A people's movement

Print edition : June 10, 2000

In just four years, the Kerala People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan, ushered in by the Left Democratic Front Government, has triggered sweeping social changes, transformed people's lives, empowered local bodies and rewritten the rules of democratic decentralisation.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

FOR five days from May 23, Kerala showcased to the world the remarkable achievements of one of the most radical experiments in democracy and development in India, which the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government in the State initiated about four years ago.

The five-day International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation, inaugurated in Thiruvananthapuram by Vice-President Krishan Kant, was the first exhaustive attempt to take stock of the mass movement that the State launched in August 1996 in order to realise the ideal of democratic decentralisation - an idea that has been venerated in the Constitution but which has taken off only partially, if at all, in a few States.

The Kerala People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan was launched on Malayalam New Year Day in 1996. The short-term objective was to secure the people's participation in drawing up local plans, create pressure from below for greater devolution of powers, and demonstrate how much additional resources could be mobilised from below for local development.

Vice-President Krishan Kant inaugurates the International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation, in Thiruvananthapuram on May 23. Among others in the picture are Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and Governor Sukhdev Singh Kang.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Despite Kerala's impressive achievements in key areas of human development, particularly health and education, and a measure of equity achieved through trade union action, peasant struggles and redistributive government policies the State was characterised by economic backwardness, and the campaign sought to address this.

In its fourth year now, the campaign exceeded the expectations of even its organisers. It has transformed itself into a mass movement that has empowered local bodies to prepare plans for comprehensive local development through transparent processes and innovative people's ideas. In the process, it has created a demand in the State for further drastic institutional reforms in the legal and administrative systems in order to sustain the campaign's innumerable positive outcomes.

Significantly, the campaign allows ordinary people in Kerala's villages to decide what public services and facilities they need in their locality, based on their own understanding of the potentials and constraints, and to keep vigil on the activities of elected representatives and government officials at the local level.

Despite bursts of activity in some States over the years "to reconstruct, reinforce and revitalise" panchayats, local bodies in India have remained agencies that implement government programmes imposed from above; they are characterised by poor resource capability, excessive control by the bureaucracy, corruption, delay in the conduct of elections, and, in some States, domination by the landed gentry and the upper castes. At best, they have a consultative role in local-level planning.

There were, however, a few exceptions: West Bengal, where, owing to Left initiatives, panchayats became instruments of rural development as well as social change through land reforms; Karnataka, where in 1983 a Janata Party government launched a bold experiment in decentralisation, which however failed to realise its potential; and, Kerala, where consistent Left initiatives since the days of the first E.M.S. Namboodiripad Ministry and comprehensive land reforms helped make remarkable achievements though complete decentralisation remained an unrealised goal.

The Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act and the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act constituted a significant milestone. They accorded constitutional status to local bodies and prescribed a uniform three-tier system of local governance, elections to local bodies every five years, proportional representation for weaker sections and reservation for women, and the constitution of finance commissions to decide on revenue-sharing between the States and the panchayats. They also made it mandatory for all State governments to institutionalise this set-up through legislation. However, they failed to invest local bodies with regulatory functions and did not make it mandatory for State governments to devolve powers to local bodies. In most States, therefore, panchayati raj institutions had real powers in very few areas.

Against this background, Kerala's achievement in the four years of the E.K. Nayanar Government stands out like a beacon.

ONE of the first decisions of the LDF Government, which took office in 1996, was to set apart 35 to 40 per cent of the State Plan funds every year for the exclusive use of local bodies, to plan and implement projects according to priorities decided locally. The local bodies in Kerala have up until now prepared and implemented three annual plans; the grant-in-aid from the State government was Rs.749 crores in the first year, Rs.950 crores in the second year and Rs.1,020 crores in the third year.

In 1999, Kerala became the first State to effect comprehensive amendment of its panchayat and municipal laws, with the focus on substantial devolution of powers, functions and funds. These were in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Decentralisation of Powers (the Satya Brata Sen Committee), which the LDF Government appointed soon after coming to power, to suggest steps to establish a comprehensive legislative and administrative system tailored for decentralised governance.

