Where is Local Governance in the Keraleeyam 2023?
“Undoubtedly Kerala leads the Nation in Panchayati Raj”, commented Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Minister of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, while participating in the theme of ‘Local Governments in Kerala’ as a part of the Keraleeyam 2023 organised in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala during November 1-7, 2023 to showcase State’s development path and achievements as well as its journey to be a modern economy based on democratic values, sustainable growth, welfare and scientific temper.
“Undoubtedly Kerala leads the Nation in Panchayati Raj”, commented Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Minister of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, while participating in the theme of ‘Local Governments in Kerala’ as a part of the Keraleeyam 2023 organised in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala during November 1-7, 2023 to showcase State’s development path and achievements as well as its journey to be a modern economy based on democratic values, sustainable growth, welfare and scientific temper. In this discussion, many people, ranging from grassroots leaders, academicians, bureaucrats, and politicians, participated. No doubt, Kerala leads the nation in decentralisation, which is evident from the fact that it is on the top (77 %) in terms of the devolution index amongst States in transferring power and authority to the Panchayats as revealed by the Independent Assessment carried out by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 2015 Mumbai for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India.
Achieving the top position amongst the States has not happened in a day or so. It has a historical background of public action and mobilisation of people for their development. Although closer to Independence, there were some aberrations in terms of protests and agitations on various issues impinging society, but political mobilisation for better governance continued. The state was quite accommodating to responses to such mobilisations. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has designated this as a public action crucial ingredient in Kerala’s development achievements, often treated as a ‘Model’. In other words, the Kerala Model is nothing but public action for better governance.
The 73rd Constitution Amendment for rural areas (gram panchayats) and 74th Constitution Amendment for urban areas (municipalities) almost three decades ago gave a new opportunity to people to mobilise themselves for better outcomes in a participatory manner, planning and development. For this, the People’s Plan Campaign for the Ninth Plan was initiated in July 1996 with the objective that the Panchayati Raj/Municipal bodies prepare and prioritise a shelf of integrated schemes in a scientific manner so that programmes for the Ninth Plan can be selected from them on a priority basis, and evolve functionally relevant and purposive people’s participation.
It was also proposed that at least 35-40 per cent of the Plan should consist of schemes formulated and implemented by the local bodies within their respective areas of responsibility. The campaign evolved holistically as it aimed to remove functional, administrative and financial obstacles in strengthening Panchayats as the institution of self-government, as envisaged in Article 243G of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act relating to Panchayati Raj. It is the recognition of the approach and methodology of the People’s Plan Campaign that was adopted across the country for all Panchayats in 2018.
The NITI Aayog’s 2021 study on poverty shows that based on the latest figure of multi-dimensional poverty in India, merely 0.7% of Kerala's population is poor as against the national figure of 25.1%. Kudumbashree Mission, established in 1998 as a community organisation focusing on poverty reduction, livelihood security, and income-bearing employment, also contributed to Kerala's development trajectory. In 2019-20, Kudumbashree groups had overall participation of 45 lakh women in over three lakh groups.
Now, more than a quarter century has elapsed since these momentous decisions were initiated, which have radically restructured the development governance system of the State. In view of this, the Government of Kerala organised the discussion as a part of the Keraleeyam 2023 to reflect unique features of decentralisation and looking ahead.
In the seminar, among others, M B Rajesh, Minister for Local Self Governments and Excise, Government of Kerala, welcomed the participants while counting the benefits enjoyed by the people of Kerala as outcomes of decentralisation in Kerala, mainly through PPC transferring functions, finance and functionaries to local governments said that potential of decentralised government system got its practical manifestation during floods and Covid in 2018.
Decentralisation coupled with the Kudumbashree movement not only brought improvement in the quality of life of people but also expanded the prospects for economic and social development. Visualising Nava Keralam, he showed confidence that the local governments will become leaders of economic development by fostering growth and employment on par with that of developed nations, as it has been in the case of human development.
Sarada Muraleedharan, Additional Chief Secretary, Local Self Government Department, said that the last quarter century has been a period of great innovation and experimentation followed by institutionalisation setting of the rule framework. Looking for the future of local government, she maintained the need to generate more resources on the local level, design and systems thinking incorporating into administration, deepening digital governance, understanding urbanisation dynamics, accommodating migrant people and sustainable, resilient growth. To meet the above carved-out needs, she emphasised reformulating autonomy to local democracies, enabling them to provide responsive governance and inclusive welfare to the masses.
T M Thomas Issac, former Minister of Finance, Government of Kerala, said that political will was responsible for PPC and the planning, supposed to be a technical exercise, emerged as the process of social mobilisation and empowerment. Talking about the second edition of decentralisation, he emphasised the need to go beyond representative democracy. S M Vijayanand, former Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, called upon to shift the existing approach from a welfare State to a compassionate State through the emergence of de facto local government.
W R Reddy, former Director General of the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, emphasised technology in governance and infrastructure development. Sunil Kumar, former Secretary of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, drew the audience's attention towards making local government solution bodies rather than petitioning bodies. S S Meenakshisundram, IAS (Retd.), suggested engagement of Panchayati Raj Intuitions in policy making. The author of the present article suggested establishing district government at the district level by elevating the District Planning Committee and devolving powers and authority at the sub-district level by applying the subsidiary principle of work allocation.
Joy Elamon, Director General, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, emphasised the role of capacity building in PPC and also drew the attention of audience that even the social mobilisation through PPC also benefited people and their leaders in capacity building for handling participatory governance, planning and development at different levels.
To meet the challenges of local governance in future, participants suggested the revival of Voluntary Technical Crops (VTCs) to provide professional assistance to local government, more local resource mobilisation, intensifying second phase of PPC initiated in 2017 for a new Kerala, deepening exercise of coordination and convergences of various departments, holding efficient and effective Thozhil Sabha (Employment Assemblies), establishment of an Independent Audit Commission and establishment of autonomous Local Tax Monitoring Board.
(Author is former Officer of Indian Economic Services. Presently, President, Karpa Foundation, Ghaziabad)