Kerala’s economic democracy

Local Democracy and Development: People's campaign for decentralised planning in Kerala

by T. M. Thomas Isaac with Richard Franke; Leftword Books, August 2000, New Delhi; ISBN 81 87496 11 8; hardback; pp 359; INR 400

For those who have even a passing acquaintance with the movement for decentralised planning
in Kerala, the relative absence of mainstream media discussion on it has been a source of surprise. It is true that progressive mass move-ments or social tendencies tend to get very little space in media that are increasingly oriented towards sensationalism and quick sound-byte reaction. But this neglect by the media, and the consequent lack of greater public awareness about the Kerala plan, is of immense concern because this is surely one of the most significant democratic social experi-ments of our times. It is also an ongoing process which could serve as a source of both inspiration and optimism in these rather dark times; for this reason alone it deserves wider recognition.

Local Democracy and Development is a mid-stream account of the Kerala people's campaign for decentralised planning, co-authored by one (T.M. Thomas Isaac) who has been closely involved with the movement since its inception. It is a remarkable exercise: a combination of objective appraisal, personal involvement and honest self-criticism. And because the process it describes is at once complex and still unfolding, the book touches on practically all the issues of direct interest to those concerned with both the theory and the practice of economic democracy.

Decentralisation of one variety or another is of course the flavour of the times, and has become the chosen buzzword not only for governments North and South, but also for donor agencies and inter-national financial institutions. It is therefore important to distinguish Kerala's attempt at genuine parti-cipatory economic planning from the more top-down approaches of the World Bank and, indeed, of governments which are on the offensive to downsize the state apparatus and transfer its activities to a range of ngo's and private organisations not directly accountable to the people. By contrast, far from a reduction of state economic activities, in Kerala the movement is oriented towards greater public participation in state expenditures and in the design and implementation of public planning. The stress is on both more public involvement and greater accountability.

Democratic decentralisation
It is interesting that the attempts at decentralisation of public economic decision-making in India, have mostly been associated with Left Front governments in West Bengal and Kerala, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a party known to emphasise democratic centralism. Isaac and Franke point out that there is no real contradiction here, since a party organised on the principle of democratic centralism, which imposes a degree of discipline and allows for greater power to the leadership, can still believe in democratic decentra-lisation as a principle of governance and in planning as an instrument of social mobilisation.

It has been recognised in India for some time now that some degree of decentralisation of political and economic authority is absolutely necessary, and there have been legal and constitutional changes which are supposed to further this objective. However, the authors argue that this is not enough, and that there can be no effective decentralisation without a major social mobilisation of the kind that actually ensures the involvement of or-dinary people. They also reiterate two important principles first brought forward by EMS Namboo-diripad, the doyen of Indian communism who died in 1998, which go beyond the official Indian government position on the matter: first, that developmental and regulatory functions should not be distinguished; and second, that full-fledged democratic decentralisation requires not only devolution down to 'panchayat' level but also a radical restructuring of Centre-state relations.

There have been state govern-ments that have emphasised "pan-chayati raj" and conducted local body elections. But in the absence of any real fiscal and economic devolution, the attempt at decen-tralisation has remained relatively ineffective. The crucial difference in the Kerala experiment was the decision to devolve 35-to-40 percent of the State's plan funds directly to the local bodies, to be allocated according to local plans drawn up by local people. This has given real teeth to the process of decentralisation, and has made the social mobilisation that accompanied it that much more meaningful.

The authors provide a useful summary of earlier micro-experi-ments in social mobilisation and transformation in Kerala, which, in their view, made the people's campaign possible. But the bulk of the book, and by far the most instructive and fascinating part of it, is the account of the actual process so far and its various phases, struggles, failures and successes. This is a movement with a very self-aware and constantly self-critical leadership, which recognises the limitations and challenges, and does not seem to leave much room for self-congratulation or complacency.

