P Peoples Plan Campaign, held in 1996 in Kerala State, was a remarkable experiment in decentralisation of powers to local governments with focus on local planning. Kerala State lying in the south-west part of India, is considered a fertile land for decentralization. In India’s Ninth Five-Year Plan, each state within the national federation was expected to draws up its own annual plan and the Peoples Plan was an off-shoot of it.
In the beginning of the ninth plan, the Government of Kerala took a bold decision to devolve 35% of the state development budget down from a centralized bureaucracy to local governments where local people could determine and implement their own development priorities under the People’s Plan Campaign (PPC).
Decentralization is, basically, the process of devolving the functions and resources of the State from the centre to the elected governments at the lower levels so as to facilitate greater direct participation by the citizens in governance. Peoples Planning is an attempt in this direction.
The Government of India amended its Constitution in 1993 to have a third tier of governance which paved way for passing conformity legislation in all the States including Kerala. The Congress-led government, which was in rule in the State, came up with two bills - Kerala Panchayat Raj Bill and Kerala Municipality Bill - for conformity legislation. In the ensuing public debate, pro-decentralization thinkers and leaders from all political parties including the Indian National Congress, lobbied for introducing amendments for a better legislation on decentralization. Intellectuals and non-governmental organisations took the lead in organising public opinion. Finally, an amended version of the bills were passed in the legislative assembly.
Later,elections to the local governments were conducted by the Congress led government under the Chief Ministership of A.K. Antony. Sixty percentage of the local governments were won by the then opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidates while the remaining 40% went to the United Democratic Front (UDF) candidates.
New Government in power
In 1996 on assuming power, the ruling left democratic party took the agenda of decentralization as the first priority item. The Government of Kerala decided to devolve 33% of the plan budget of the state for preparation of development projects formulated by the local governments at the village, block and district levels. People’s needs were assessed through meetings of the grama sabhas ( lowest village consistency) with the village panchayat making it into a plan, coordinated and vetted at the block level and approved at the district level by a District Planning Committee constituted to assist the panchayats. This was the ‘People’s Campaign for Ninth Plan’, popularly known as ‘People’s Planning’ (Janakeeya Aasoothranam).There was much euphoria and expectation .
Modality of the Campaign
A high power guidance council was created with E.M.S. Namboodiripad as the Chairman, the incumbent and former chief ministers and the leader of the opposition as Vice-chairmen, and a few persons of eminence as members with a view to have political consensus. The Kerala State Planning Board, hitherto an expert advisory body, suddenly acquired a political profile as the key manager of the Campaign. The board was reconstituted with party-political nominations that included two state-level party functionaries of the CPM. It was designated as the coordinating agency for all the programmes under ‘People’s Planning’. The board chalked out a five-phase program of activities, and went ahead with a high-speed mode of functioning unheard of in government organisations. A special decentralization cell was created to cope with the challenges of this new task. Many of the personnel in this cell were drawn from voluntary organisations with a track record of selfless work.
Stages in People's Planning
Need indentification,situation analysis,strategy setting, projectisation,plan finalisation, plan vetting and plan approval were the stages in peoples planning.
In the first phase, Gram Sabhas(village constituencies) were convened and people at the local level were mobilised to assess felt needs.
In the second phase,development seminars were held in every village panchayat, followed by formation of ‘task forces’ for the preparation of development projects. 12,000 task forces were formed that worked out to around 12 task forces per village panchayat. Close to 120,000 people participated in these task forces.
In the third phase, development projects were prepared according to a format suggested by the Kerala State Planning Board, giving details such as the nature of activities envisaged and financial and organisational aspects. Despite such quantitative achievements, a review by the state planning board showed that ‘the task forces' did not function as effectively as was expected. The main weakness was that adequate number of experts could not be attracted to the task forces. The participation of officials was also far from satisfactory. The training given to the task force members was also inadequate. An interim review of the projects prepared revealed numerous weaknesses, particularly with respect to technical details and financial analysis. Accordingly, a number of rectification measures like project clinics, reorientation conferences, etc. were organised. All these created unforeseen delays in the final plan preparation.
By the time the fourth phase started, the financial year 1996-97 was over. This phase, from March to May 1997, was expected to prepare five year plans for the panchayats based on their development projects. This was no easy task since it involved prioritising projects, assessing resources and institutional capacity, weaving the plan into the development strategy of the state, coordinating it with other village panchayats within the block (intermediary tier) and district level developmental framework and spelling out mechanisms for supervision and monitoring.
The fifth and final phase was meant for the preparation of annual plans for block and district panchayats by integrating the lower level plans and, presumably, to developing their own plans that would be complementary to the village panchayat plans. Due to the delays and inadequacies in the preparation of village panchayat plans, this exercise could not be undertaken. To quote the Kerala State Planning Board, the lead agency: ‘As a result, there were many instances of duplication of planning activities and also critical gaps between the various tiers’. Even when projects and plans were available, it was realised that most of them had to be examined closely for their ‘technical soundness and viability.’ This led to another phase leading to the formation of expert committees and project appraisal teams to scrutinise and approve the projects and plans.
