Power to the (Malayalee) People
Democracy in Kerala State, India
by Richard W. Franke & Barbara H. Chasin
Z magazine, February 1998
In Kerala State, India, an elected left wing government has
launched a campaign to make village democracy a major development
Kerala State, in southwestern India, is the scene of a dramatic
experiment in democratic development. The Left Democratic Front
government, elected to office in 1996, is using the framework
of India's ninth five year plan as the basis for the People's
Campaign for the Ninth Plan. With "power to the people"
as the slogan, activists are emphasizing decentralized planning
with high levels of local participation at the panchayat (village)
level. Planning is conceived of as a mass educational project
which will aid in future development efforts. This program is
probably the largest of its kind in the world at present.
Kerala's democratization program is one variety of a larger
structural change taking place in India. In 1992 the 73rd and
74th amendments to the Indian constitution required states to
delegate 29 general administrative functions to lower level bodies,
along with some taxation powers to finance them. The precise nature
of the devolution of central powers was left to the states to
determine, creating a wide range of plans, some of which may be
more state or district bureaucracy-empowering than people-empowering.
Kerala's left activists decided the amendments were a perfect
device for trying to create genuine local democracy.
Five stages make up Kerala's Ninth Plan.
Stage 1. Ward assemblies. The Grama Sabhas (ward assemblies)
took place in September and October 1996 in all 14,147 wards of
the panchayats and urban neighborhoods in Kerala. Three million
people, 10 percent of the state's population, participated in
these assemblies, airing complaints and identifying the major
problems in their communities. Imagine 1.8 million New Yorkers
meeting for 6 hours, arguing, and electing problem-solving working
groups to plan strategies for overcoming local problems. Imagine
thousands of them continuing to meet for weeks to hammer out local
plans for which a massive portion of federal and state funds would
be allocated. Imagine technically trained retired people in their
communities forming associations of experts to help make the plans
technically sound. Imagine all these people being compensated
only with bus fare and lunch.
Sound trucks, processions, and street theater created a festive
atmosphere. Each household in a ward received a written invitation
to participate. Some panchayats developed innovative methods of
mobilization, such as a development quiz in the schools, or a
coconut oil lamp procession the night before the meetings. From
fifty to several hundred persons attended in each ward. Meetings
began at noon and lasted, in many panchayats, well into the evening.
Participants broke down into 12 topic groups, each dealing with
an area of local development as required by the state organizers:
* Agriculture and irrigation
* Fisheries and animal husbandry
* Transport, energy, and markets
* Housing and social welfare
* Public health and drinking water
* Women's welfare
* Welfare of Scheduled (former untouchable) Castes/Scheduled
* Resource mobilization
Each topic group elected two representatives for the next
activity: creating a book based on data collected from village
and district offices, and interviews with elderly residents about
Each of Kerala's 991 panchayats and 54 municipalities produced
a development report. The reports ran from 35 to 200 pages with
chapters on each of the 12 task force topics. Many were illustrated
by community artists; some contained detailed histories of their
2. Development seminars. The 250-300 people elected to the
topic groups in each village or neighborhood reconvened in December
1996 to discuss their development report. Development seminars
took place in movie theaters, schools, cooperative society halls,
Hindu marriage halls, private or public, donated or rented. Participants
received no pay, but got tea, snacks, and a traditional Kerala
lunch served on an ecologically ideal plate-a banana leaf. Next,
the working meetings produced a consensus on the lists of problems
and project ideas to be carried forward to the 3rd stage. The
seminars also organized the elected activists into task forces
to carry out the 3rd stage.
Stage 3. The task forces. Each of the 12 subject areas task
forces distilled the various project concepts into specific proposals,
giving the appropriate technical, costbenefit, and time-frame
considerations, as well as an assessment of the resources of the
local community to carry out each project.
