Today, perhaps for the first time after early August, the Chengara land struggle attained some front-page space in the newspapers. It was front-page news in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The Hindu, which reported the ongoing efforts for negotiated settlement. The Revenue Minister, K.P.Rajendran, and the Minister for the Welfare of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, A.K. Balan, held talks with Laha Gopalan, and other solidarity council members, and “promised them that the government would do everything within its power to meet their demand for provision of land to the landless among the Scheduled Castes and other similarly placed sections and assured them that there was no question of the government resorting to repressive measures against the agitators”. However, the Ministers revealed that” the government could promise to give them only land that is already with it or that which could be taken over without the possibility of further litigations.”
So far so good, and obviously we are in here for a long haul. The leaders of the agitation apparently made it cleared that they were not demanding the immediate assignment of the estate land but a more comprehensive package. The government has also announced that medical camps will be conducted in the struggle point and that the road bloackade will end. Relief, indeed, after so many tense days.It is clear that the real hard work begins now. Pressure will have to be kept up until the package is announced; it will have to debated, and adequate monitoring of its implementation will have to be assured through, perhaps, a national monitoring committee.
But as a historian, I’d say that that this is indeed an opportunity to attain greater clarity on the political relevance of political decentralisation and local planning. In the mid-1990s, it was projected as a panacea to all possible ills — from Kerala’s fiscal crisis, to non-sovereign forms of power. The People’s Planning Campaign shifted the focus to local-level development, promising to transform welfare recipients into small producers. In itself this was an interesting proposition in some ways: one that focused on small capitalism rather than neoliberal extractive growth, and promised to make poor citizens independent of state welfare.
More than ten years after it took off, it appears that Kerala’s own ‘Third Way’ social democracy failed to integrate citizens into the market on fair terms — due to several reasons. It, instead, enabled the massive expansion of welfare and of the distributive culture in general. Indeed, the spending patterns of the local governments indicate that productive sector investments, and returns from such investments, are unacceptably poor. In contrast,spending on infrastructure and welfare sectors is high. Even in the productive sector, the number of projects that are of a distributive nature is high. Secondly,welfare remained all the more individualised — the share of individual-beneficiary projects in the total number of welfare projects remains quite high. Both these indicate that patronage structures may thrive, in spite of the Grama Sabhas.In other words, the dependence of welfare recipients on both the state and the political parties continues, and the liberal promise remains undelivered.And now, of course, we witness the rush to embrace neo-liberal extractive growth — the rush for the SEZs– in Kerala.
More crucially, however, local governance ushered in a new regime of state welfare in Kerala. Welfare, which was claimed as ‘people’s right’in Kerala since the 1950s — as citizenship, indeed — became subject to ‘responsibilization'(the idea that welfare recipients should be made responsible and productive and indeed, that, ultimately, they should be made responsible for their welfare). Also, the ‘informal sector woman worker/housewife’ was now recognised as the central subject of state welfare.The result was the proliferation of what are informally ‘work-for-welfare’schemes — the BPL women’s self-help groups, the major beneficiaries of welfare now, are often treated as the panchayats’ severely underpaid development workforce. The growth of micro enterprise among these groups, however, has been sluggish.In any case, Kerala’s development establishment hardly sees the difference between the woman who desires financial autonomy, and the mother who considers herself to be a ‘secondary earner’ for the family — and that all their plans to transform the poor woman into an independent producer thriving in the market may come to naught if the former ideal is not actively encouraged.
But the most visible failure of the experiment was its failure to address oppositional civil social movements that raised questions to non-sovereign forms of social power. As far as patriarchy was concerned,it seemed as though (a certain version of) liberal feminism had gained extraordinary ascendancy over all other streams of feminist critique through the thirty-three percent reservation in political decentralisation, and through the gender mainstreaming efforts in local level planning.The new message seemed to be: ‘Give women a share of the state’s institutional and developmental cake, and patriarchy will wither away [within an unspecified time period]’. Yet it was apparent that as long as [below poverty line] women, dalits, adivasis, and other government welfare categories remain at that level, even the utilisation of funds earmarked for these groups in local planning may remain poor.The demand that these funds be used effectively has to come from these groups, and this would be impossible without the radical politicisation of these groups. In other words,it was evident that political decentralisation and local level planning could not challenge non-sovereign forms of social power.From the mid-1990s, time and again,it has emerged that sexual violence against women and the denial of basic human rights to sexual minorities,or the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS patients do not go away with minimum welfare entitlements. It was also clear that new political subjectivities, new claims to radical political citizenship by groups that were hitherto mere governmental categories — like widows — and even by hitherto abjected groups — the sex workers — will continue to come up.
And now, Chengara questions decisively the ‘welfarist resolution of the caste question’emergent in the mid-1990s.Also, it represents an effort, from the most deprived sections in Kerala, to redefine minimum entitlements, to announce what it needs to be, in order to be meaningful to the poor.It reminds us that development cannot shie away from questions — and the questioning — of social power (as distinguished from forms of patronage fostered by political parties). I have always felt that the post-independence history of Kerala needs to be rewritten as the story of competition between different systems of welfare — mainaly between left-hegemonised public welfare and welfare instituted by religious and community organisations — the Christian Church, being the prominent one — and the subjectivities they enable. It seemed that this story was acquiring new twists, in the light of the Church’s interventions on behalf of the displaced at Moolampily against the LDF government’s eviction efforts.But it seems now that Chengara will cut a different path.