Towards decentralisation

Interview with Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister of Kerala, on the State government’s bid to launch a “People’s Campaign” for the implementation of the State’s 13th Five Year Plan.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister, Kerala.

Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister, Kerala.

EVER since a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala launched a “People’s Campaign” in August 1996 with “democratic decentralisation” as its main objective, the evolution and results of the programme have been observed keenly as it was seen as a trial of an idea venerated in the Constitution and a lesson for States eager to promote local self-government.

Today, there is no other State in India where the virtues of democratic decentralisation are so evident as in Kerala, especially as a result of the People’s Campaign of 1996 for the implementation of the State’s Ninth Five Year Plan.

As Frontline had reported earlier in detail (issues dated August 15, 2003, and December 31, 2004), the campaign encountered a lot of difficulties and the programme was soon engulfed by political storms. Once the LDF government went out of office, it lost steam. Yet, 20 years later, many of its noteworthy achievements remain intact even though people were increasingly sidelined, and governance by the people, the key idea of democratic decentralisation, went out of fashion. By many estimates, today, only about 20 per cent of the local bodies in Kerala continue to perform well by utilising the enormous resources, power and staff that have continued to be at their disposal.

The new LDF government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has just launched another “People’s Campaign”, for the implementation of the State’s 13th Five Year Plan, with the objective of creating a new Kerala and has formed several State-level missions (to address the development needs of the State in areas such as education, health, drinking water and sanitation, conservation of water resources, and total housing). One of the first announcements made by the government after coming to power in May 2016 was that Kerala would continue with the five-year planning process and retain the State Planning Board even though the Central government had decided to do away with Five Year Plans and the Planning Commission.

In this interview to Frontline , State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, an economist and scholar who has played a key role in the democratic decentralisation experiments in the State, reviews Kerala’s achievements in decentralised governance and the hurdles in the way of sustaining them. He also puts the second “People’s Campaign” of the State government in perspective and explains its importance to the creation of a new Kerala and a new democratic culture in India. Excerpts from the interview:

The decentralisation experiments in Kerala have generated a lot of interest within and outside India. The People’s Campaign launched in 1996 by the LDF government was a landmark event. The State has once again initiated a “People’s Campaign” to implement its 13th Five Year Plan with the declared objective of creating a “new Kerala”. Is it going to be a different type of campaign or experiment altogether?

The focus of the 1996 campaign, with its slogan “Power to the People”, was on the formulation of the Ninth Five Year Plan (and creation of awareness about the devolution of powers, funds and functionaries to the local bodies), the mobilisation of people for it and the informal education (of all stakeholders) about the planning process. What was lacking was [a focus also on] implementation [of development projects]. We are now going to focus on implementation. We have chosen certain specific areas such as improvement of quality of school education, primary health care, total housing, sanitation, organic cultivation, and conservation of water resources. Around these themes we have also established State-level missions, which will support local governments. Missions would mean there would be closer monitoring and it would also imply that there is greater integration of State departmental programmes with that of local governments. So there would be targets and achievements that can be monitored in this new phase. But ultimately the objective would be to create a new enthusiasm and furore so that you move to a higher level of quality of governance.

The achievements of the previous democratic decentralisation campaign have been tremendous. But there were factors that hampered it, and drawbacks and deficiencies too.

The essential task of the previous planning process was that we make a big break with the past—a big bang, so to say—which would create a lot of enthusiasm and social mobilisation which would allow us to change certain styles of functioning that were prevalent. The styles of functioning in governance cannot be changed through government orders. You need the creativity of a movement. So the first phase of the People’s Campaign sought a big bang, a big break with the past by devolving 35 per cent of the Plan funds down to the panchayat bodies, ensuring functional autonomy for local governments, clearly laying down transparent ways of decision-making, and ensuring unparalleled popular participation and transparency.

But the major problem was that the movement was put to an end before these achievements could be institutionalised [see “Derailing decentralisation”, Frontline , December 31, 2004]. So much so even today we do not have statutes that fully reflect the changes that have come about. And in many respects there has been a slide back. Nevertheless, the major achievements have persisted—like no government would ever like to touch or tamper with devolution. Take Karnataka, for example. The Janata government made several changes and nothing remains of them now. But in Kerala nobody would dare do that.

