generated, for example, by its 1991 district council experiment notwithstanding.

It was therefore the Constitution 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts passed by the Rajiv Gandhi government that gave the Left the first real opportunity to take its dream forward. The amendments gave constitutional status to local bodies, prescribed a three-tier system of local governance, and suggested other changes such as elections every five years and so on and made it mandatory for State governments (then a UDF government) to institutionalise the changes through legislation. The widespread debates spurred by the CPI(M), academics at the CDS and the volunteers of the KSSP, when the K. Karunakaran government brought forth a Bill full of provisions contrary to the spirit of decentralisation alone, are enough to understand their commitment to the cause and its basis fully on Indian nationalist traditions.

No doubt, the preparatory work and many of the techniques of the People's Plan Campaign were the legacy of three-decade-long, continuous and widespread voluntary activity of the KSSP such as the literacy campaign. The stress in all activities of the KSSP has been on "people's participation, awareness creation, encouraging government units to be sensitive to people's needs, and finding alternatives to existing models of development" - elements adopted by the LDF government for the decentralisation campaign.

Decentralisation had all along been a subject of great academic interest at the CDS, with the very first Working Paper written in 1971 by Dr. K.N. Raj (titled "Planning from Below") making a powerful case for decentralisation in Kerala. K.P. Kanan, Director, CDS, said: "For us it is an academic subject and all through the CDS had provided critical inputs which may have influenced the LDF campaign. But we don't hold any brief for the particular variety of decentralisation called the `People's Campaign', which is the formulation of the LDF government. I think any public policy can be and should be influenced by academic work and that we consider as a positive impact."

Both the CDS and the KSSP are also known for being sticklers for the principle of not allowing foreign funds to influence their activities or research. The KSSP's president Papputty and general seceretary N.K. Sasidharan Pillai told Frontline that the KSSP had been ever wary of foreign funds because of the very concern that funding agencies may impose their views and developmental agendas on "our activities", which were aimed at evolving self-reliant development models. The KSSP would accept only those funds that came without strings, after a case-by-case study and only from respected, reputed agencies," they said.

Dr. Kannan said that for the CDS too the question was whether the funding would influence its academic freedom and autonomy. He said that though it had received funds from many United Nations institutions such as the International Labour Organisations, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Population Fund, which were international pubic funds, it had in many cases rejected funding from bilateral agencies, both government and private. "So far we have had no interference in our autonomy from any of our funding agencies," he said.

With a kind of viciousness seen only on occasions when the Malayalam media go far off track (as in the `espionage' case related to the Indian Space Research Organisation, for example), the campaign sought to create an impression that the politicians, academicians, scholars and institutions had all joined hands in an attempt to destabilise the State's interests. This did invite snappy protests.

In a statement issued in Thiruvananthapuram, 13 concerned academics from various reputed institutions around the world, including Noam Chomsky, Robin Jeffrey and Jean Dreze, described the accusations as preposterous and the People's Campaign as "one of the most radical experiments in deepening democracy". They said that an objective and rigorous assessment of the impact of the campaign holds important lessons for policymakers, academics and all those with an interest in building more participatory and equitable institutions for development. They also said that they were alarmed to learn that "simple association with foreign researchers has become grounds for maligning the integrity of organisations, institutions and individuals".

Interestingly, given the background of the growth of the idea of decentralisation within Kerala itself, these allegations appeared to be a distortion of the debates that had taken place in the State after the LDF government launched the Campaign in 1996.

The publication of the World Bank's Development Report with decentralisation as its main theme a year after the Campaign was launched had immediately led to assertions that the LDF was trying to introduce the World Bank's agenda of decentralisation in Kerala, which attempted to weaken Third World states (mainly through privatisation) from the bottom, while simultaneously trying to push a globalisation agenda from the top (through structural adjustment programmes and WTO rules).

In fact, the conviction behind the People's Plan Campaign was exactly the opposite. The managers of the campaign had explained that if international funding agencies were trying to use decentralisation as a strategy to weaken Third World countries, they were, in fact, trying to use the decentralisation experiment, which drew heavily on Gandhiji's idea of village self rule, as a means of resistance against globalisation itself.

In the initial years of the campaign, possibly because of the sensitive coalition politics in the State, the LDF government seemed to have avoided explaining the fact that the People's Campaign was being enacted from a theoretical understanding (as stated in the Isaac-Franke book) of the "possibility of using decentralisation to advance the causes for which the Left had always struggled", such as democratisation, empowerment and equality - and not as a mere administrative reform. Significantly, in the debates that followed Kerala's decentralisation experiment, it was argued that since the political agenda was left unclear, all sections, the rich as well as the poor, had tended to collaborate in the politics of decentralisation "for the realisation of their goals that are conflicting with each other".