Difficulties in implementation
But the panchayats could not spend more than 10% of the earmarked funds at the end of the first year of people’s planning, i.e. by March 1997. The government initially extended the expenditure period by three months; when this was found inadequate the period was extended up to 31 March 1999, i.e. an extension of two years, understandable given the massive exercise based on a ‘campaigning’ mode.
During the second year too, the panchayats could not spend more than 10% of the earmarked funds of around Rs750 crore1 and the period of expenditure was extended by another three months to the end of June 1998 with the stipulation that unspent balances would be deducted from future allocations. By end June 1998, the panchayats formally reported 95% expenditure, the bulk of the funds were withdrawn during the final month. This was due to an interesting innovation. The panchayats withdrew the amount from the government treasuries and deposited them either in public sector organisations (such as the State Electricity Board), which were supposed to execute works for them, or in their bank accounts. And these were shown as ‘expenditure’. For the third year, 1998-99, the funds earmarked were Rs 970 crore and the allocation for the fourth year, 1999-2000, was enhanced to Rs1020 crore.
Obviously, the ‘campaigning’ mode raising people’s expectations to levels beyond the system’s capability to respond. Decentralised planning followed a ‘festive approach’ that characterises the launching of many a government programme in Kerala. The opposition led by the Congress Party began a political attack on the people’s planning. They alleged that the programme was being tailored to suit the interests of the leading ruling party. The UDF constituted an enquiry committee and published a report sharply critical of the implementation of the programme, presenting evidence of corruption and mismanagement from a selected number of panchayats. The real reasons for the ire of opposition parties, especially the Congress, were obviously political in nature. The Congress Party felt that the credit for the decentralisation programme was being appropriated by the CPM in the name of people’s planning neglecting their party’s, especially Rajiv Gandhi’s, contribution to the 1993 Constitutional Amendments.
Hegemony of institutions
The concept of hegemony was experimented in the people’s planning. Every organisation or institution - be it organisations of white collar employees, workers, cooperatives, students, women or even cultural bodies - was hegemonised with the movement. But hierarchical organisations such as employees associations, trade unions, students organisations and the cooperative bodies could not be enthused to support and strengthen the decentralisation process. Many organisations, especially the associations of government employees, are openly antagonistic and even opposed several attempts to deploy departmental staff to various tiers of panchayat raj.
A committee set up to recommend measures for the implementation and institutionalisation of the decentralisation process, chaired by the former Vice chairman of the West Bengal State Planning Board, S.B. Sen, had submitted a four volume report( popularly known as Sen Committee Report) that included detailed recommendations including deployment of departmental staff. However, resistance from the associations of government employees was such that so far no substantive steps have been taken by the government.2 While powerful sections in every political party oppose the decentralisation process, because of the enactment of the Panchayat Raj Bill, they are all formally committed. But there is no such compulsion for the bureaucracy, especially its powerful organised tiers at the middle and lower levels.
Poor administrative support
The people’s planning faced with fundamental constraints in institutional capacity building. What has been followed was called ‘a big bang approach’ by deciding devolution of 33% of plan funds and embarking on a ‘campaigning’ mode to shake up the system. It was just like putting the cart before the horse or reversal of the normal sequence of events. Panchayats could not cope with the administrative or organisational challenges of spending so much money (nearly one to one-and-a-half crore of rupees per panchayat per annum). The absence of sound administrative support created a critical vacuum and often led to conflicts between an ‘inexperienced’ political executive and an ‘experienced’ administrative executive. Technical support was near absent and hence the voluntary experts were inducted in the form of ‘Key Resource Persons’ for facilitation and ‘expert committees’for vetting of plans. The powerful and large rent-seeking departments in government, particularly in public utilities such as irrigation, public works, water supply and electricity distribution, did not give up their considerable powers.
There were some gains. For the first time, village panchayats have been freed from the clutches of the Public Works Department in matters relating to the design and implementation of construction works. So too in the case of minor, really minor, irrigation and small drinking water projects. Overall, given such dismal failures to restructure and redeploy the bureaucratic system, a demand has arisen for the establishment of a Development Administrative Service along the lines of the Indian Administrative Service. A paradigmatic challenge indeed to the mediocratic hegemony in the state’s bureaucratic system! The one-third representation of women in elected panchayats would never have become a reality without constitutional backing. Women in leadership positions in the panchayats have often felt the heat from men and some have been forced to abdicate, even though many women representatives are related by family and kinship to men in politics. More important, their political visibility remains low in this ‘socially and politically progressive’ state of Kerala. Nevertheless, the educated, unemployed and unrecognised women, especially the younger ones, are waiting for an opportunity.
Prepared by Biju P R,Assistant Professor in Political Science,Govt Brennen College…….