Good bye, people's planning
Politics and migration are two important variables that shape Kerala's social reality. Perhaps they also have an uncanny ability to numb ordinary people to the tragedy -cum-farce politicians enact on their behalf. So, we have politicians duping people with promises they never intend to fulfill. And we have recruitment agents cheating a new bunch of job seekers to the Gulf, every now and then. All this may appear as too cynical, particularly in the wake of the recent panchayat elections in the state. The ruling United Democratic Front (udf) was routed and the Left Democratic Front (ldf) headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist, cpi-m) won a thumping majority. But do the election results presage a new development paradigm for the state? If the past is any guide, no.
There is no doubt that the election results clearly indicate people have rejected the neo-liberal shibboleths peddled by the Congress-led udf as a 'development agenda', during the past four years. But let's put this verdict in perspective. A brief recap of the derailed people's planning programme launched by the ldf in 1996 would help us make a beginning. Devolution of power -- as per the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution -- was among the main agenda of the ldf when it came to power in 1996. The state government's decision to provide 40 per cent of the plan fund to local bodies was the highlight of the programme. The planning processes were to begin from the g ram sabha level. An enthusiastic campaign was launched to make the programme a success; local bodies such as the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad provided active support.
Short-lived The initial enthusiasm soon waned. There were allegations cpi-(m) cadres were behaving in a very highhanded manner. By 2001, people's planning had turned into a farce. The ldf lost badly in the Kerala assembly elections of 2001; the udf returned to power.
Though the cpi-(m)- led Front maintained its upper hand in local bodies, the udf government gave up all emphasis on village-level planning. Resource mapping at the local level, for instance, and other activities associated with people's planning were jettisoned. People's planning, for all practical purposes, became yet another government programme.
This dilution in the role of Kerala's local bodies should have dominated the political discourse of the state during the recent panchayat election.
But devolution of power was nowhere on the agenda of mainstream political parties. Issues such as rights of the local bodies over local resources, redeployment of the administrative machinery as per the decentralisation process, efficacy of local bodies in countering environmental degradation and ill-effects of globalisation on the local economy were conspicuous by their absence in the mainstream political agenda.
A lost opportunity The silence on these issues has only helped to occlude some of the gains of the people's planning programme. Despite several shortcomings, the programme did make an attempt to entrust village panchayats with crucial decision-making. Voluntary agencies were also given a key role in shaping Kerala's development agenda. But there was little attempt to build on these gains. Now another opportunity to bring people's planning back into Kerala's political discourse has been lost.
Of course, many experts argue that not much should be read in the debates during election campaigns. After all, these campaigns are dominated by political rabble-rousing.
But if elections have to remain the best means of democratic articulation, local governance deserves to get adequate space in mainstream political debates. Unfortunately, the nature and tenor of the debate in Kerala in the recent panchayat elections only helped reinforce the cynical view that political activism is nothing more than another form of false consciousness.
Would it be too much to expect a radical course correction?
K Sethunath is a correspondent with Crisil MarketWire, Kochi, Kerala