Two, the planning process which allowed the space for participation, inclusiveness, objective thinking, transparency, that have by and large survived the last two decades so that if a panchayat wants to perform well, they have the democratic space to do it. There are about 200-odd panchayats in Kerala that are performing wonderfully and of which anybody can be proud. Our expectation was that once you have these kinds of stellar performances by some panchayats, it would also prompt others to emulate them. But that did not fully take place. It is now a kind of a stalemate where you have about 200 panchayats that perform very well, and even then they waver sometimes. So the new phase of popular mobilisation may throw up yet another crop of panchayats and maybe we will be able to move to a critical mass which will make a big change.

Definitely, the second phase would address many of the pitfalls of the past, with regard to, for example, lack of popular participation in the grama sabhas. Now that we have Kudumbashree [women-oriented community-based organisations for poverty alleviation], it would be very well utilised to ensure greater consistency in participation. Two, bringing in transparency in social audit so that corruption and other ills are curtailed; and three, implementation of projects, which was defective even in the first phase. So now with a little bit of prompting and monitoring by the missions, the mission mode will give an added thrust to implementation. That is what is expected.


Is not there a concern that such State-level missions will lead to centralisation rather than decentralisation? What exactly will be the role of these missions?

There has been such a suspicion that the missions would create a hurdle to decentralisation. But sufficient care has been taken. There is no mission machinery that runs parallel [to local bodies]. The missions would be setting up State-level targets, say, providing certain major plans that would offer a fillip to local-level interventions. An instance is the issue of quality of school education. It cannot be ensured through State-level interventions; it can only be achieved through local-level participation. Such participation is the answer to privatisation in Kerala. But such a programme also requires major investment, say, for the digitalisation of all school classrooms in Kerala. It costs something like Rs.1,000 crore a year. But it is not just placing computers in the classroom. There has to be a local plan, even an institutional plan, of how teachers would train themselves to utilise this facility; the kind of software that is to be used; the security arrangements in classrooms; how this can be used as a peg to hang a whole lot of academic reforms—because having computers in every classroom is a big break in schools.

This is now made possible because there is popular enthusiasm for it. So really we look forward to multilevel planning being integrated. Earlier, during the first campaign, we all believed there should be a total break [with the State machinery], that there should be no connection with State departments… because at that time a major fight and struggle was going on against departmentalism. Departments wanted to regain their territory and there was major antagonism. Therefore we did not even send the projects of the local governments to the departments. We had a volunteer technical core which was examining and passing these projects. We did not even allow activity overlap between departments and local bodies. Because even in the guise of integration, it would have meant the departments would start ruling the local governments. Now that is past. Twenty years have passed; the local government’s money is their own and they have complete freedom to decide what they want to do.

So do you mean departmentalism, or the problem of the bureaucracy wanting to control it all, is no longer there?

Not to the extent as it was in the past. Departments have accepted that this is a matter of fact. Local-level implementation is by local governments for these missions. So whatever the Education Department is planning will have to be integrated with local planning. Similarly, health care: at the State level some Rs.3,000 crore to Rs.4,000 crore is going to be invested in five years’ time to provide the best tertiary care for people. We do not have to go to these superspeciality private places. All public hospitals will have every facility you can think of. It is a huge investment that is going to come. But if (its benefits) are to be sustained, then morbidity should be brought down. Today people do not die because they (have access) to hospitals, but they are sick (and if the prevalence of diseases in Kerala society continues to be high), then this “free” (subsidised) tertiary care sector cannot be sustained. Therefore, complementary to the investment that is taking place at the State level, you have this people’s health monitoring system at the Public Health Centres [PHCs], which is part of urban planning: and the Health Mission would help them. Palliative and protective measures will also be taken care of entirely by the Plan. But investment in infrastructure and the technical norms for I.T.-enabled health facilities, etc., will be taken care of by the mission.

So these fears of local governments being swallowed by missions are unfounded. They forget that 20 years have passed and that paradigm has changed. You cannot stick on to that paradigm; you have to move forward.


The participation of people in grama sabhas has waned. People seem to have lost interest in them. In most places attendance is fudged, or somehow managed. Would it then be correct to say that despite the institutional and statutory arrangements, real decentralised planning or decision-making by people never became a reality in Kerala?

The problem with grama sabhas in Kerala is that educated people do not come there. That means the quality of deliberations in grama sabhas is very low. How to overcome this is a very ticklish problem. Now, in addition to the issue of quality of deliberations, participation of people in grama sabhas too has come down. Even during the early stages, we were thinking about how to address this problem. We thought the Kudumbashree neighbourhood groups could discuss the agenda in advance and come prepared after their own deliberations—so that the quality of discussions would not suffer much and give space for even the middle class to come in. The solution to improve quality, we thought, was to have pre-grama sabha discussions at various levels. Well, it has not developed that way very much. Particularly, there has been a setback in the last five years in the direction in which it was evolving. Now we have to overcome that.

