People power

People power when Kerala government coined the slogan adhikaram janangali lekku (power to people) it sounded like a political gimmick. But after the government entrusted panchayats with the task of supervising local development, what unfolded was beyond the expectations of many.

Thousands of villagers, otherwise isolated, now participate in gram sabhas (village councils) spread over 929 gram panchayats, 152 block panchayats, 14 district panchayats, 55 municipalities and three municipal corporations. Thomas Isaac, member of the State Planning Board (spb), says, "There was a need to develop a style of functioning that could ensure mass participation."

The concept of panchayat-level planning was introduced by the government under the prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi. However, the present programme is very different from what was conceived by the Congress. Instead of merely providing money to mukhias (panchyat head), who took the sole responsibility of utilising the money, the focus has now shifted to empowering the people. The common people have been given the power to formulate plans based on requirements, resource potential and financial resources. However, one question remains: will the People's Campaign be a success?

While some panchayats in northern Kerala have shown encouraging results, most of the panchayats in southern Kerala have failed to perform as expected. "One cannot expect overwhelming results in the very first year of planning. People need some time to formulate and implement projects at local levels. Furthermore, a strong political will is required to make this first ever People's Campaign a grand success," says I S Gulati, vice chairperson of spb.

However, opposition parties, such as the Congress and the Muslim League, are trying hard to prove the government's decision wrong, even as most of the panchayats under their domain have done well. Malappuram district, a Muslim League stronghold, is one example. Kalliasseri, Ollavanna and Vallikunur panchayats in northern Kerala have also undertaken some unique projects.

Kalliasseri in Kannur district, an inspiration for much of Kerala's decentralised planning, is conducting a biodiversity project in a bid to save medicinal plants for future generations. "We have planned to catalogue all types of medicinal plants available in our panchayat and save them from extinction," says P Surendran, secretary of the gram panchayat.

In Ollavanna, Calicut district, the panchayat has constructed wells and water tanks. The peasants now have plenty of water to splash. "The panchayat has drawn 23 schemes for 1997-98 to further improve drinking water availability," says Babu Parassri, president of the Ollavanna gram panchayat.

Vallikunur gram panchayat in Malappuram district has taken initiatives to boost agricultural production. For the first time, farmers are able to cultivate paddy twice a year using biofertilisers.

The success in northern Kerala is a source of motivation for some of the officials involved in the campaign. N I Azeez, district planning officer, Calicut, says, "People have started questioning that if this is the Ninth Plan, what had they been doing in the preceding eight plans."
The start Kerala Shashtra Sahitya Parishad (kssp), a voluntary organisation, claims credit for preparing a conducive atmosphere to initiate panchayat-level planning in the state since the 1970s. According to R Radhakrishnan, president of kssp, "As part of people's movement, we set up gram shashtra samitis (village councils of elected representatives) in some villages and floated the concept of utilising local expertise for development at the grassroots level."

It was only in 1989-90 that the spb gave thrust to a decentralised approach and sought the state government's help to provide direct grant to local bodies. Finally, the government allocated Rs 30 crore in 1995-96 directly to the local bodies.

In June 1996, the new Left Democratic Front (ldf) government approved the recommendation of the spb and subsequently launched "People's Campaign for Ninth Plan". The approach paper envisaged a five-stage planning process:
Convening gram sabhas to ensure maximum participation of people, especially women and weaker sections, to discuss local development problems.

Organising development seminars in every gram panchayat.

Setting up of task forces to implement the recommendations and suggestions which emerge from the development seminars.

Prioritise projects prepared by the task forces and incorporate it into the five year plans of the panchayats.

In April-September 1997, the blocks and district panchayat were to start preparation of their annual plans after gram panchayats drafted their plans.

However, due to a delay in the preparation of the gram panchayats plan, the integration could not be effectively undertaken.

According to Gulati, in the first year of 1997-98, the planning board gave Rs 1,067 crore to the panchayats. "In the coming years, we plan to allocate budgets to each panchayat taking its population into consideration. For the success of the panchayat level planning, there should be maximum participation from the weaker sections of the society," he says.

The People's Campaign in Kerala may have evoked a favourable response but political rivalries, bureaucracy and lack of awareness at the grassroot level have failed to accelerate the progress.

S M Vijayanand, panchayat secretary, government of Kerala, calls for a more transparent system. "We fear that benami (unofficial) contractors may even exploit political connections to get a berth in beneficiary committees."

The kssp president blames political parties for not understanding the actual meaning of the programme. Also, the fear of losing recognition in society has disappointed them. Political parties are divided over the issue of implementation. "The campaign may be a model for the entire nation only if all political parties show a strong will in implementation of the projects," he says.

The government's failure in propagating the idea before the programme's launch could be blamed for the lack of awareness among villagers which led to a delay in formulating projects.

