Battles Over Funding

Currency, money and funding can really upset people in India. Travelling around in Kerala, on a tour on the southern backwaters we were having a tea break. My boyfriend was trying to figure out which of the Indian coins to pay with, when a bunch of black dressed pilgrims thought he was trying to pay with another currency, insulted him for that, and in loud voices formed an “Indian currency queue”. So they could all buy tea before him shouting “Indian currency queue”, “Indian currency queue”.

A much higher amount of money was at stake when the World Social Forum (WSF) was going to be organised in Mumbai. It seems that the issue of funding was one of the biggest fights in the preparatory committee; from who accept money, from who reject it, and above all the interpretation of receiving or rejecting money.

When I met people organising the WSF in India one year ago that was of great concern. When I got there weeks before the WSF would start it was still a big issue, not to say the big issue. It was a common question from journalists and it was also a point of accusation from both right and left. More nationalist politicians would question the forum because they had received money from abroad, interpreting that, as “Indian money” was not good enough.

On the left of the left, the organisers of Mumbai Resistance, the self-proclaimed radical counter-forum, had funding as their main criticism. The WSF actually was imperialist because it received money from NGO:s and foundations.

Jai Sen gives a brief insight in the controversy in the preparatory committee in his somehow over-critical text “The long march to another world”, in the book Challenging Empires. The political party Sen mentions in that text, the Communist party of India Marxist CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) where through their mass organisations involved in the organisation of the WSF and very hostile to a certain type of funds. Neither the Ford foundation nor the MacArthur foundation gave the forum grants, which they had before.

Travelling in Kerala just before the WSF the CPI(M) had a huge controversy over funding. Kerala is a state in the south of India, called “god’s own country” for its beauty and richness. But it is also the state were the first communist party ever was voted into power 1957. Since then the communist parties (the party was split into two 1964) have been in power several times. So in “god’s own country” you will often see the hammer and sickle, and Lenin on the wall. And thanks to the communists Kerala is one of the most developed states in terms of high literacy rates, low child mortality rates and relatively high access to health care and education for common people.

1996 when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) took power again they introduced something called “The People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning” that was initiated 17th August 1996. The campaign is a participatory democracy process to identify people’s needs, create appropriate projects to meet those needs, and find both funding and competent people to carry out the projects. All this is done through participatory democracy. Gender justice is one of the major objectives of the Campaign. Women and gender issues are given attention both politically and financial, one development sector is about women and they are given a certain percentage for own projects.

One of the ideas was to let people decide how the budget should be distributed. It was expected to give different priorities than when it was made at central level by administration. And the result gave them right; the investment priorities in the plans prepared by the local bodies gave much higher allocation for things common people need like animal husbandry, housing, drinking water and sanitation. The investment priorities for the Scheduled Castes and Tribals also differed significantly from when the plans were made from above.

The People’s Campaign worked well, many people participated, took decisions, and the campaign created wider awareness, corruption decreased due to transparency. The LDF lost the elections in 2001, but they had institutionalised decentralisation so the campaign goes on and people continue to participate. The CPI(M) should be satisfied one could think. But on the contrary the “People’s Planning”, as it is popularly called, has been in the focal point for hard criticism and controversy lately.

Every morning during our stay in Kerala we read the New Indian Express (NIE), and every day there was a new article on what they called the fight between “hardliners versus reformists”. So here is the story.

The architects and initiators of the campaign are being accused of being tools of imperialism because they have received funding from abroad. The scientist movement, Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad have been accused to be “part of an economic colonisation project”. An institution they work close with, Centre for Development Studies received funds from the Dutch Government, money said to have been provided by USAID.

And Dr Thomas Isaac, and M.A Baby both of them in the leadership of the CPI(M), have been accused of being CIA tools, Isaac being known as the brain behind the campaign. And the accusations come from within the party. For two days the NIE had a full page named “the ideological debate in the CPI(M), where different prominent and well-known people had been invited to give an opinion about the ongoing debate.

But honestly it was not much of a debate, but more like throwing wild accusations and insults on each other. And from my impression from the newspaper it was the so-called hardliners that were the wildest. Not only did they call their own comrades for post-Marxists, insulting them as “gorbachevists” but some of them also tried to portray that the women’s and the environment movement and participatory democracy is somehow distorting communist ideology and socialism as the (only) alternative to neoliberal globalisation! To me that sounds like dinosaurs speaking.

The last thing we read before we left Kerala was that the leadership of the CPI(M) had had a meeting were Isaac and Baby were freed from accusations, and were the party united stood behind the People’s Planning. So far so good, but I’m sure that the fight is not over, nor in the CPI(M) nor in others spheres of the left. That is one of the saddest things of the left, that the fights within parties and movements, in between groups and among persons are the most devastating.

I’m not suggesting that the left should hide their ideological differences, nor that it is disloyal to debate political controversies openly. I just find it so typical that an interesting and successful project so easily can be dismissed because an institution received money from abroad, or because the World Bank likes it. Why is not all that energy put into developing the project, making it more radical, trying to change the negative sides and strengthening the positive sides? Isn’t more important to discuss participation and solutions instead of where money comes from?

It seems to me that both the WSF and the People’s Campaign have suffered from the discussion about funds. And that is a price a bit too high when both things are foremost positive. Still the forum process and the people’s campaign have several things to improve. Fighting over money will not change much.

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