Leapfrogs Of Kerala’s Decentralization Drive – OpEd


The south Indian state of Kerala—the pioneer in local self-government (LSG) experiments in India—which became a model for decentralisation and local development has finally set about a long-standing demand for bringing together five government departments for augmenting service delivery. The formal launching has been made on 19 February, LSG Day—the birth anniversary of former chief minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta, who initiated the Panchayati Raj institutions in India way back in the late 1950s. The merger of five departments—panchayat, rural development, urban affairs, town and country planning and LSGD engineering—is envisaged with a view to streamlining service delivery, and as many as 30,000 employees will be put under LSGD Common Service. 

Kerala has a vibrant LSG system with 1200 local governments which includes 941 Gram Panchayats, 152 Block Panchayats, 14 District Panchayats, 87 Municipalities, and 6 Municipal corporations.

The umbrella system being put in place is designed to have multiple divisions—rural, urban, planning and engineering. The merger has been necessitated by long-held complaints of delay and lack of coordination among the departments, which affected the work of local development, planning, disaster management and waste disposal. It is claimed that with the constitution of a joint directorate at the district level, the process of planning and execution of developmental plans will get a new administrative facelift. However, this is not a substitute for the District Planning Committee (DPC) which is in charge of integrated planning for the district’s urban and rural areas—formed under Article 243 ZD of Indian Constitution.

While the LSG Minister of Kerala, MV Govindan Master, claimed that the new system would strengthen the role and activities of LSG institutions, by guaranteeing a fast-track people-friendly service delivery system, some expressed fears if it would create another bottleneck for grassroot level deliberations and activities. Those who are apprehensive about the merger (and consolidation) of administrative personnel under one umbrella are apparently worried about a ‘centralised apparatus’ within a decentralised mode of governance where people’s representatives used to have a sway. 

However, launching the new LSG unified system in the capital of Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that this being part of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) election manifesto in 2021, the LDF Government “is committed to implementing this long-delayed merger to help improve service delivery at the grassroot level.” He reminded the officials that the “government service is people’s right” and hence the government is planning to bring out a Citizen’s Charter and each Gram Sabha (the grassroot level agency of LSG) is expected to ensure its implementation through its audit report. Chief Minister also pointed out various problems of conceptualising and implementing plans at the local level due to lack of coordination. 

Milestones and Shortfalls in Decentralisation   

It was Mahatma Gandhi who conceptualised Gram Swaraj (village self-governance) as an important pillar of Indian polity long before independence. In the Gandhian perspective, the grassroot level system, Panchayati Raj, was envisaged as a decentralized mode of government in which each village would be responsible for its own affairs. However, in the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar—who was the chairman of the drafting committee—had a different position about self-government in the villages, arguing, in his 4 November 1948 speech, that “these village republics have been the ruination of India… What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” His understanding of the villages at that time was based on his assessment of the hegemonic role of caste and other vested interests who dominated the local economy and political dispensations. But he did not oppose the idea of village panchayats to be included as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Though the Constitution of India under Article 40 lays down that “the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government,” no concreate measures were put in place for long. However, the need for local bodies was felt for the first time when the Union Government began to implement the Five-Year Plans in the early 1950s, particularly when the community development programmes (CDP) were launched. 

It was the Balwantrai Mehta Committee (1957)—appointed by the Nehru government to look into the working of the CDP and the National Extension Service and to suggest measures for their better working—which recommended the setting up of ‘democratic decentralisation’ that eventually came to be called Panchayati Raj. The committee envisaged a three-tier system for village self-rule, but the original idea did not take off for quite a long. After several years, in 1978, another committee headed by Asoka Mehta (1978) came out with concrete suggestions. It, however, pointed out the basic issues in implementing it in India. The Report says: “The dis-association of the growing and complex programme of development with Panchayati Raj Institutions which were considered inadequate, the inability of the bureaucracy to be attuned to execute the programme through elected bodies, the lack of political will to foster these institutions, several internal deficiencies in the functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions and, above all, the lack of clarity about the concept itself have weakened the entire system.” The Asoka Mehta Committee Report was widely discussed and debated, but as in the case of Balwantrai Mehta Committee Report, this too was not taken up seriously by successive governments. 