For example, a widely-noticed theoretical critique by Rajan Gurukkal (Professor, School of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam) presented at the International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation in Thiruvananthapuram (Frontline, June 23, 2000) had pointed out that though aimed at "bringing in structural changes in the power relations of local society, with thrust on sustainable development, local self-reliance and political empowerment of the weak", the lack of theoretical clarity had made the public "quite confused" about the avowed nature of the experiment. It had, therefore, also led to its perception merely as a "state-induced administrative reform from above" and "not as a bottom-up process with structural implications".

Such confusion, which could only have been aggravated with the coming to power of the pro-globalisation UDF government and its taking over of the reins of the decentralisation programme, has perhaps also laid open an opportunity for the current controversy to be so viciously targeted at individuals, institutions and grass-root-level organisations involved in the decentralisation process in Kerala.

But largely unknown to mainstream Kerala, including politicians on both sides of the coalition divide, a huge, silent constituency that favours decentralisation has come into existence at the local level in the State as a result of the LDF initiative. Nearly 18,000 panchayat members, who were involved in day-to-day issues of neighbourhood communities, have gained enormous clout, which has the potential to influence Kerala's politics to a great extent. The network of neighbourhood groups of poor, rural women, an integral part of the gram sabhas, today has around 24.8 lakh members and is a formidable pressure group. It is a silent kind of political development, the significance of which only a few have realised as yet. A whole new generation of democratically elected representatives who face the people on a day-to-day basis and are being asked to find solutions to individual grievances at the local level, offer a serious challenge to traditional, self-seeking power structures in the State.

Seven years into the experiment, legislative measures that guarantee constitutional rights of local bodies have endured. The three tiers of local bodies (at the village, block and district levels) have clearly demarcated powers and responsibilities and institutions under them. Control over officials of various government departments is now in the hands of the local bodies. Service institutions such as hospitals and schools, institutions that have a bearing on every-day life in rural communities, including in the agricultural, fisheries, small irrigation and small-scale industrial sectors are now within the jurisdiction of the local bodies. Panchayats are fully responsible for poverty eradication measures, the upkeep of roads (except highways and major district roads) and so on.

Along with the transfer of powers and responsibilities in these areas, provisions for the regular transfer of funds for their implementation have also been ensured and are based on a fixed formula. A massive training programme and capacity-building exercise for elected representatives, officials and expert volunteers was the highlight of the People's Campaign.

Funds allotted to panchayats can now only be used for developmental activities. Hundreds of elected representatives at the village panchayat level have acquired a new vocabulary of development terms, alien still at the seat of power in Thiruvananthapuram.

The commitment, rather the lack of it, of mainstream politicians, especially within the Congress(I)-led UDF government, which now has the responsibility of taking this path-breaking experiment forward, was explained by a senior official thus: "But for Chief Minister A. K. Antony, the UDF would have rolled back the decentralisation programme immediately after coming to power. Even the Local Administration Minister [surprisingly belonging to the Indian Union Muslim League, a party which utilised the opportunities provided by the new initiative right from Day One] was against it initially. It took him nearly a year to come around."

The question is whether the unique achievements in local-level democracy Kerala has witnessed in the initial years of the decentralisation campaign would come to naught very soon. Says Isaac: "Divergent trends are at work. A large number of panchayats are still doing good work. Some are engaged in exemplary work. On the other hand, there are efforts to strengthen the decentralisation process, but in tune with the World Bank prescriptions, as undertaken by the UDF government under the Modernising Government Programme (MGP). In its totality the programme is to make decentralisation complementary to the globalisation process. There is a determined effort by the UDF political leadership, especially the MLAs, to scuttle the programme."

Certain seemingly innocuous decisions of the UDF government have also been noticed as trends that encourage the dismantling of the fragile decentralisation experiment. Isaac said: "The government cut the funds to the local bodies by 25 per cent this year, but more than half of this reduced allotment was distributed only in February-March. A new government order then asked the local bodies that funds not spent by June 30 had to be returned to the State government. An independent assessment is that funds to be recovered thus from the panchayats would come to around Rs.500 to Rs.600 crores. Opposition is mounting, seeking an extension of the deadline. Its implication is that local governments have received no funds at all during the first year of the Tenth Five-Year Plan. The new order has also destroyed several carefully nurtured Plan implementation structures at the local level."

According to Dr. Kannan, the single-most important factor that will determine whether attempts towards decentralisation would progress or not in the State is the ability of Kerala's political society to forge a modicum of political consensus in its implementation. That seems a remote possibility. The suggestion by a senior Congress(I) leader recently in the State Assembly that the powers given to the panchayats should be taken back was received with enthusiastic thumping of the desks from the treasury benches.

Although the popular perception is that the recent controversy is a serious blow to the future of local bodies in the State, it has in a way served to put the spotlight once again on the progress (or lack of it) of the decentralisation experiment in Kerala and the proclivities of the mainstream politicians who are supposed to nurture it.

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