Subsequently, 35 other Acts were amended to bring them in line with the new functions devolved to the local bodies. A series of rules and procedures were also evolved to facilitate the smooth functioning of the local bodies as per the amended laws. In the very first year of the campaign, the government transferred a large number of offices, institutions and personnel to the control of the local bodies. The president of the panchayati raj institution was declared the executive authority and local bodies were given full administrative control, including powers of disciplinary action over its own staff as well as those transferred to it. Unlike in other States, in Kerala the laws have attempted to define the functional areas of the different tiers of local bodies, wherever they could be clearly demarcated.

The State now has a well-established system of planning with mass participation at the gram/ward sabhas at the village/municipality ward level, with emphasis on transparency and involvement of the common people in all stages of implementation of their own development plans. Perhaps this is one of the most significant features of the Kerala experiment (Frontline, March 7, 1997). The energies of thousands of activists and volunteers (in addition to officials) were harnessed in capacity-building, as trainers, resource persons and technical experts. In what has been described as "the largest non-formal education experiment in the country", thousands of people were mobilised for participatory and scientific collection of information regarding material and human resources and development problems in each panchayat and for preparing a database to draw up comprehensive development plans for each and every panchayat in Kerala. As a result of the capacity-building exercises, every village panchayat in the State has at least 100 persons "sensitised on the objectives and methodology of decentralised planning".

In order to reduce government control and make the local bodies a well-defined tier of government - to allow them to work as partners rather than as subordinate implementing agencies - the Kerala legislation envisaged the creation of several autonomous bodies. The powers of the State Election Commission were expanded to include delimitation of wards and disqualification of defectors (based on a 1999 anti-defection law), in addition to the conduct of elections; the First State Finance Commission (SFC), established in 1994, gave its report in 1996, when the new panchayati raj system was still in its infancy. The Second SFC was constituted in 1999; an Ombudsman for local governments, a seven-member high-power body (comprising a High Court Judge, two District Judges, two government Secretaries and two eminent public persons to be selected in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition) has been constituted, with powers to check wrong-doing in local bodies in the discharge of development functions and to order corrective measures and punishment, if necessary.

(Other provisions in the law, for the establishment of appellate tribunals at the district/regional level as a grievance redress machinery - and to reduce judicial delays - for citizens, introduction of performance audit and an autonomous audit commission for local bodies, a code of conduct for officials and elected representatives and preparation of a citizen's charter by every panchayat describing the rights of the people vis-a-vis the local bodies and so on, are, however, yet to be implemented.)

The amended Kerala laws also require every local body to set apart 10 per cent of Plan funds as a special Women Component Plan (WCP) for development activities that benefit women. The funds thus allotted took a while to be properly targeted, but by the third year of the campaign it had led to the spontaneous development of new initiatives such as neighbourhood groups and self-help groups in the villages and towns and to a flurry of projects for women, such as sewing cooperatives, vegetable gardening, community centres and small-scale industrial units. With the Constitution guaranteeing reservation of one-third of the seats in the local bodies for women, women now play a more active role in public life in Kerala.

Another legal provision, which requires the local bodies to use a fixed amount from the Plan funds as Special Component Plan/Tribal Sub-Plan component, has delivered a significantly larger amount of funds for Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe communities, according to the first comprehensive research document on the three years of the Plan Campaign in Kerala ("Local Democracy and Development: People's Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala", co-authored by T.M. Thomas Isaac, Planning Board Member who has played a key role in the design and implementation of the campaign and Richard W. Franke, researcher with substantial experience in Kerala), which was released at the conference.

THE campaign has further instituted a multi-pronged system to combat corruption and to facilitate a social audit. A new set of rules has replaced the politician-engineer-contractor system with "committees of beneficiaries" in every panchayat, to plan, take estimates of and execute public works. Records of the works thus undertaken have been declared as public documents, and any citizen can demand to see or copy them. Details of such works and estimates are required to be displayed at the work site, and in a language that the common man understands.

Campaign motif: the logo of the Kerala People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan.-S. GOPAKUMAR

To "demystify" the process of technical sanction and "to make it faster, cheaper and more transparent", local-level committees of government and non-government experts give technical advice to the local bodies, vet projects before they are sent for approval by the District Planning Committees and provide technical sanction for works, wherever required.

