The discussions on local governance on the second day of Kerala Looks Ahead, an international conference being organised by the State Planning Board, was marked by stocktaking on the achievements of decentralised governance in the past 25 years, identification of the gaps, and a general agreement on the need to devolve more diverse powers to local bodies.
Economist Prabhat Patnaik said panchayats should not just remain as administrative and fund-dispersing bodies, but also became productive bodies that owned and controlled direct production.
He pointed to the model of township and village enterprises in China, which could be incorporated into the panchayats to produce for local needs.
Social activist Aruna Roy said there was a need to evolve narratives of local achievements to counter the threat of majoritarianism. “This is an important intervention at a time of decision-making processes that are completely impervious to what the people think as was seen with the enactment of farm laws. Any law put up in Parliament should be discussed from the panchayats upwards. Kerala panchayats are still the most outstanding in the country. Yet, we need to listen to people’s aspirations, check whether the aspirations have changed and use scientific reasoning to understand economic issues,” she said.
Patrick Heller, Professor of Social Sciences at the Brown University, said the rapidly growing cities of Kerala needed to be States within States, having tremendous autonomy.
“Autonomy can be improved by by giving actual power, including policy making powers. There is still a lack of long term strategic planning and land management in Indian cities. Also, though most departments are quite effective, but they are still largely top-down service delivery departments that do not answer to the cities. In a recent study we conducted in 15 Indian cities, we found very high levels of service delivery in cities like Kochi, but there are gaps in the quality of service,” he said.
V.K. Ramachandran, Vice Chairperson of the Kerala State Planning Board, said that Kerala’s development accomplishments was an example of how the well being of people can be improved and social conditions transformed by enlightened public action. He said that the local governments rallied and provided the backbone to the main thrust of the State’s response to the floods.
Minister for Local Self Governments A.C. Moideen said the successes of the people’s plan during these 25 years were visible in all walks of life, serving as a strong pillar of governance. The current government had brought in positive changes in decentralised planning, especially in the timely preparation of plans, enabling plan implementation right from the first month of the financial year. He said that local bodies had been asked to prepare local disaster management plans to control the impact of disasters and to improve disaster preparedness in future.
Planning board member K.N. Harilal said beauty of decentralised participatory democracy was innovativeness with a lot of new ideas coming from the grassroots level. He said that the proof of good performance of the local governments came from the recently held elections with the voter turnout during the pandemic being quite remarkable, beyond expectations.
Local bodies from various parts of the State made presentations focussing on innovative and model programmes implemented by them.