Stage 4. The panchayat plans. In March-April 1997, the panchayat
boards selected projects for implementation. As could be expected,
the task forces had come up with many more plans than could be
funded. Out of 150,000 project proposals, less than half would
become finalized. The paring down was done by a process of consensus.
Stage 5. Integration of local plans into a wider, district
level plan. In April, the panchayat plans were forwarded to block
and district level assemblies for further discussion and consolidation
into larger plans. India groups neighborhoods into administrative
units called "blocks," in which certain national development
activities take place. Organizers of Kerala's Ninth Plan felt
these blocks had to be part of the process, although they often
cut across panchayat boundaries, creating an administrative maze.
At the district level, the blocks and panchayats finally correspond.
Kerala's 14 districts have put together plans consolidating the
panchayat and block levels. District plans are to be amalgamated
into an overall state plan to which state-level projects will
be added. The final event for the first stage is set for September
1998 in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram at a statewide
congress with each panchayat sending delegates from its task forces.
Kerala's State Planning Board activists also realized that
people would need technical skills: how to organize and run a
meeting, how to draft a report, how to do simple cost-banefit
analysis, how to prepare a budget, how to set up safeguards against
corruption. To produce basic planning skills campaign organizers
used two major techniques: training seminars and recruitment of
educated retirees as expert resource people.
Before launching the grama sabhas, organizers trained 373
state-level trainers for 5 days. These trainees taught 10,497
district level resource people who conducted one-day workshops
for over 100,000 local activists. Trainees at all levels received
travel costs, snacks, and meals, but no salaries.
Despite the planners' goal of at least a 30 percent female
presence, only 15 percent of the participants were women. As the
campaign progressed, women were dropping out of leadership positions,
probably because of household and child care chores their spouses
were not picking up. Even the 15 percent participation, however,
marks an increase over rates in most unions and other mass organizations.
Of the 29 4th stage trainers in Calicut, 9 (31 percent) were women.
A notable feature of the 4th stage training was the convening
of "project clinics." A few panchayats with especially
interesting projects organized seminars based on a detailed description
of their accomplishments. In one classroom a team from Chapparapadavu
Panchayat described how their community built a muchneeded bridge
using local expertise and resources. Their talk was illustrated
by an intricate model of the bridge. Nearby were sessions on Thrikkunnappuzha
Panchayat's "Total Cleanliness Program," Thanalur's
"People's Health Program," Thykkattusseri's "Tissue
Culture" (lab-based orchids and other plants), Kunnothuparambu's
Water Conservation Society, and Madikkai's creation of an educational
complex of primary through high school, along with a "study
festival" to encourage the idea that learning is fun
Nearly all the projects included data collection surveys and
the survey forms were shared among the participants. Trainees
were thus exposed to a variety of possible development activities
along with concrete tools to carry them out. They were learning
from "experts" who were like themselves. At the clinics,
women were 6 of 69 presenters.
India has a mandatory retirement age of 55 for those in public
service. Since Kerala's life expectancy is 70, most Kerala communities
have a supply of experts with free time to give to local development.
A special effort was made to attract such people into a "Voluntary
Technical Corps" (VTC). Using the slogan "Life Begins
at 55," the State Planning Board began recruiting retirees
to help evaluate and improve the quality of local project documents
in March 1997. The initial call brought 4,000 volunteers. Statelevel
conventions were organized for retired bank officers and college
teachers who were considered especially valuable resources to
help with project evaluations. Contacts were also made with professional
associations of doctors, engineers, and accountants.
Why is democratic decentralization taking place in Kerala?
One reason is the state's 50 years of progressive achievements.
Several elected Communist Party and Left Front governments have
carried out the demands of largescale popular movements leading
to high material quality of life indicators that some development
experts refer to collectively as "The Kerala Model."
