Dr. Isaac was one of the captains of the mass movement that is turning 25 years tomorrow
The Onam of 2018 was at its collective best in Kerala’s flood relief camps.
Little troops of children, some with their mothers in tow, had gathered around the spots marked for science, drama, games and the like at Alappuzha’s largest camp at Sree Narayana College, Cherthala. Young women were dancing. The atmosphere looked festive, with no hint of the shock suffered by the people sheltered there. This prompted a visiting delegation from outside Kerala to wonder which NGO ran the camp.
“It took me a few minutes to register the thought behind the query. I pointed to a man standing at a distance and said, ‘that’s the NGO’. He was the president of the village panchayat, which was managing the camp,” recalls T.M. Thomas Isaac, who as Alappuzha MLA and State Minister of Finance was at the camp then.
The crowning achievement of the people’s planning movement, which turns 25 years on Tuesday (August 17), has been its success in pulling down the wall between the civil society and the government, which at the local level became as informal as an NGO and grew closer to the people, says Dr. Isaac, who as a social scientist and a member of the State Planning Board was among the captains of the movement.
But the story of devolution of powers dates back to the pre-Independence time when in 1938, the Communists criticised C. Rajagopalachari’s provincial government for not devolving sufficiently. The first Communist government of 1957 formulated one of the most radical devolution programmes which came to naught. “It puzzled many as to why a party that stood for democratic centralisation wanted democratic decentralisation. What they failed to realise was that the first was an organisational principle of the party. But that’s not a principle on which society is to be organised. Therefore, democratic decentralisation is a process of widening and deepening political democracy which the Left has believed is helpful in mobilising people better,” says Dr. Isaac.
Along with the Left, there were organisations like the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) which played a key role in the literacy movement besides other civic organisations that were conducting local development experiments. “I was also an activist of the KSSP, which had mobilised hundreds of thousands of volunteers to devote a few hours to teach the unlettered. We thought, why can’t they be used for a development literacy programme? So, some of us began to experiment with participatory techniques in collecting information and data in people’s resource-mapping programme and how to make a plan out of this data. So, there was a stream of civic action which over a decade or more fashioned the technique of planning. There were academics like K.N. Raj whose first working paper at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram in the early 1970s was ‘Planning from Below’. That was the fundamental vision.
Then there were young officers like S.M. Vijayanand and K.M. Abraham who were committed to this. “All this stuck together in 1996 when we put forward one of the most radical decentralisation programmes in the country devolving something unimaginable. Every local government which used to get something like ₹2 lakh as plan fund took a quantum jump to ₹1 crore in a year or two,” says Dr. Isaac.
Most significantly, this was not going to be implemented as a reform from above. Of course, there were the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution which offered Constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj institutions. “But in Kerala, it was launched as an institution from below. There were unsuccessful attempts earlier to devolve. Therefore, EMS Namboodiripad said decentralisation was as fundamental as land reforms, which required decades of peasant mobilisation across political divisions. He wanted a mass movement in which people would demand decentralisation and create political will. It was like burning the bridge after crossing the river for a battle. There’s no retreat possible now and you must fight it out. We translated EMS’s strategy into action. For the first time in India, a development plan was drawn up at the grassroots level.”
“Kerala has the most panchayat-friendly fiscal system.” A primary health care centre in Vypeen in Kochi. H.Vibhu
In the 1990s, there were two sets of pressures on the Left in Kerala. With better standards of living, people’s aspirations changed. They wanted better education, needed solutions for lifestyle diseases that came with improved life expectancy and would not be satisfied with traditional jobs and so on. It was argued by some that the Left did not have a programme to address these second generation challenges. At a conference, Dr. K.N. Raj said angrily in the presence of EMS, ‘you Leftists are good at redistribution and you have done a historical role. You are good at dividing the bread, but now you have to bake the bread if you want to redistribute and you have no programme!’
“The general belief was that the answer to these challenges lay in neoliberal reforms. When TINA (There Is No Alternative) was the buzzword, the Left wanted to show that another world was possible. Kerala was to be that possible world. That’s the title of the book I’m writing now: Kerala: Another Possible World. The book is on decentralisation and beyond because there’s centralised intervention in infrastructure building through KIIFB (Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board) and its use to change the economic base into a knowledge economy,” says Dr. Isaac.
