Power to the (Malayalee) People

Franke and Barbara H. Chasin

In Kerala State, India, an elected
left wing government has launched a campaign to make village democracy a major development


Ninth Plan, People’s Plan

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 9th 5 year plan as the basis for the People’s
Campaign for the 9th 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 constitutional
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.

No new layer of bureaucracy is being created to implement the 9th
plan. Only one new group has been set up, the "High Level Guidance Council," an
advice-giving and public relations body, headed by E. M. S. Namboodiripad, the venerable
88-year-old leader of the Kerala branch of the Communist Party—Marxist (CPM), and
including all living former Chief Ministers of Kerala from all political parties. As State
Planning Board member and 9th plan activist T. M. Thomas Isaac says, "we’re getting
the bureaucrats out of their offices, getting them to work with the people."

The 9th Plan Unfolds

Five stages make up Kerala’s 9th 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% 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

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 50 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:

1. Agriculture and irrigation

2. Fisheries and animal husbandry

3. Education

4. Transport, energy, and markets

5. Industry

6. Housing and social welfare

7. Public health and drinking water

8. Culture

9. Women’s welfare

10. Cooperatives

11. Welfare of Scheduled [former untouchable] Castes/Scheduled

12. Resource mobilization


Panchayat Development Reports

Each topic group elected 2 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 has produced a
development report. The reports run from 35 to 200 pages with chapters on each of the 12
task force topics. Many are illustrated by community artists; some contain detailed
histories of their village. Reports were printed in 500 to 1,000 copies and bound with
often colorful covers. Printing costs were subsidized by private donations, local
cooperative banks, and private businesses. Some panchayats sold the reports while others
gave them free to interested persons.

These reports have become a great source of pride in many Kerala
villages. The local drafting of a report—even with some tables that don’t add to 100%
and other errors—has given people a sense of confidence that they really can plan
their own projects. At Calicut City Hall on January 9, 1997, we attended a public
exhibition where about 350 of the reports were attracting a great deal of public interest.
The development reports were also intended for the next stage of the people’s plan.

Stage 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, cost-benefit, 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. "Economic planning is about
setting priorities, " explained State Planning Board member and campaign activist Dr.
T. M. Thomas Isaac. 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 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 to occur in
September 1998 in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram at a statewide congress with each
panchayat sending delegates from its task forces. Even as the congress takes place, the
second year of the 9th five-year plan will be in preparation in the localities.


Training—a Key to Successful
Democratic Planning

Drawing ordinary people into development
planning requires more than a utopian vision of a better world. Kerala’s State Planning
Board activists realized that people would need technical skills: how to organize and run
a meeting, how to draft a report, how to do at least simple cost-benefit 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 persons.

Each stage of the campaign was preceded by training sessions which
became part of the publicity for the campaign. Before launching the grama sabhas (ward
meetings), organizers trained 373 state-level trainers for 5 days. These trainees taught
10,497 district level resource persons who conducted one-day workshops for over 100,000
local activists. Trainees at all levels received travel costs, snacks, and meals, but no
salaries. We witnessed the 3-day training of local volunteers for the 4th stage at Calicut
on January 10-12, 1997. The 4,500 volunteers came from all over northern Kerala. They
attended speeches, workshops, and "project clinics" from 10:00 am to midnight in
the several buildings of a local high school borrowed for the weekend by the campaign.

Despite the planners’ goal of at least a 30% female presence, only
15% 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% participation, however, marks an increase over rates in
most unions and other mass organizations. Of the 29 4th stage trainers in Calicut, 9 (31%)
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 much
needed 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.


Life Begins at 55: The Voluntary
Technical Corps

One- or five-day training sessions for
ordinary people have limits. Planners are aware that certain projects require expertise.
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 is being 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 forth
4,000 volunteers. State-level conventions were organized for retired bank officers and
college teachers who were considered especially valuable resource persons to help with
project evaluations and write-ups. Contacts were also made with professional associations
of doctors, engineers, and accountants.


Why Kerala?

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
large-scale 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% (versus an all-India rate of 48%), 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 D.C.; 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 by ordinary people, 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.


Why This Campaign?

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% 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.


Capitalism, State Planning, or
People’s Planning?
Kerala in the Current National and International Context

The New World Order threatens what Kerala
intellectual M. A. Oommen has called "euthanasia for the Kerala Model." 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.

What about national and state-level planning? Since Indian
independence in 1947, the national and state governments have engaged in vaguely
Soviet-style 5-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. We see in the extensive training programs that 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


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 and author of Inequality and Violence in the United States:
Casualties of Capitalism
, Humanities Press, 1997. 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. Further information about their research
on Kerala and a documented version of this article are available at: http://www.chss.montclair.edu/anthro/kerala.html