Was it not the crux of the decentralisation experiment that people from all sections of society come together at grama sabhas and discuss and decide the priority of local development? Now that it has not succeeded, do you think this is as far as any State can go as far as decentralisation is concerned? Is there a way forward?

There is another design mode. See, people have different capabilities. So grama sabhas alone cannot be the medium of participation. You need to have other things—and that is there in the design of People’s Planning—you have got technical committees, working groups, beneficiary committees. A plethora of organisations have mushroomed and each of them provides space for people with different capabilities. Of course, grama sabhas are the basic units in the constitutional framework, but you can go beyond the constitutional provision, which is only an enabling provision. So this is what is important: it is not just grama sabhas, we need a whole lot of platforms for participation of different categories of people.

The first People’s Plan campaign was marred by a huge political controversy over the presence of the core of voluntary resource persons in each local body. Are such committees still meant to operate in the new Plan campaign too? Are the concerns surrounding them still there?

The committees as such are a thing of the past. But why were the committees there in the first place? You had a situation of a new Plan campaign, when for the first time all the local governments in Kerala together were generating some 200,000-odd development projects, and somebody had to read them. Suppose that you gave these projects for review by the State government departments, then that would have been the end of it all.

So we had a committee of experts formed at each local level to look into the technical and financial details of these projects and see if they are in accordance with the guidelines and make recommendations to the district planning committees, which would go through their recommendations and had the ultimate right to decide. That was the idea. The voluntary experts did not have any right to make decisions, but only to make recommendations. But it became a political controversy as they were portrayed as institutions above the local governments, which they were not. The controversy was politically motivated to create a kind of confusion—because there were many people who were uneasy with the local governments and so they picked up this straw.

It was a very bad experience, because so many thousands of experts were willing to volunteer and work for the success of the decentralisation campaign, but you were denying them that right and driving them all away. Now, we will have a panel of accredited resource persons, technical people who meet certain qualifications and from among whom the local governments can choose. But they will not be the agents who give technical sanction to the projects; that will be the job of government engineers and other personnel and they will take responsibility for it.

You were talking about the need for different sections of people with different capabilities being involved through various platforms in decision-making at the local level and not just grama sabhas. But in such a scheme of things, ultimately whose will is meant to prevail, who is supposed to make the decisions, because the ideal of decentralisation is supposedly the empowerment of the ordinary people?

This is the controversial part. Grama sabha in Kerala is not the final decision-maker. Even in the Constitution it is not so. Grama sabha is a forum for people to express their opinion and priorities. And it is followed by a due process of consultation at a higher level so that it becomes difficult for a local government, that is, the elected representatives, to brush them aside, or ignore the wishes of the people.

So, you are trying to create such a process to give the ultimate decision to the elected people—because in Kerala, grama sabhas are held in every ward of a local body. So which grama sabha’s decision should be made binding on the local bodies? This is unlike the situation in States where there are hamlets and all members of a hamlet can vote at the grama sabha. In Kerala, that is not practical. So we have tried to design a due process of consultation at various levels based on the grama sabha recommendations. The elected representatives can then decide on the priority of projects, but they will have to state the reason for it in the Plan document. The Plan document is to be a document which states the rationale for the final selection. So nobody can arbitrarily take such decisions. That was how we had visualised it and that will continue in the same manner.

You mentioned that there were at least 200-odd panchayats in Kerala that were doing very well. Have you found out what makes them tick while others lag behind? After each local body election every five years, is it the same 200-odd panchayats that have continued to do well?

I would say in every panchayat in Kerala, at the local level, there is this democratic space. But what this democratic space is used for will depend primarily on the nature of the elected representatives, the presence of live citizens’ groups or volunteers who are willing to intervene and fight for it, and the sensitiveness of the bureaucracy. All these factors have to come together. But elected representatives can decide that MLAs and MPs are their role models, that they are an exalted group which, once elected, does not have to interact with the people. But you are trying to design a different system at the local level here. It means that such attitudes will have to change, that elected representatives have to seek the help of people and the experts, give them space and acknowledge their capabilities.

One problem with this is when five years pass, unless there is such a big tradition that has been established, that whole model can collapse. That is why many panchayats that did fantastic work do not survive today, primarily because of the changes in the elected representatives. So, that is one big “if”. Secondly, will the citizens’ groups and volunteers decide to intervene and fight? And will they have the tenacity to go on fighting? Some people may give up easily. Then there is the bureaucracy. So there are a lot of “ifs” in the success of decentralisation. But you have raised an important point, continuity of a local administration or elected representative—that is not guaranteed.