With an official per capita income of $180 in 1993 (all-India
was $300), Kerala had an adult literacy rate of 91 percent (versus
an all-India rate of 48 percent), life expectancy of 69 for men
and 73 for women (all-India average of 61), an infant mortality
of 13 per 1,000 (better than Washington, DC; and versus the all-India
rate of 80) and a birth rate of 17 (all-India 29). Virtually all
additional statistical indicators such as vaccination rates, maternal
mortality, child labor, nutritional status, access to medical
care, and availability of roads, schools, and other public facilities
show Kerala with a substantial lead over the rest of India and
all similar-income third world countries. The statistical indicators
of the Kerala Model are the outcome of decades of organizing by
left wing activists, enormous sacrifices, and the rise of an unusually
talented and thoughtful group of cadre in the unions, peasant
associations, women's groups, and left parties. The state's ecology
and general historical background may also have played a role.
Kerala's people are educated, motivated, and aware of their rights
and talents. They have participated in victorious struggles; they
are optimistic and thus potentially mobilizable in a popular campaign.
But they are also worried.
Despite its many achievements, the Kerala Model is in trouble.
Lagging industrial growth has combined with stagnant agricultural
output to produce low incomes and high unemployment. Low economic
growth has resulted in a series of fiscal crises for the state
government forcing it to reduce public spending in some of the
most cherished areas of the Kerala model: education, school lunches,
subsidized food prices for the poor, access to medical care. Furthermore,
about 15 percent of the state's people have been left out of the
model. In addition, Kerala faces a major environmental crisis
from severe deforestation in the Western Ghat mountains, leading
to soil erosion there and water logging in lowland areas. Polluted
rivers and foreign hi-tech offshore fishing operations are reducing
the fish catch. And, like every place on earth at present, Kerala
faces the menace of the New World Order with its third world avatar:
The one-power world remaining in the wake of the collapse
of the Soviet Union has hit India particularly hard. As a state
friendly to the Soviet Union, India built its economy partly on
Soviet industrial and scientific aid and on public sector investment.
In the 1990s, World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies
have come to New Delhi with their typical emphasis on privatization,
lowering of wages and benefits, abolition of protectionist tariffs
(that are essential to many Indian industries at least in the
short run), and general emphasis on production of wealth without
regard to its distribution. Kerala's left wing activists recognize
that inevitably they will have to make some compromises with structural
adjustment, but they cannot accept its overall terms-their right
wing political opponents do that already. Furthermore, they apparently
have no intention of handing over most of the economy to the largest
private capitalists whose profit-making desires are inconsistent
with the needs of most of the state's people. Even now they are
struggling with private bankers who are moving capital out of
the state rather than invest in Kerala's future.
Since Indian independence in 1947, the national and state
governments have engaged in vaguely Soviet-style five-year plans.
Even before the collapse of European socialism, however, many
Kerala leftists realized that overemphasis on centralized planning
was undemocratic, often uncoordinated, and wasteful.
Kerala's Ninth Plan emphasizes coordinated village-level plans
with individual government departments playing subsidiary roles.
Bureaucrats will become assistants of the people's plan. Laxness
in monitoring is to be replaced by what Indians call "transparency,"
meaning that all the accounts are visible to everyone who wants
to see them, reducing the possibility of corruption.
Decentralized planning does not mean complete abrogation of
higher level responsibilities. State Planning Board decentralizers
have pretty clear ideas about how they want decentralization to
proceed. But the ultimate goal is a substantial relaxation of
central control and substantial community empowerment.
With innovative programs, energy, optimism, and some trepidation,
Kerala's activists and people are trying to produce an alternative
to bureaucratic, over-centralized, big-government planning of
the past. Can they compete with an unchecked, aggressive new world
order of capitalist bankers and industrialists whose financial
and political powers seem unlimited? Progressive activists everywhere
can learn from their experiences. z
Richard W. Franke is Professor of Anthropology at Montclair
State University in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Barbara H. Chasin
is Professor of Sociology at the same institution. Franke and
Chasin are joint authors of Kerala: Radical Reform as Development
in an Indian State. Food First Books and Promilla and Company,
publishers, 1989 and 1994.