"In the first year of planning, money was made available only after the projects were finalised by the panchayats, thus delaying the implementation of the project," says Thomas Isaac, member, spb . Moreover, ever since the government started allocating money to local bodies, the banking sector has virtually stopped extending its support.

Left in the lurch
Fisherfolk and tribals are the only communities for whom the People's Campaign may hold no value. Why have they been singled out? Firstly, says John Kurien, fisheries expert and associate fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, their problems do not fit into the mainstream understanding. Secondly, these communities are scattered all over the state.

The planning board earmarked funds for the fishery sector during the Ninth Plan. A task force was also instituted to study the problems of the fisherfolk in 1997. To provide the necessary balance, the government plans to give membership to tribals in the beneficiary committees, says Vijayanand. For the benefit of fisherfolk, the government has planned to construct Matasya Bhawan, where they can discuss their requirements, says Sanjeeva Ghosh, fisheries expert.

The policymakers also seem to have sidelined the most urgent problem - unemployment. Not much has been done for the 34 lakh unemployed young people in the state. "And one cannot expect to achieve success unless this problem is sorted out," says Vijayanand.

All in the game
Everything was smooth sailing for the ruling ldf during the launch of the People's Campaign. But with the delay in implementation, the dream project was to run into rough weather. The opposition parties - the Congress and the Muslim League - have started questioning the plan's success. E T Mohammed Basheer, Muslim League mla from Tirur , termed the People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan a failure. According to him, the campaign has ended up bureaucratising the entire decentralisation process.

The former minister accuses the ldf government of forfeiting the very purpose of constitutional amendment that suggests to break the chain of bureaucracy and leave everything to the common people. "Instead of decentralising power, the government is doing just the opposite," he says. He says it was the United Democratic Front (udf) government which passed the Panchayati Raj Act in Kerala in 1984. "Even at that time, we sought involvement of the commoners in all spheres of development. Decentralisation is a good process but the ldf government has created several obstacles. Task forces are dictating terms on panchayats so the real purpose is defeated," Basheer points out.

"The procedures need to simplified and made more transparent. Initially, we cooperated with the planning. But under the present circumstances, we are forced to oppose the movement," he says. G Kartikeyen, Congress mla and former power minister, says his party has been supporting the People's Campaign right from the start. "However, the plan should not be to gain political mileage but to work towards upliftment of the society," he says. Moreover, Congress leaders feel that the campaign is nothing more than what was envisaged under the Panchayati Raj Act.

Idea to implementation
While most of the panchayats have received enough money for their respective projects, a majority of them have been unable to utilise the money in the first year. This is mainly due to the delay in formulating projects. There is no provision to take back the unutilised money from panchayats. "We give money and power to people and watch their performance. To exhaust the funds, people are forced to take action, devise rules, mechanism and prepare projects," says Isaac.

Some people are still sceptical about the future of the campaign if the udf government comes to power. However, Isaac hopes to devise a plan which will be difficult for political parties to alter.

The government is taking two steps to solve the corruption problem. Firstly, it is empowering well-regarded people in each panchayat to look into bidding matters. Secondly, beneficiary committees have been asked to float open tenders so as to make the system more transparent, says Vijayanand. Isaac rules out the possibility of corruption. "There are clear-cut safeguards. Each budget is to be documented and every member of the panchayat is free to check the documents. The money can only be spent by panchayats if it is required," he says.

Moreover, Kerala has another advantage. There is no dearth of engineers, doctors and qualified personnel. Most of these professionals like to settle down in their native villages after retirement. To utilise their expertise, the government has instituted "voluntary technical cores". On an average, 12 task forces have been constituted in each panchayat to conduct studies on various projects. As many as 12,000 task forces have been trained at the village level alone, with a total participation of at least 1.2 lakh people. The task forces have prepared around one lakh projects for the consideration of panchayats.

The Centre for Development Studies (cds) has taken up a project to evolve ayalkutums (neighbourhood groups) model in five panchayats. According to P G Padmanabhan, block panchayat member, Kumarkum, the experiment has yielded encouraging results in the planning process. A neighbourhood group consists of nearly 35-50 houses. The group is led by two elected members who raise their grievances in gram sabhas. Moreover, women participation at the panchayat level is not limited anymore. After the formation of neighbourhood groups, they have more avenues open for them. They contribute ideas and participate in the programmes more seriously than ever before.

What's in store
Policymakers are optimistic about getting rid of the hurdles in their way. "By the end of the Ninth Plan, I hope there will be a tremendous increase in people's participation. Even if political parties try to thwart the process, success will not come their way," says Isaac.

The project will be a grand success if all the projects are implemented in six to nine months, says Vijayanand. He, however, expresses the need to give more thrust to planning. The government will have to differentiate between the functions of gram pan-chayat, block pancha-yats and district panchayats, he says.

But it remains to be seen how honest, wise and pragmatic the approach of politicians, bureaucrats and policy-makers will be.

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