What it has achieved
“With the creation of a system at the grassroots, we enlarged the democratic space for people to intervene. When the floods hit us in an unprecedented manner in 2018, it did not lead to anarchy and when 50,000 people were evacuated from Kuttanad, there wasn’t a single mishap. Everyone thought there would be epidemics when these people returned home from the relief camps. But we mobilised people, cleaned up the households and other premises and proved the sceptics wrong. This could not have happened without the local self-governments, a fact confirmed by what Kerala has done to combat COVID,” Dr. Isaac maintains.
“Democratic decentralisation doesn’t guarantee that everything is going to be good. What it guarantees is, if you want to be good, you have an opportunity to be good. In the earlier system, you had no role as everything was decided from above. But in this system, if you want to be good, you can be good and if you want to fight for the good, you can do that too.”
In more concrete terms, in most of the areas where powers have been transferred to the local governments, the results were splendid. “Take school education, for instance. Kerala public education is ranked number one in India, going by the quality of education index of NITI Aayog. The percentage of the population dependent on public health institutions was 28 in 1991 which went up to 38% in 2014 and to 48% just before COVID hit. Infant mortality came down to 7%, with the State surpassing the sustainable development goal. Two million houses were constructed in 25 years, all with electricity and sanitation facilities. The percentage of houses with more than a room is thrice the national average. If there were 1.15 km of rural roads in 1996, now, even after transferring about 20,000 km of roads to the PWD, the length of local roads is 2.25 lakh km.”
Kudumbashree, an institution created for women empowerment and poverty alleviation, which is unique with 22 lakh families represented in it, is sponsored by the local body. It has an inclusive structure and remains as a platform for convergence of programmes.
As many as 50,000 saplings will be planted in three grama panchayats of Wayanad district on the Kerala-Karnataka border to mitigate desertification.
The plan has not yielded desired results in the production sector. “Especially in reviving agriculture or enhancing rural, small scale industries. This is something that we have to do now. There are signs of improvement in vegetable cultivation, with Subhiksha Keralam. As we celebrate the silver jubilee of people’s planing, we have declared that every local body will create five jobs in non-agricultural sector for every 1,000 persons. Another issue is of waning participation. To make deliberations meaningful and to enhance their quality, more educated people should come in. We are thinking of various ways, like making Kudumbashree units sub sets of the grama sabha where men and women can come, discuss things and send a representative to the grama sabha to make the presentation. Better integration of programmes is another area to focus on.
The people’s planning was a big bang with 40% of funds given down without any preconditions of devolution. “Since people have been learning and devising plans, the forward march has remained incremental, giving room for improvement. The local bodies today make the local disaster management plans. Biodiversity registers are there to be acted upon. We can use all this to launch watershed-based planning [all micro-watersheds have been delineated in Kerala] and effective initiatives to mitigate climate change,” says Dr. Isaac. “Twenty eight years ago, when I was in CDS, we prepared a resource mapping programme in collaboration with KSSP for 25 panchayats in Kerala. These were cadestral maps with land terrain, water availability, water quality, man-made assets, biomass etc. We combined them to look at environmental crisis points. By the time we finished the project, people’s planning programme got under way. We are revisiting this now kick-starting projects.”
On the 25th anniversary, there will be no memorials built. But each panchayat and municipality will create a Miyawaki forest in celebration. At least one canal in each local body will be fully restored. Total sanitation is another goal.
“Kerala achieved great strides in poverty eradication through multisectoral interventions. Poverty here is one of the lowest in India. However, we want to identify the families that are still fighting extreme poverty so as to create micro plans for each of them. It is attainable because we were able to roll out such plans for some 160 tribal families when I represented Alappuzha. To care for Kerala’s ageing population, the panchayats would also launch elderly clubs full with libraries and recreation facilities. Now, if you ask me whether all this is doable, the guarantee is that there’s democratic space to constantly fight for improvement,” he says, with a smile.