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 mechanism.

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

* Education

* Transport, energy, and markets

* Industry

* Housing and social welfare

* Public health and drinking water

* Culture

* Women's welfare

* Cooperatives

* Welfare of Scheduled (former untouchable) Castes/Scheduled Tribes

* 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 local history.

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 village.

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: structural adjustment.

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.

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