A transparent process has also been institutionalised for the selection of beneficiaries - another area were corruption was rampant - for various development programmes, particularly anti-poverty and minimum needs programmes. Transparent criteria are fixed for each such programme and for the prioritisation of beneficiaries under it. Beneficiaries are selected by a committee on the basis of marks awarded as per fixed, publicised criteria. The priority list prepared thus is then to be approved by the people at the gram/ward sabhas.

THE importance of the measures to curb corruption cannot be overstated. In the initial months of the campaign, with a flood of funds and an unevolved system of checks and balances, there were allegations of corruption and nepotism in the public works undertaken by many panchayats and in the distribution of doles and the selection of beneficiaries. At one stage, when the Opposition used this as a weapon to attack the campaign, it seemed that some of the local bodies themselves were trying to scuttle the first sincere attempt by a State government to give them more powers and resources.

Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar referred to this very issue at the opening session of the conference. Nayanar urged the audience comprising a majority of the local body members to compare the current situation with the situation when they assumed office before the launch of the campaign, and asked them to point out any instance of discrimination in the sanctioning of funds. "Money has been distributed quite democratically," he said, but added: " However, we know that there are some who have been very generous in consuming it also. Those who have taken money will have to answer for it."

THE campaign today has an impressive list of achievements. Within the first two years alone, it accounted for the construction of 98,494 houses, 240,307 sanitary latrines and 7,947 km of roads, the digging of 50,162 wells, installation of 17,489 public taps and the cleaning and repair of 16,563 ponds. In a co-authored paper presented at the academic seminar, Richard Franke and Barbara H. Chasin (professors at the Montclair State University, New Jersey) described these as "astounding achievements" that meant that the campaign had created an effective targeting mechanism. They pointed out that if a similar rate of construction was maintained over the five years of the campaign, over 10 per cent of Kerala's households would have new homes and nearly 14.5 per cent of rural households would have sanitary latrines.

Decentralised decision-making by the people has also given rise to innovative projects that help achieve self-sufficiency and satisfy local needs. There are several showcase instances in Kerala today of panchayats making full use of the potential of decentralisation to show the way forward for others.

The State Planning Board, the nodal agency that implements the campaign, has "showcased" a number of "beacon" panchayats and municipalities, that have been outstanding in their performance, in terms of the level of participation of the people, local resource mobilisation, transparency in proceedings, efficiency in implementation or absence of corruption or in developing innovative programmes. The government has instituted Grama Shree awards for such panchayats, and last year they became training centres for other local bodies, on subjects ranging from micro-hydel stations, total sanitation, total transparency, small-scale drinking water cooperatives, integrated pest management, computerisation, vegetable production, beneficiary committees, library movement, primary schools and comprehensive mental health programme.

According to Isaac, the campaign's most important achievement is that it has generated the political will to sustain the scale of devolution of funds in the subsequent years of the campaign, despite the financial constraints of the State government.

The campaign managers have been somewhat restrained in their assessment of the outcome of the four years of the Kerala experiment. They have admitted that the campaign succeeded only in about 200 of the 1,045 panchayat bodies in the State. There is the underlying concern that the system might collapse if the changes ushered in by the mass movement are not insitutionalised quickly and comprehensively. As the Isaac-Franke study points out, even after three years the changes necessary to institutionalise democratic decentralisation are only in their initial stages. Though the Acts are a major achievement, the related administrative reforms are yet to become part of the system.

According to D. Bandhopadhyay, Secretary (retd.), Union Rural Development Department, a major challenge to the decentralisation effort in Kerala would be the need to harmonise State and Central laws that are in conflict with the process of decentralisation. A study by V. Ramachandran (former Vice-Chairman, State Planning Board) had shown that there were 72 State laws and 88 Central laws that ran counter to the principles of decentralisation.

Opposition parties in Kerala are in a dilemma. They cannot ignore the obvious and potential benefits of the decentralisation experiment undertaken by a government headed by rival political formation, or the fact that funds have been distributed to the local bodies without political discrimination (a key factor that accounts for the popularity of the campaign) and that the campaign offers them too an equal opportunity to gain the people's support in panchayats where their representatives have done well.

