'A new development culture is coming up'

Print edition : June 24, 2000

As the member in charge of decentralisation in the Kerala Planning Board, Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has been closely involved in both designing and implementing the People's Planning Campaign in the State. He was also instrumental in organising the re cent International Conference on Demo-cratic Decentralisation in Thiruvan-anthapuram. An Associate Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Thomas Isaac discusses in this interview to Parvathi Menon the features of the dec entralisation experiment, its achievements and future. Excerpts:

Why did you feel it necessary to hold this international conference? What has been the feedback from the participants?

The People's Campaign is entering an important phase. We have begun institutionalising new structures, laws are being changed, staff redeployed and new rules framed. After four years of the campaign, we are confident that a critical minimum of efficient and replicable models have emerged. This is a stocktaking experience with elected representatives and also an occasion for sharing experiences with other States. More than 200 experience-based papers by local participants have been printed in nine volume s. The best of our campaign activists have come together and we have a sense of quiet confidence that we are on the right path.

What was the starting point of the People's Campaign?

I would say it was the decision taken in principle by the Left movement to devolve 40 per cent of the Plan funds to local bodies. Each time the Left parties decided to bring in such a law, they were ousted from office. In Kerala land reforms were complet ed in 1971 but we failed historically to link decentralisation with it. This is unlike in West Bengal, where panchayats were an important instrument for the completion of land reforms. Having missed the historical opportunity to link land reform with dec entralisation, the People's Campaign was visualised as a mass movement to create pressure from below as an instrument for decentralisation.

What are the distinctive features of the decentralisation programme?

Planning is not merely a technical process here but also an instrument for social mobilisation. Such mobilisation creates a certain political will within the government to persist with devolution. The popular movement prevents the government from backtra cking on its promise of 40 per cent devolution. Second, successful decentralisation requires a democratic culture and style of functioning. It cannot be created through government orders. It creates a new democratic civic culture with emphasis on partici pation and transparency. Third, the campaign puts pressure on the government to institutionalise new values and styles of functioning. And finally, the campaign empowers local bodies to prepare comprehensive area plans. Plan funds are released for duly a pproved plans prepared by local bodies, following the procedures laid down.

S. GOPAKUMAR

What, briefly, have been the achievements of the People's Campaign?

Despite financial constraints, the Government of Kerala has kept its promise of devolving 35 to 40 per cent of Plan funds to local bodies. Besides this, they also get funds from Centrally sponsored and State-sponsored schemes. The Government has provided institutional guarantees to financial institutions for financing housing programmes and other infrastructural activities. Secondly, the local bodies have just completed the preparation of the fourth annual plan and it has been a process of learning by d oing. The People's Campaign has proved to be the largest non-formal educational campaign in the country. Another notable achievement has been the attitudinal changes that have taken place, even across regions. Patron-client relationships in the selection of beneficiaries have been dismantled. At the grassroots level there is also greater cooperation between political parties. Apathy among the people is giving way to a spirit of participation, criticism and questioning.

In respect of physical achievements, the most remarkable one has been in the area of housing. Local bodies have together built 2.14 lakh houses in just three years. Of these, 48,000 are for the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.). Com pare this with the Eighth Plan, during which in the first three years the total number of houses constructed for the S.C. and S.T. population was just 6,000. If this pace is kept up, by the end of next year not a single Dalit household in Kerala will be without shelter.

The other appreciable achievement has been in the drinking water sector. Earlier, government funds were spent on large-scale piped drinking water projects. After people's planning, drinking water projects are based on a variety of techniques, such as rai n-water harvesting. It should be possible for Kerala to solve the drinking water problem in three-fourths of its villages in the coming four or five years.

Which are the sections that the People's Campaign and decentralisation have really empowered?

Our assessment is that the key actors in this process have been elected representatives, officials, technical experts and volunteers. There is a visible improvement in the capacity of all those participants. The most visible change has been in the women elected representatives. Our assessment is that women have been more responsive to the ideals of the campaign. Therefore, in the last two years, the campaign has been paying special attention to using the agency of women elected representatives to improv e the planning process. The Kerala experience shows that 33 per cent (reservation) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for women's empowerment. This has to be accompanied by a continuous capacity-building programme and an enabling environment wit hin the panchayats themselves. Special attention has been paid in the campaign to evolving procedures for greater participation of women. Ten per cent of the devolved funds are earmarked for the special women component plan. We are also promoting women's self-help groups as a basic organisational form for the implementation of women's projects. They do not function as micro-credit units alone. A very lasting impact of the campaign is going to emerge from the new ferment of women at the grassroots level.

What has been the relationship between mass organisations and the decentralisation process?

One important feature of Kerala is the existence of powerful mass organisations, which cover one-third of its population. The expectation was that these would reorient themselves so that they would actively intervene in the grassroots-level planning proc ess in pursuit of their interests. They are increasingly getting involved with the campaign. The sustainability of this relationship would depend upon how fully they imbibe the ideas of the campaign and place decentralisation on the main agenda.

There have been accusations from some of the Opposition parties that devolution has decentralised corruption. Has corruption been an issue in the decentralisation experience?

I believe that a major achievement of the campaign has been in reducing corruption. Of course, corruption is still there at the local level also, but the level of leakage is much smaller than what would have occurred if money had been spent through the b ureaucratic mechanism. It has been, to a large extent, possible to eliminate nepotism in beneficiary selection and also corruption in administration and technical sanctioning procedures. Technical sanctions are given by a committee of officials and non-o fficials. There has not been a single instance of allegation of corruption despite the many controversies surrounding technical sanction procedures. One source of corruption has been fake committees of beneficiaries to implement public works. Our assessm ent is that the leakage through fake committees has been made good by additional resource mobilisation by genuine committees. There is no doubt that on the whole the leakage of funds has been reduced.

What do you see as the political significance of the experience of decentralisation in Kerala?

The People's Campaign is in a sense undermining the compartmentalisation of the people of Kerala into two fronts. It has started a process by which people at the local levels have started cooperating in matters of development. This process, if sustained, would have long-term implications for the nature of Kerala politics. The campaign has also made gram sabhas more effective and created new organisational forms such as neighbourhood committees where people can directly participate in government. I can s ay that the basis for a new development culture is being laid.

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