Meanwhile, Kerala had gone in its own way. The history of Kerala’s LSG experience goes back to the 1950s when the first Ministry of Kerala, led by the Communist Party of India under E.M.S. Namboodiripad, brought in Kerala Panchayat Bill (1958) and the District Council Bill (1959). But the bills were not passed as the E.M.S Ministry was dismissed by the Nehru Government, followed by the dissolution of the state Assembly. However, the new government that came to power passed the Kerala Panchayat Act, 1960 incorporating some recommendations of the Balavantray Mehta Committee Report, but there was considerable dilution from the bill introduced by the Communist government. Yet, efforts continued at different levels and different times to implement decentralisation measures. It may be noted that most of the efforts underway recommended a two-tier system, besides municipalities. 

With the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, passed by Parliament in December, 1992, came major changes in the LSGs. Through these amendments, local self-governance was introduced in rural and urban India. The Acts came into force as the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 on April 24, 1993 and the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 on June 1, 1993. These amendments added two new parts to the Constitution, namely, 73rd Amendment added Part IX titled “The Panchayats” and 74th Amendment added Part IXA titled “The Municipalities”. The Local bodies–‘Panchayats’ and ‘Municipalities’ came under Part IX and IXA of the Constitution after 43 years of India becoming a republic. The amendments envisaged a three-tier system of panchayats at village, intermediate block/taluk/mandal and district levels. 

However, there was widespread criticism of the delay in the implementation of the amendment in Kerala by the Congress-led government. When the amendment was implemented, it was with several restrictive provisions, as alleged by the left leaders. The left government which came to power later, in 1996, made it the People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) with its land mark decision to devolve 35-40 per cent plan funds to local governments. PPC ushed in a new era of ‘participatory planning’ from below. 

Later, a Committee on Decentralisation (called Sen Committee) recommended necessary institutional reforms (activity mapping, performance audit, ombudsman, state development council, right to information, citizens charter etc) and legislative framework for functional, financial and administrative autonomy. Through a series of amendments to the conformity legislations viz. Kerala Panchayat and Municipality Acts of 1994, a radical restructuring was done by February 1999. New rules were also made. 

But the United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which came to power in 2001, was apparently uncomfortable with the PPC. Therefore, it changed the name of PPC to ‘Kerala Development Programme,’ which virtually terminated the campaign mode, and some major amendments were also made that undermined the spirit of PPC. Yet, the three-tier system continued to function with all its limitations. In 2009, a committee headed by M.A. Oommen, which undertook an evaluation of decentralised planning, came out with some critical comments. The Report of The Committee for   Evaluation of Decentralised Planning and Development (Govt of Kerala 2009) clearly pointed out the structural weaknesses of the LSGs. One of the major criticisms was related to the lack of coordination and expertise in handling development projects. It said that “given the poor expertise and training of the Working Group members, project formulation has ceased to be a professional exercise. In other words, decentralised planning becomes a fragmented exercise. This negates the essence of making comprehensive area plans.” 

The MA Oommen Report cited many examples of fragmented exercise. For instance, the Report says that “issues in the agriculture sector cannot be handled by the LGs alone. There are several issues of coordination and convergence which are policy-related. Lack of coordination among different departments/agencies (agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, electricity board etc) in the sector is hampering its activities. Dual control of agricultural departments will have to be avoided forthwith.”  Referring to the Working Groups and Technical Advisory Groups, the Report noted that they “provide the major technical support base to decentralized planning, especially to the DPC. Today they do not work as a Team. Filling expert groups with favourites is as good as making a mockery of the planning process itself. A panel of experts available in a district in various fields with detailed bio-data must be prepared based on the recommendations of the Panchayats and ULBs.” 