The Opposition has therefore tended to ignore the positive impact of the campaign and focus on the weaknesses in the implementation and the stray aberrations. Criticism has focussed mainly on the issue of corruption and the role of the expert committees, which, the Opposition (and some partners in the ruling LDF) alleged, were behaving in an "extra-constitutional" fashion and "infringed on the rights of the elected bodies."

Isaac said: "Such criticism is not baseless, but is one-sided. There are local bodies that have done very well; there are others that have done very badly. Democratic decentralisation is a process of transition and there will always be elements of the past and of the new in it. The important issue is whether the level of corruption has increased or decreased as a result of decentralisation. Our assessment is that compared to the corruption that could have occurred if the entire allocation for local bodies were spent directly by government departments, the leakages have come down significantly."

In a paper presented at the conference, Sarada Muraleedha-ran, District Collector, Thiru-vananthapuram, gave an objective assessment of the role of the expert committees: "The response to expert committees has been mixed. Whereas the lack of substantive remuneration keeps all but the committed away from volunteering to accept the assignment, allegations of political caucus have plagued the committees." She noted that there had also been allegations that expert committees were delaying the process. "However," she said, "it needs to be borne in mind that sanctioning over 7,000 projects per district per year is no joke, and that if it had been thrust upon the existing (State government) system, it would have collapsed like a pack of cards."

The consensus at the conference, however, seemed to be that the benefits of the campaign far outweighed its shortcomings. At a special session of the conference on administrative aspects of the decentralisation process, S.M. Vijay-anand, Secretary, Local Administration, a key government figure in the campaign, said: "At the very outset, one of the topmost experts on decentralisation in the country, V. Ramachandran had advised us that as we move on, 'there will be some people who may eat up a lot of money, there will be shocking violations of rules and procedures, but we should not apply the breaks or block them. If you do that midway that will kill this experiment. You will have to treat them, train them, not block them'. We found it was absolutely true. The problems to be grappled with are so complex that they all of them have the potential to subvert local governments. That is the administrative challenge we face."

K.M. Abraham, Secretary (Expen-diture), Kerala Government, said the decentralisation experiment faced another serious danger in that there was no statutory provision today to ensure that a government transferred Plan funds to the local bodies. "Tomorrow if a government decides to starve the local bodies, it can do so. That is a big concern... What we need is a consensus on whether we should instituitionalise such transfers, constitutionally."

Addressing such concerns, Prabhat Patnaik, Chairman of the Second State Finance Commission, said: "There is no doubt that if panchayats do not have enough funds, they will not be vibrant institutions of self-rule... But, for reasons beyond our control, the capacity of the State to mobilise resources for social investment has also been severely impaired. Panchayats have to cope. One way is to mobilise local resources. We think of the local bodies only as spending, taxing bodies or as conduits of funds for the people. But can't panchayats have the role also of the producer, of an entrepreneur? If funds to panchayats are to be restructured, we need innovative ways of funding them."

Issac said: "Decentralisation is good in itself but its instrumental value depends on the political context in which it takes place. The campaign is also part of a struggle against globalisation, for self-reliance. Local plans can provide any number of forms of anti-imperialistic resistance. We are quite wary of the programmes of the international aid agencies, which encourage vertical programmes through the Central and State governments. Such programmes have proved to be very difficult to be integrated meaningfully into local plans and thus pose a threat to the process of decentralisation."

Women workers at the Pinarayi unit of the Dinesh Beedi Cooperative Society in Thalasseri block of Kannur district.-JOHN HARRISS

According to Vijayanand, it was only after much persuasion that the World Bank agreed recently to implement its Rs.350-crore drinking water scheme through the local bodies in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Palakkad and Thrissur districts of north and central Kerala.

The poor attendance at the gram sabhas and the quality of discussions were considered to be unsatisfactory aspects. Isaac said that although several nodal points had been created for ordinary people to intervene in the planning process, "the quality of participation of the people left considerable scope for improvement." The Isaac-Franke study points out that although around two million people participated in the gram sabhas in the first two years, the number accounted for only 10 per cent of the Kerala's voters.