Many successful representatives have failed to get re-elected.

In the first People’s Campaign, there was a dearth of people who wanted to contest, particularly, women, who often had to be forced to contest. Now that has changed. Everybody recognises that you are a local power; so much power is there at the local level, and work, there is huge workload too. Yet it is true very good representatives do not get representation again. It is true particularly in the case of women [in a State where 50 per cent of the seats are reserved for them on the basis of a system of rotation of seats]. Seats reserved for women change every five years; while men easily go and contest from another ward, women merely get dropped.


Kerala has decided to launch the second people’s campaign for the 13th Plan at a time when the Central government has decided to do away with Five Year Plans altogether.

I do not think the Centre still knows what it wants to do. For instance, they called for the convening of (special) grama sabhas [by district administrations across India to find out top development priorities of every grama panchayat in order to formulate a “united vision of development” for the country]. I do not think the guys who ordered it have ever participated in a grama sabha. It needs so much preparation, particularly if you want to discuss something specific, certain modalities of discussion have to be laid down, publicity given, and so on. It cannot be done in a hurry.

Moreover, even if they convene the grama sabhas, how are they going to prioritise what the people in all the grama sabhas have to say? So apparently it is a farce. You ignore the local government and then you want to go beyond them to the grama sabhas—it is a denial of decentralisation, a mockery of the principles of decentralisation. It is a very sad state of affairs because the Planning Commission, which was initially lukewarm to the idea, was finally moving towards democratic decentralisation. A lot of serious thought was going on at the national level but the BJP government has totally liquidated it….

So I do not think there is any hope in what NITI Aayog is doing and they are mostly insensitive to local-level planning.

But how will it all impact Kerala, a State which wants to continue with the Five Year Plan exercise? Will such a State face difficulties because of it?

Earlier, we would get support from the Centre for the Plan as such. Now the BJP government has scuttled it. We do not know what or how much we are going to get. Earlier, allocation from the Centre was based on rational discussions with the Planning Commission. Now it will depend on the fancies of the Union Finance Minister. It has given such arbitrariness to the decision-making process of the Centre. I agree that there are a lot of countries where there is no distinction between Plan and non-Plan [government expenditure]. But we had perfected a system which I think was fairly good. The only rational criticism against the planning process I have heard is that because of the focus on the Plan, the non-Plan component was neglected. But if you take the allocation, Plan size relative to the Budget has not been going up; if at all, it has been coming down. There was no danger of the Plan squeezing out non-Plan expenditure. What we had was a rational, federal way of debating our priorities, looking at the backward-forward linkages and deciding socially optimal use of the resources. Now the whole power is vested with, not NITI Aayog, but the Union Finance Minister. So Kerala will persist with the old way. We have the freedom to do that.

What problems do you expect because of this decision to go against the national trend?

Nothing; only that, we do not look forward for support to our schemes from the Centre. It shouldn’t matter. Whatever autonomy we have, we will exercise it.

Do you mean that Kerala can find its own resources?

Not very much. But within our given resources, we will use our autonomy through a consultative, regenerative process to reach decisions as to what good projects should be started. See, suppose there is no Plan, then me, the Finance Minister, decides what to do with the money, what are the schemes, and so on. No. We will continue with the Plan process. We have a very powerful mechanism, the State Planning Board, and there are well-laid-out procedures…. Unfortunately, even States where the Congress is ruling are not enthusiastic about it. As far as I know, Kerala is the only State that has decided to stick with planning.

In 1996, when the LDF government launched the People’s Campaign, it had generated a lot of excitement and interest within the State. But 20 years later, even after its inauguration on January 21, the second phase of the People’s Campaign seems to have got only a subdued response. Even the opposition parties seem to have largely ignored it.

It is true that there is a lower degree of popular enthusiasm. When we first launched it, it roused people’s imagination and it was such an audacious statement to make that we are going to give 35 per cent of the Plan funds to local governments without any strings attached. So it roused the people. Now there is not that kind of enthusiasm. But it will come. I tell you the kind of enthusiasm that is generated by the digitalisation programme in public schools (pilot projects have been taken up in my constituency) is amazing. So is the public response to what we have started doing in the health sector, to re-energise public hospitals. The first campaign marked a big break with the past, but now there is not that kind of a big movement. But it will slowly pick up.

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