The Report further said: Coordination is the essence of multi-level planning. This is conspicuously missing. Proper coordination between the local governments and the various line departments whose functional domains fall within the LG jurisdictions is absolutely essential. There is lack of coordination between the three tiers of the Panchayats. It will be a good practice to have joint meetings of the development committees of the Block and Gram Panchayats at the plan formulation and implementation levels to avoid duplication and promote coordination and efficient implementation. Strange as it may seem there is no coordination between the budget and plan at the local government level.” It continues: “Equally important as plan formulation and coordination is plan implementation. There is no project management system. Reportedly there is a dearth of personnel. Under the decentralisation regime the work load has increased. Besides the obligatory, developmental and planning functions devolved to the Gram Panchayats, central government projects (which includes such major projects like the NREGA) and state government projects continue to increase the work load of the Panchayats. There is a wrong feeling that plan implementation means plan expenditure. Monitoring and evaluation must focus on outcomes,” the Report added. 

Several other studies and reports also pointed out the structural and institutional lacunae in implementing the three-tier system of LSG. Kerala State Planning Board’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2017-2022) Approach Paperspecifically mentioned this: “The first people’s plan campaign broadened and deepened the process of democratic decentralization in the State. Subsequently, however, there has been criticism that people’s participation has declined. The decentralization experiment has also been criticised for not having made a significant impact in the sphere of production, and for not effectively having drafted Five-Year Plans and basing annual plans on the larger view taken in five-year plans.” Likewise, Kerala State Planning Board in its Kerala Development Report: Initiatives, Achievements, and Challenges, published in February 2021, had identified some of these problems—of scrutinising and approving projects at LSGs due to the lack of facilities.” Already the Economic Review 2020 of the Planning Board had taken note of this and said: “The Integrated Local Self Government Department has been formed, unifying five departments of Local Self Government, with a view to strengthen local government system and better service delivery. It is expected that the functioning of various local governments now comes under different departments can be better coordinated. The existing Departments of Panchayats, Urban Affairs, Rural Development, Town Planning, and Engineering will come under the new umbrella.” In fact, the latest effort in putting in place a unified/integrated service delivery mechanism is the culmination of the studies and reports on the shortfalls of decentralisation and the functioning of LSGs. 

Meanwhile, the LSG experience of Kerala has already earned national and global attention due to its peculiarities—the most prominent of them are, as the State Planning Board noted, financial devolution, LSG’s vital role in plan formulation and implementation, and people’s participation in development planning. In all these areas, Kerala is far ahead of other Indian states. This is undeniably a part of the overall achievements of the state in vital sectors, such as education, health, living standards and other services.   

When UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath had warned his voters against “the state becoming Kashmir, Kerala and Bengal if they ‘make a mistake’ in the assembly elections,”  Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan  retorted saying  that “If UP turns into Kerala, as Adityanath fears, it will enjoy the best education, health services, social welfare, living standards and have a harmonious society in which people won’t be murdered in the name of religion and caste. That’s what the people of UP would want.” Other Tweets streamed: “Kerala stands out as it has the lowest percentage of people living in poverty according to the #NITIAayog’s Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index. In Kerala, only 0.71% of the population is multidimensionally poor against the national average of 25.01%.”  

Admittedly, what makes Kerala distinctly different is its historically negotiated deliberative practices and socially contingent crisis-management strategies. LSGs form part of this wider social spectrum. However, the challenges before LSGs are manifold. Already the Central allocation to the states has come down over years and even centrally-sponsored programmes are dwindling. The states already complained that the Finance Commission recommendations with regard to funds allocation have not been adhered to. The situation becomes more complex with the shortfalls in Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation which the state governments are entitled to in context of tax revenues being curtailed because of the new regime. The state revenue sources are in uncertainty with the pandemic playing its part in stagnating the economy. Given these constraints—with the state government under increasing pressure and constraints—LSGs are expected to find alternative sources for revenues, besides rationalising its expenditure. One of the long-standing criticisms of LSGs is its inability to push for productivity and thereby reducing dependency. It is a challenging task before the LSGs with the new service delivery apparatus to show a way forward for more productivity and new decentralised market mechanisms. 

The author is ICSSR Senior Fellow and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala  

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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