A perspective on decentralisation

Print edition : September 12, 2003

EMSum Adhikara Vikendrikaranavum (EMS and Decentralisation of Power); Chintha Publishers, Thiruvananthapuram, 2002; pages 132, price Rs.40.

E.M.S. NAMBOODIRIPAD, Communist leader and Kerala's first Chief Minister, was among the first political personalities to campaign for democratic decentralisation in India. He was also a major theorist of the decentralisation of the political process and administration. EMS' interventions and ideas have had a profound influence on every debate on decentralisation in independent India. The current practice of decentralisation in India owes a great deal to EMS in one way or the other. The historic People's Planning Campaign (PPC), initiated by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala in 1997 under EMS' guidance, represented a new stage in the theory and practice of decentralisation.

However, most of EMS' writings on this topic had not been compiled. A recent book in Malayalam, which collects a few of EMS' writings on decentralisation from the 1950s until his death, fills this gap to an extent. The book brings together 12 articles written by EMS and is accompanied by an essay, jointly written by T.M. Thomas Isaac and the late E.M. Sreedharan, that analyses EMS' ideas on decentralisation. Five of the 12 articles were written before the PPC was initiated in 1997. The articles cover a wide range of issues: administrative reforms in the bureaucracy, Centre-State relations in a federal state, class perspectives on decentralisation, the political economy of decentralisation in India, the scope of decentralisation in post-land-reforms Kerala, and the politics of decentralisation in Kerala. In their concluding essay, Isaac and Sreedharan use many unpublished writings of EMS to analyse his views.

Four important ideas that were basic to EMS' understanding of decentralisation emerge from the articles. First, EMS believed that decentralisation would have only minimal impact without land reforms. He noted: "Without providing land to poor peasants and landless and rescuing them from the hold of vested interests, all high talk of handing over administrative powers to the people are hollow." Meaningful decentralisation is that which is implemented along with attempts to transform rural power relations significantly in favour of the rural poor. This idea resonates in the lessons from the two success stories of decentralisation in India - West Bengal and Kerala - both initiated by Left-led governments after or alongside land reforms.

Secondly, EMS emphasised the links between class struggle and decentralisation. In a thought-provoking section in his note of dissent to the Asok Mehta Committee in 1978, he argued that he viewed decentralisation as a tool to moderate the exploitation of the poor by the landed class in a society with uneven development of capitalism and remnants of feudalism, thus protecting and expanding democracy itself. He was clear that in the absence of a political action to emancipate the poor, no programme to assist the "weaker sections" would be fully effective. However, in the fight of the exploited against the exploiters, parliamentary democracy is a valuable tool for the former. The extension of parliamentary democracy to the village level would help the rural poor use this tool more ably in their day-to-day struggles.

Thirdly, for EMS, decentralisation was related to the larger issue of Centre-State relations in India; he opposed separating decentralisation from issues of federal relations. He famously put forward his idea of the four pillars of democracy: Centre, State, district and panchayat. Democratic decentralisation had to be based firmly on these four pillars. Alongside came his widely quoted expression: "Democracy at the Central and State levels, but bureaucracy at all lower levels - this is the essence of Indian polity as spelt out in the Constitution." EMS believed that democratic relations between Centre and States was under constant attack, and the resistance against it had to bring in its ambit the struggle for democracy from the State-level downwards also. Decentralisation can be truly democratic only if Centre-State relations too are radically rewritten. EMS was highly critical of the attempts by the Rajiv Gandhi government to introduce the 64th and 65th Amendments to the Constitution, which diluted decentralisation by bypassing the States and by envisaging direct contact between the Centre and the panchayats and by keeping intact the powers vested with the Centre.

Fourthly, EMS argued that decentralised planning was an integral component of the idea of national planning. There was no contradiction between the Communist Party supporting centralised planning in socialist countries and decentralised planning in Kerala. According to EMS, the reasons for the failure of planning in the Soviet Union, after spectacular successes for several decades, had to be traced back to the series of misguided policies followed from the 1950s. Instead of correcting mistakes and furthering socialism, the country disbanded socialism itself. He noted in 1997: "The world communist movement is today absorbed in efforts to take forward the legacy of the Soviet Union's construction of a socialist society with its positive aspects, but without its drawbacks. It is from this standpoint that Indian communists, who lead Kerala's government, have given shape to a Kerala version of Indian planning with people's participation at its core." Many scholars have expanded on this theme after EMS (see, for instance, "Democratic Decentralisation and the Planning Principle: The Transition from Below" by C.P. Chandrasekhar, Social Scientist, 29 (11-12), 2001).

AS Isaac and Sreedharan mention in their essay, EMS' views on decentralisation was moulded by his close experience in creating a framework for it in Kerala for over 40 years, and the lessons learnt therewith. EMS began his political career in Malabar, then a part of the Madras Presidency. His first ideas on decentralisation were put forward in an article titled "Madras Government and Local Self-Governance", written in 1938. By the time he took charge as the Chief Minister of Kerala in 1957, EMS had a clear perspective on introducing decentralisation in Kerala. The government appointed an Administrative Reforms Committee with EMS in the chair to study and recommend changes in the administrative structure. The conclusion reached by the committee was unambiguous: "It is not only that panchayats should be the sole agency at the village level between the government and masses, but also that it should be through the panchayats that masses make contact with the government." However, the dismissal of the Communist government by the Centre in 1959 prevented it from pursuing the recommendations of the committee, as was the case with its historic Land Reforms Bill.

