Renewing development and deepening democracy

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST


Local Democracy and Development: People's Campaign for Decentralized Planning in Kerala by T.M. Thomas Isaac, with Richard W. Franke; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2000; pages 336, Rs.400.

AS a member of the Kerala State Planning Board who is responsible for the function, Thomas Isaac has been the principal architect of the remarkable experiment in democratic decentralisation that has been taking place in the State over the last four years (Frontline, June 23 and July 7, 2000). Though this book - written with Richard Franke, an anthropologist from the United States who has worked in Kerala over a good many years - is not a 'personal account', and gives no prominence at all to Isaac 's own role, it is evident that the People's Campaign owes a great deal to his indefatigable energy, enthusiasm and practical inventiveness. The pace of the Campaign, launched in 1996, was evidently hectic. It saw the completion by June 1997 of local dev elopment plans, based on a thorough process of bottom-up, participatory planning of a kind never before attempted in India - or perhaps anywhere else in the world. It involved an extraordinary mobilisation of volunteers and several rounds of intensive tr aining of large numbers of people - on a scale that has probably never been matched anywhere. The book is enormously detailed, and some readers will no doubt be lost by the wayside, but it is an extremely valuable document which should be quarried by all those who have intellectual and practical interest in democracy and participatory approaches to development. It is so valuable not least because it is remarkably honest. Isaac does not pull his punches when he explains the weaknesses and limitations of what has been achieved and in the ways in which the process of democratic decentralisation has evolved. There is no triumphalism in this account, but rather a sober assessment of how much remains to be done: "We can only state that a beginning has been m ade and point out certain evidences that seem to indicate the state of a thaw."

The clue to the People's Campaign is perhaps given above all in this following statement, which Isaac and Franke make towards the end of the book: "In a sense, the State government launched a movement to force its own hand radically to restructure the mo de of governance". The movement was grounded above all in the decision to devolve substantial funds - 35 to 40 per cent of Plan expenditure - to local government institutions, without waiting, as has been the conventional wisdom hitherto, for the gradual building up of local administrative capacity. Isaac emphasises the fundamental importance of this bold reversal of orthodoxy.

The other keystone in the arch (if arches may be allowed to have two of them) has been the use of planning as an instrument of social mobilisation. Mass participation and transparency in the local planning process have drawn in large numbers of people. T he achievements of decentralised planning - which are modest, the authors concede, though they are still concrete - have been made against the initial apathy, if not indeed the active hostility of government officials, and the opposition or at best only lukewarm support of the Members of the Legislative Assembly, even those from the ruling party, who have felt slighted at the way in which they have been "sidelined". The Campaign was successful in mobilising very large numbers of people, many of them - p erhaps even a majority - from outside the ruling party, and developed a momentum which ensured that the elected representatives who are ultimately responsible under the law for deciding upon local spending priorities, acted in accordance with popular wis hes as they were expressed in plan and project proposals. But this mass mobilisation involved both the very active intervention of the State government in crucial ways, notably in planning and implementing the huge effort of training that was involved, a nd the engagement of organisations in civil society such as the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, or KSSP (the 'People's Science Movement'), with its 40,000 volunteers all over the State. Thus the Kerala programme exemplifies the curious paradox of effect ive decentralisation, which is that it actually requires the government at the 'centre' (here, the State government) to play a more active role in certain crucial respects (see the author's article, Frontline, July 7).

The context for the launching of the People's Campaign lay in the recognition within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala by the early 1990s that the State's economic stagnation seriously threatened its achievements in redistribution and soci al welfare. E.M.S. Namboodiripad wrote in 1994: "I feel that one big question we face is whether the organised strength and political consciousness of our people can be used to increase production and productivity. I want to answer in the affirmative. Bu t there is a precondition: the government and the ruling classes must change their attitude to the organisations of the people and their demands... I must emphasise the importance of democratic decentralisation in this context." In order to bring about i ncreased production and productivity, it was now felt, democratic decentralisation of planning is required, for this "implies that people can be involved not only in making demands but in taking decisions on how to improve their lives and their communiti es" - and so should make for better informed, more responsive and more efficient programmes. A number of experiments in Kerala by this time (described in chapter 4 of the book), such as that in participatory planning in Kalliasseri, which involved KSSP v olunteers, had begun to show what might be achieved, if only "the tradition of viewing the local bodies as mere organs of development", which persisted in the country even after the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, could be transcended.