While prior conditions are important, they are not all-determining. An important point made by the authors, is that it does not serve much purpose to put too much emphasis on appropriate initial conditions, such as local absorptive capacity and the ability of the people to engage in genuine participation, before actually getting into fiscal and economic devolution. This can only serve to delay indefinitely the process of decentralisation and popular involvement. Instead, Isaac and Franke advocate a more pragmatic approach, whereby the initiation of decentralised planning itself is a catalyst for the emergence of necessary conditions for its success, and where the involvement of people itself becomes a means for empowering them and giving them the capabilities to prepare and implement their own local plans.

Nevertheless, it must be stated that Kerala did have certain special conditions which made it especially suited to this type of social mobilisation: a high rate of literacy, a high level of political consciousness, the past land reforms, as well as other social and cultural features. The book also discusses the strengths and limitations of the much-talked-about Kerala Model. This model, which consciously delinked economic growth from social and human development, promoted phenomenal advances in social indicators like literacy, health care, education, life expectancy, birth rate and so on despite a low per capita income, low employment growth and indifferent economic performance. They suggest that the movement for decentralised planning could also be seen as a response to limited growth within the Kerala Model, and as an attempt to improve the economic growth trajectory, while retaining all the positive features of social development.

The current social mobilisation associated with the people's plan has its roots in earlier efforts, such as the People's Science Movement in Kerala (KSSP) and the Total Literacy Movement. But it formally began with a focus on the vitalisation of the gram sabha (village assembly) as an instrument of participatory local government. It was only to be expected that the success
of these would vary across panchayats, but what is important, as the authors note, is that these gram sabhas have become part of the political landscape in the South Indian state. Gram sabhas were important to identify local needs and to give basic direction to the subsequent plan formulation. They were also vital at a later stage for the identification of beneficiaries. In the second phase, development seminars and preparation of development reports were undertaken to develop medium-term perspectives for development, based on local understanding and experience, but with the assistance of some resource persons.

Already by this stage, the difference between the northern districts where the campaign was surging ahead, and the southern districts were it was lagging, was manifest. This discrepancy became even more acute in the third crucial phase, which was also the one most riddled with problems—in which task forces were to prepare the actual projects. This phase was characterised by delays, incomplete delivery and inadequate integration with the overall plan in some districts, especially in the south, while it was much more successful in some others.

The authors' candid assessment of this phase suggests that there has been much learning from the experience at all levels. They point out that despite the difficulties, there have been considerable methodological and practical successes in terms of actual plan formulation at the local level in the fifth phase, during which the elected bodies played an important role. Of course, there still remains the problem of institutionalising the decentralised planning process, especially in terms of the effective integration of the government machinery, the bureaucracy (which ofcourse would have major pockets of resistance) and the legislature, into the process.

The entire plan is over three years old, and it is certainly too early to make definitive judgements about it. Also, as the authors recognise, new challenges are likely to emerge along the way. Apart from some of the problems already mentioned, there are inadequacies in the 'gender component' of the process, and in the participation of 'weaker sections'. But there are also some unambiguous successes of this movement, quite distinct from the tangible achievements in the social and infrastructure sectors. For one, there is definitely greater transparency and therefore less potential for corruption in government spending and allocation patterns, while the nepotism in beneficiary selection has been reduced, and the quality of projects and programmes has improved, especially in terms of relevance and desirability for the local population.

The most important success so far, however, is not physically tangible, and it is to be hoped even more irreversible. This relates to the positive transformation in the quality of public participation in the planning process. Across the state in every village, citizens are not only aware of the planning process, but also see it as something that they can hope to influence and shape, in ways that will benefit their communities. This awareness, and the recognition of the potential of direct participation, extends beyond the local plan to the larger question of public resource raising and resource allocation, allowing the people of Kerala to become more effective citizens in assessing more aggregate state planning endeavours and other economic policies.

It is this process of greater awareness and people's participation that is the basic aim of such a movement, and one that hopefully cannot be altered by a change in government. It is also this aspect which can be the greatest source of inspiration to people across South Asia, which is why knowledge about this major social experiment is important in its own right.

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Himal Southasian