During the period of his second Ministry, which came to power in 1967, The Kerala Panchayati Raj Bill was introduced in the Assembly. The fall of this Ministry in 1969, again, delayed the Bill's approval by the Assembly. Kerala had to wait until the period of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF Ministry of 1987-91 for the next concrete action on decentralisation. The Ministry held the first elections to the District Councils in Kerala in 1990. EMS initiated a debate in the pages of Deshabhimani, the party daily in Malayalam, on the ways to make District Councils more effective. EMS' suggestions were radical; many could not comprehend their depth. According to him, several government departments, such as the Department of Local Administration, should be closed down. Their functions should be immediately passed down to the District Councils and gram panchayats. However, the resignation of the Ministry in 1991 once again stopped the forward movement of the decentralisation process. The Congress(I) government that followed disbanded the District Councils in a year.

In the interval between 1991 and 1996, when the CPI(M) was in the Opposition, EMS initiated another public debate. In his Mathai Manjooran Memorial Lecture in 1992, EMS put forward the view that the struggle for power between the two powerful fronts was affecting Kerala's development. EMS called for a "new developmental culture" that would transcend party politics. "I stand for a developmental culture where, even while handling politics in mobilising resistance against the Congress, the BJP and other caste-based and communal formations, political parties work together in furthering the cause of local development," he said. His formulation was catching: "The winners should seek cooperation from the losers and the losers should offer cooperation to the winners" on issues relating to development.

After outlining the new developmental culture, EMS offered his analysis of the backwardness of Kerala's economy in terms of raising production and productivity levels, in spite of the presence of high social indicators. He was critical of people who called Kerala's developmental experience a "model". How can it be a model when the State is so economically backward, EMS - in many ways, the maker of modern Kerala - asked. He was also critical of a mindset that considered "roads, schools, hospitals and international airports" as indicators of development. A change of this mindset was a "social, cultural and political necessity", EMS said. He did not believe that without growth of material production in agriculture and industry, a State could be said to have achieved "development".

To those who blamed the political factors in Kerala (the presence of trade unions and collective bargaining for better wages and working conditions) for its lack of development, he had this to say: "Due to the efforts of working class political parties, workers have been successful in raising wages and salaries through collective bargaining. However, landowners and industrialists have been unable to raise the levels of agricultural and industrial production at the same rate... Landowners and industrialists should gain the capacity to raise the levels of material production at rates higher than or equal to the rate of growth of wages and salaries. The state, employers and employees should work collectively to develop new technologies that are suited to achieve it... I declare that we are ready to correct any mistake in our approach in attaining this objective" (pages 41-42). It was a clarion call by EMS, on behalf of Kerala's Left, to act collectively in pulling Kerala out of its economic backwardness.

AS Isaac and Sreedharan note, EMS viewed the PPC as a suitable starting point for such a cooperative effort to improve Kerala's economic performance. "Decentralised planning should focus on reducing Kerala's dependence on foodgrains from outside and making each panchayat self-sufficient in the production of vegetables, fruits, fish, meat and eggs," he wrote. To this end, existing technology should be upgraded and new technological alternatives designed; technical experts and the masses should work collectively to achieve this objective, he said. EMS argued that the PPC should aim at coordinating this cooperative effort, thus raising the productive capacity of the economy through a rational use of local resources.

For EMS, class-conscious workers and peasants were an invaluable asset in economic planning. "Workers and peasant masses should be transformed into a social force that contributes to the planning process. The success of planners in this transformation will determine the success of the planning process itself," he wrote. He considered the role played by organisations of peasants and agricultural workers as vital to the success of the PPC. EMS also envisaged important roles for a number of institutions that have evolved in Kerala - the cooperative movement, reading clubs, youth organisations and so on.

EMS was an enthusiastic learner. He was very hopeful of the scope of gram sabhas in the campaign. As Isaac and Sreedharan note, gram sabhas, as a concept, started to appear in EMS' writings only after the PPC started. He believed that gram sabhas could play a major role in resolving a number of contentious issues that affect the production process. An example cited by EMS was the disputes between farmers and agricultural workers over the conversion of paddy lands for non-agricultural uses in Kerala. In the beginning of the campaign, EMS attended gram sabhas in a village near Thiruvananthapuram for a whole day to understand how the masses participated in it. On another occasion, he held long discussions with the office-bearers of a panchayat and debated issues with them. He was ready to be corrected by others so as to enrich his own understanding on the subject.

EMS sincerely believed that "people's planning is the most radical development that has taken place in Kerala since the attainment of Independence, the formation of the State of Kerala and the land reforms". For him, while land reforms had liberated Kerala's rural population "economically", the PPC would liberate them "socially and politically".

This book needs to be translated into English. Without doubt, it is a central reference text for any student of the politics and development of India and Kerala.

R. Ramakumar is a research student at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

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