The People's Campaign unfolded in six phases, beginning with a special programme in September-October 1996 aimed at galvanising the village councils, or grama sabhas (in Kerala limited to the voters in a ward). These institutions, which are suppos ed to form the basis of deliberative democracy in India, have not generally been effective at all. Unsurprisingly, people have been apathetic about them, and they have been poorly attended and dominated by the 'usual suspects' - older men from the higher castes and classes. The People's Campaign began therefore with a drive to heighten awareness and understanding of the role of the grama sabhas. Their meetings were also carefully planned (the 'centre' intervening here, crucially), so that they we re broken up into smaller groups quite quickly, to discuss local needs using semi-structured questionnaires derived partly from participatory rural appraisal (PRA) techniques, with the facilitation of specially trained resource persons. Though it is clea r from what happened subsequently that the grama sabhas did develop considerable energy, across the State as a whole an average of only 11.4 per cent of voting age persons attended, more in the north of the State and less in the centre and the sou th. This disparity between regions has evidently persisted.

The second phase involved the preparation of Panchayat Development Reports for discussion at development seminars at which a majority of the delegates were elected by the grama sabhas. Again training of resource persons was involved, and they led such participatory exercises as Panchayat Level Resource Mapping (using PRA methods), required for the analysis of local opportunities and constraints. The development seminars culminated in the election of 'task forces' entrusted with the job of develop ing seminar proposals into actual projects. This occupied the third phase of the Campaign, which Isaac and Franke say was the most difficult, partly because it brought into focus uneasy relationships with the bureaucracy.

Ultimately, however, the elected panchayat representatives were able to formulate plans (this was the fourth phase), assisted by a further round of training, and in accordance with guidelines laid down, in another significant intervention, by the centre. These left a good deal of latitude to the local bodies but were designed to ensure that resources were not devoted disproportionately to 'obvious' infrastructure projects or to service sector activities.

The fifth phase had to do with the integration of block and district panchayat plans; and the sixth with the appraisal of plans. This last phase gave rise to another ingenious innovation, the Voluntary Technical Corps (VTCs), to which there were recruite d many retired government officers with different technical skills, and who were entrusted, together with officials, with the task of assessing the feasibility of project plans. Significantly, the VTCs involved members of the middle class who had hithert o been somewhat alienated from the planning process. Remarkably - the process must have been at least as breathless as my account of it here - Plan funds could be released for 1997-98 by June 1997.

RATHER more than half of the book is devoted to an account of the Campaign. The remainder evaluates the outcomes, describes the Second Year Annual Plans (for 1998-99), and sums up on what has been achieved and what remains to be done. The great achieveme nts of the People's Campaign lie in the sheer fact of the devolution of such a large quantum of the State's resources to local bodies; in the establishment of a participatory planning process, State-wide; and in the dispelling of scepticism about gram a sabhas. Up till now, it is the process which has been most important, but increasingly the people themselves will be looking for results. The authors make no bones about the limitations of the achievement: the number of innovative projects has been small; and in the first year allocations to productive sectors were below the recommended levels, and even now, two years later, it is far from clear that the local bodies' plans are having a significant impact on production and productivity, though it is to be expected that the effects of production-related activities should take longer to materialise. To begin with, certainly, the programmes were not notably gender-sensitive.

And of the important innovation of Beneficiary Committees, set up to oversee the implementation of public works, the authors write: "Our judgment is that only a quarter (of them) survived the tendencies for degeneration and functioned effectively as genu ine participatory forums." They believe, nonetheless, that democratic decentralisation has reduced corruption (though the basis for this statement is unclear, except insofar as it relates to the greater transparency which is now involved in beneficiary s election).

As I earlier emphasised in my account of it, the book very clearly brings out the 'dialectics of decentralisation' in the Kerala story - what I referred to earlier as 'the curious paradox' of effective democratic decentralisation. It is the extent to whi ch the process of decentralised planning involves interventions from the centre, which has given rise to most criticism and controversy in Kerala. It is felt, for example, that too much influence is exercised by those who may be 'outsiders', the technica l resource persons, or the members of the expert committees which do the appraisal of local plans and projects. Members of the opposition parties in Kerala believe that the CPI(M) can exercise too much influence by these means. There are questions, here, no doubt, which can be addressed best, perhaps, by means of careful political ethnographies. But I believe - like Isaac and Franke - that there is a necessary tension ('dialectics' involves tension) between the centre and local bodies if democratic dece ntralisation is to function so as both to deepen democracy and bring about meaningful development.

The book deals briskly with theoretical matters. But it is a powerful statement against currently fashionable ideas about 'social capital' and 'civil society'. The authors write: "The role of political society (emphasis added) in both the state-ce ntred and/or civil-society-led paradigms explaining the decentralisation process, is conspicuous by its absence... But in a situation such as Kerala's, which is characterised by an active political society with hegemonic positions held by Left political formations, political society holds the key to democratic decentralisation."

Here it is not the 'social capital' which lies in the congeries of voluntary associations highlighted by Robert Putnam in his Making Democracy Work (Princeton University Press, 1993) - including choirs, bowling leagues, football teams and the like - which counts, but rather powerful class and mass organisations (which in Kerala encompass nearly one-third of the adult population). The same - pace Putnam - is likely to hold elsewhere.

Dr. John Harriss is Reader in Development Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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