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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 12

Kerala People’s Plan Revisited

Monday 10 March 2008, by Gilbert Sebastian


Although the decentralised approach for governance and development had gained wide recognition in India even before independence, it was only as late as in 1992 that this approach got the much needed constitutional recognition with the enactment of the 73rd Constitution Amend-ment Act. In order to institutionalise participatory democracy and decentralised planning in the rural areas, Article 243G mandates that the panchayats should prepare plans for ‘economic development and social justice’ and Article 243-ZD endorses the strategy of spatial planning. It is equally important that the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12) has underscored the importance of the active involvement of the local community in local development.

Despite the wide acclaim the 73rd Amendment received in India and the high euphoria it generated, not many States have given adequate importance to decentralised governance and bottom-up initiatives. But the People’s Plan Campaign, which was launched in Kerala in 1996, was a path-breaking event and a prominent exception. It had attracted national and international attention. The Campaign was considered a historic initiative in formulating a methodology for decentralised planning with local people’s active participation. When more than a decade has passed since the launching of this experiment, the Institute of Social Sciences made a modest effort through a two-day conference to revisit the People’s Plan, critiquing the Kerala experience and highlighting its successes, strengths and weaknesses.

More than 300 local government experts, elected members, Presidents, practitioners from Kerala, various States of India and Bangladesh assembled in Thiruvananthapuram to learn from the experience of Kerala’s decentralised planning. All those who participated in the conference which was supported by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration and the UNDP were convinced at the end of the deliberations that an effective local level planning is the only answer to bring about social and economic development in the country.

Prof M.A. Oommen, Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, set the tone for the conference when he said that 14 years after the implementation of the 73rd Amendment for self-governing village panchayats, we in India have failed to advance the cause of local democracy to its logical consummation and it has to travel a long way to become ‘an inspiring journey into the future’, as the sub-title of the Sixth Administrative Reforms Commission Report reads.

In his introductory remarks at the conference, George Mathew, Director, Institute of Social Sciences, opined that the local governments and governance in the country require a new deal. It is a shame that District Planning Committees (DPCs) have not yet been constituted in nine States in the country. He held the view that we cannot have an island of ideal local planning in an ocean of confusion and contradictions. While the former is true of Kerala the latter describes the condition in the rest of the country. He mentioned that even in Kerala a number of issues and policies are negatively affecting true decentralisation.

V. Ramachandran, Member, Administrative Reforms Commission, Government of India, in his inaugural address, agreed that there is some confusion due to the entrenched position of certain institutions created during the earlier stage of decentralisation but was optimistic about the prospects of decentralised planning.

Abhijit Sen, Member, Planning Commission, in his keynote address, focused on planning as against decentralisation. He spoke of the change in the architecture of planning in recent years from sectoral to resource planning. This happens because of the competition for alternative use of resources which are in short supply. Local planning and local authority need to be located within this context. According to Abhijit Sen, Kerala needs to base itself on a vision of where it stands and where it should go, particularly in the unique high value addition crops in the agriculture sector.

The papers presented by scholars and experts from Kerala were positive about the 10 years’ achievements but outlined several ways to take those forward. Jacob Easow, Senior Town Planner, Government of Kerala, for instance, highlighted how to integrate sectoral priorities with spatial planning, based on his work experience of the pilot planning initiative in Kollam district where substantial resources were generated from local levels. There has been an attempt herein at blending people’s participation with technical interventions such as the Geographical Information System (GIS). There were, however, interventions by participants that merely spatial and sectoral planning is not enough and that planning is, in the first place, a political exercise and so there is a need to incorporate the social disparity dimensions of class, caste and gender and to highlight the necessity of achieving conflict resolution.

V. Santhakumar, Centre for Development Studies, focused on the need to achieve efficiency in the utilisation of funds provided from above. Even in panchayats which are less corrupt in the State-driven decentralisation process in Kerala, this aspect required urgent priority. Based on the experience of planning in Kasargode district he indicated the need for incentive mechanisms to encourage saving, spatial prioritisation of projects and clients as well as simplified guidelines.

Joy Elamon and Nirmala Sanu George, based on their experience of working with 71 panchayats across Kerala in the Swiss-funded programme, Capacity Development for Decentralisation in Kerala (CapDeck), stated that mainstreaming gender and empowering marginalised groups towards strengthening Panchayati Raj worked best through Women’s Vigilance Committees (Jagratha Samithies), neighbourhood groups and community based organizations over the Gram Sabhas because of low participation in the latter.

C.P. Narayanan, Member, Kerala State Planning Board, confessed that the People’s Plan Campaign efforts initially were to secure immediate gains with the constraints of the system without giving the goal of long-term social transformation. Kerala was more successful in giving representation to the downtrodden sections but lagged behind in gender sensitivity. In the later stage of the PPC, the middle classes and those above them withdrew from the planning process because they felt they have not been beneficiaries of the distributional gains. Our panchayats do not suffer from lack of funds. The total devolution in Kerala last year was Rs 1400 crores and up to Rs 1540 crores this year. Every year, 10 per cent increase in allocation has been visualised. It must be sustained in spite of the change in governments.

S.M. Vijayanand, Principal Secretary, Department of Local Self-Government of Kerala, opined that ‘Kerala was a pioneer in big-bang decentralisation’, a path-breaker in methodology and as a result the quantum of corruption has come down to the tune of 10 per cent at the panchayat level vis-à-vis the PWD construction costs. There are also concerns that those who control the means of production do not participate in the process, the problem of integration between the administrative and popular wings, unimpressive performance of industry and agriculture, trivialisation of policy measures, the problem of equal distribution of funds posing logistical problems, etc. In his view, Kerala’s decentralisation would survive because there is a willingness to accept criticisms; the initiative has been criticised from conflicting angles and the mistakes are being rectified despite the herrings of various hues that are raised.