One remedial measures suggested is that the support of the mass organisations of Kerala - whose total membership accounts for one-third of the State's population - be enlisted in development work. Isaac said in his concluding address at the academic seminar that if gram sabhas had adopted more for projects in the service sector, in activities like housing, providing drinking water supply or sanitary latrines, it was also because people were taking part in these institutions more as consumers and individuals, and not as representatives of any particular productive sector."

He noted that the emphasis on the service sector would have to continue for a while in order to sustain the political will and popular enthusiasm for greater decentralisation.

According to Franke and Chasin, the campaign has at least four major factors that will ensure its sustainability: 1. the massive training exercise undertaken for task force members, non-official experts, department officials, resource persons and many others engaged in the campaign; 2. the workshops conducted by the "beacon villages"; 3. the realisation of the Sen Committee recommendations through which much of what has been happening as a mass movement is to be replaced by regulations and procedures; and 4. environmental sustainability, for which the campaign has only made preliminary efforts, with major environmental issues - such as protecting the coastline and cleaning polluted rivers - yet to be taken up.

Isaac said the State Planning Board had organised the international seminar on a massive scale - there were 2,732 participants and 300 papers; 800 more people who took part in the discussions across 15 venues - as an exercise in consensus- building. "The consensus in the conference, the support we have received form the various States in India and the international community, has created a political environment in the State to pursue the path we have chosen. Now I do not think even the Opposition will ask, 'why are you continuing with the programme'?" he said.

The local body elections in Kerala are scheduled for September and the Assembly elections are due in a year. The newly-elected representatives will change mid-way through a crucial Five-Year Plan and before the newly-elected representatives can settle down elections to the Assembly will be held. "It is a danger as well as an opportunity," Isaac said. "Two elections in a year can create a lot of havoc. This is the danger, because we have to ensure that the baton is transferred from one group to another effectively. But the opportunity is that when they took up office, none of the elected representatives of today even dreamt that power and money would be devolved to them to the extent it was. Nor did they expect to shoulder such responsibilities. I am convinced there will be an improvement in the quality of these elected bodies. These bodies will attract much more committed and capable people. This would also be an important factor in sustaining the programme of decentralisation."

There is the temptation to say that Kerala has once again produced a "model". But doubts remain as to whether, without the other human development achievements and its tradition of mass mobilisation, the People's Campaign and Kerala's decentralisation policies can be replicated elsewhere without modifications. As one participant pointed out, "Surely, it was a big bang, but wasn't it after a lot of preparation?"

Olle Tornquist, Professor, Political Science and Development Research, University of Oslo, who is engaged in a study of democratisation experiments in Kerala, the Philippines and Indonesia, said: "Kerala really is a critical case. After all some of today's popular prescriptions have already been tested in that State, and under relatively advantageous conditions. So if such methods lead to problems in Kerala, the results are likely to be still worse elsewhere."

WITH Assembly elections due in a year, the recurrent question at the conference was: will the impressive achievements of the past four years be undermined by a new government? Congress-led governments in Kerala have a history of scuttling decentralisation processes initiated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the State.

Isaac said: "People have been mobilised to such an extent that it will be politically inconvenient for any government to reverse the process. Decentralisation attempts have failed earlier wherever it was sought to be implemented as an administrative measure. But again, if a new government does not have the political vision to resist pressures - as the present government has done - the campaign can be undermined."

From the day the decentralisation campaign was launched, there were doubts, even in the minds of the top functionaries of the Plan implementation programme, whether Ministers, MLAs and bureaucrats had the will and determination to give away the powers they had enjoyed thus far.

A few months ago, while speaking to Frontline on the progress of the campaign, Planning Board Vice-Chairman I.S. Gulati said: "I do not think there is much difference between politicians when it comes to giving away your own empires. However, even the most reluctant politician cannot say today that he is against decentralisation. When you pin him down by asking, 'What do you mean by decentralisation in practical terms? Will you give the necessary powers to the local bodies?', he cannot say 'I won't'."

Answering questions at the conference, Dr. Gulati said: "Can a new government change all this? The answer is: public opinion. If the people feel they want it, they will fight for it. The alternative is to incorporate in the Constitution that the powers, functions and finances devolved to the local bodies cannot be taken back. Otherwise, it can be undermined."

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