FOR Paloli Muhammed Kutty, Minister for Local-Self-Government, People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) had become synonymous with decentralisation in the State. Now the government hopes to enhance the productive sectors through the decentralisation initiative under the Eleventh Five Year Plan. When the PPC began 10 years back, one crore rupees granted from the government yielded an output of 1.2 crore rupees. It is more important now to look at those areas where there is a lack of initiative. In the interim period since people’s participation in the Gram Sabhas has got confined to the beneficiaries alone, this wrong trend needs to be corrected soon.

According to Thomas Isaac, the Finance Minister of Kerala, it is difficult to re-enact the enthusiasm of the PPC once again and so novel methods need to be designed to ensure greater popular participation. Unlike in 1997, there is a political attack from Right reaction and Left sectarianism against the initiative today. He argued for a national campaign for major devolution of funds from the Centre to the local governments as part of the Central Finance Commission and towards a fundamental restructuring of Centre-State financial relations. In this dire financial situation, the State may look for external funding but without ‘the advices’ from the funding agencies.

Many speakers from outside Kerala deplored the state of affairs in their respective States.

S.S. Meenakshisundaram, Deputy Chairman, Karnataka State Planning Board, outlined how Karnataka, a pioneer in panchayati raj as the first State to abolish DRDA and give representation to women 20 years back, has slided down the ladder today. The beauty is that Kerala was the last State to join the new panchayati raj system but has made it to the top. Meenakshisundaram wanted Kerala to come up with replicable learnings in this respect. He lamented that all over the country there is lacunae with respect to social auditing, sectoral integration in planning, integration of short-term and long-term visions as well as national and local priorities at the higher and lower levels.

Ram Lubhaya, Principal Secretary, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, Rajasthan, in the same vein confessed the state of affairs in his own State. In 2005-06, the rules for decentralisation were framed in a hurried manner in Rajasthan following pressure from the Planning Commission. Attendance in Gram Sabhas is lower than five per cent. One crucial difference between Kerala and Rajasthan is that while there is 40 per cent untied funds for Panchayats in Kerala, there is 98 per cent tied funds in Rajasthan. While Kerala is 10 years ahead in social development, Rajasthan was 40 years behind, owing to its feudal background.

Sukhbilas Barma, Chairman, Third Financial Commission in West Bengal, joined the speakers from Karnataka and Rajasthan when he narrated the present state of affairs in his State. Although West Bengal was a pioneer in decentralisation prior to the 73rd Amendment and panchayats played an active role in providing relief in the 1978 flood and implementing land reforms, the situation is different now. For instance, the First and Second Finance Commissions of the State envisaged hardly any devolution to the panchayats. In the prevailing conditions today, with merely Rs 8-10 per capita allocated to the local bodies, it is difficult for the panchayats to engage in Plan preparation.

A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, Chairman, Committee to Revitalise and Strengthen Local Government in Bangladesh, spoke of the desirability of resource mobilisation by the local governments along with matching grants from above. He felt it is dangerous to view the LGI as an end in itself.

Meenakshi Hooja, Principal Secretary to the Governor of Rajasthan, presented a normative account of how panchayati raj institutions should function and advocated the importance of judicial functions being handed over to the panchayats through nyaya panchayats towards achieving conflict resolution. She felt that resources would not pose a problem at the local levels if Public-Private-Partership (PPP) is resorted to and non-resident investors are roped in.

Sushma Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, wanted Kerala to showcase its E-enabled/IT-empowered panchayats to the country and be a path-breaker in Rural Business Hubs through a four-P mode: Private-Public-Panchayat-Partnership.

The five thematic sessions on (1) Methodology of Decentralised Planning, (2) District Planning Committees and District Planning Experiences, (3) GIS as a Tool of Local Planning/Sectoral versus Spatial Planning, (4) Gender Component in Local Planning: Experience and Lessons from Kerala and Other States, and (5) Democratic Decentralisation: Planning Experiences from States, had well researched 60 papers from social scientists, planners, innovative NGOs and administrators.

The message of the two-day discourse was that the achievements of the Kerala decentralised planning over the decade in making development sensitive to the needs of the people have been real. Kerala, however, needs to traverse a very long and arduous path. Apart from its gains in ensuring representation to women and other disadvantaged groups, from a normative angle the Kerala initiative in decentralisation has been rather economistic. It has to create space for the political unfolding of social contradictions. For instance, Kerala has not been able to focus on other aspects of devolution, such as empowering the LSGs with human rights functions and judicial functions in Nayaya Panchayats. Moreover, democracy in the true sense needs to transcend beyond a well-demarcated local level to encompass the whole system through horizontal linkages. Suspicions on decentralisation were raised on legitimate grounds as to whether it is complementing the project of neo-liberal globalisation since the latter has proceeded apace with commendable decentralisation initiatives. And yet, a pro-people outcome cannot be expected from a dismissive approach that considers the panchayats as merely the local wings of a regressive state, if we take the cue from the Kerala experience. Rather, devolution of power to the panchayats may be considered as achievements in incremental changes resulting from popular struggles. Whether the panchayats are going to become sites for own resource mobilisation that would lighten the fiscal burden of the neo-liberal state and vehicles for advancing private accumulation under a global dependency framework or whether they are going to become sites where the people would empower themselves against entrenched interests is a question that could only be settled in the days ahead. The deliberations of this conference did cast some light on the direction of this change.

Gilbert Sebastian was associated with the Institute of Social Sciences in organising the conference on ‘Kerala People’s Plan Revisited’ held on December 14-15, 2007 at Thiruvananthapuram.

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