It is now about twenty-five years since the CPM in Kerala took the calculated risk of meeting neoliberalism half-way through an experiment in localising development. The People’s Planning Campaign drew eclectically on a range of ideologies, from Gandhian self-reliance to neoliberal self-help, not always in ways that were sufficiently self-conscious, but there can be little doubt that there was a conscious effort to build in some mechanisms, however minimal, to counter the possible ill-being that neoliberal responsibilized welfare could inflict.
It is a moot question how much these mechanisms have worked. Studies have shown that welfare delivery improved considerably since democratic decentralization and that women gained a significant, if limited and still deeply gendered, role and space in local governance in these years. Studies also seem to indicate that the direction of the LSG institutions has been not so much towards becoming constitutional bodies strengthening rights-based citizenship at the local-level, as service- and welfare-delivery institutions catering to ‘clients’ (or ‘customers’, as an official speaking in the session on local governments in the conference organized by the Government of Kerala the other day, Kerala Looks Ahead) or ‘welfare beneficiaries’. Not surprisingly then, despite the fact that the improved welfare distribution has provided a much-wanted economic cushion to the lower-middle in Kerala, it has surely not lessened economic or social inequality for the most.
Yet it is vital to not lose hope. In general, the policy directions of the Kerala government are driven by the ‘infrastructural imagination’ as elsewhere. This affords enormous space and vital role for big capital both as beneficiaries and implementing agencies; the impacts of this are already showing. Officially, the People’s Planning approach is still advanced by the mainstream Left. Also, there is plenty of evidence, in the wake of two major floods and the pandemic that Kerala’s ability to cope with the vagaries of climate and other disasters that may indeed be the defining characteristic of the 21st century depends immensely on the network of LSG institutions, including the Kudumbashree network. Again, whatever may be the policy changes afoot that may benefit capital, the discourse of local governance in Kerala is still informed in large measure by the moral language of liberal governmentality.
Below, I would like to raise six thoughts about the future of People’s Planning in Kerala, all of which have arisen from my experience as a field-researcher on local self-government of the past fifteen years. I suggest that we take into account the ground realities of social change and be prepared to make not just some additions, but revise the very framework itself. I do believe that if we do not do this, then it is very likely that the LSG framework may get ossified and it may even degenerate fully into an impediment to democracy.
(1) It is important to acknowledge that many new oppressed/exploited/marginalized social groups that demand resources and acknowledgement from authorities have emerged in Kerala since the 1990s. These are quite different from the caste-communities that anchored Kerala’s conservative civil society; quite the opposite. They claim identities, often, but are in practice voluntary communities-in-the-making which cut across caste and community for the most. While community of transgender people have gained a degree of visibility in the eye of the government, there are many more which are more of less still invisible. For example, people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations, sex workers, informal sector women workers who have recently organized (who find it hard to derive much benefit from the housewife-oriented Kudumbashree), and others. Secondly, there are many burgeoning ‘biosocial’ communities — of Endosulphan sufferers, sickle-cell anemia patients, people with disabilities, recepients of palliative care, seniors facing ageing-related infirmities, and so on.
It is true that LSGs have often served sections of these communities commendably, in providing welfare resources. However, the challenge is to recognize these as specific collective voices in the local, and to ensure that they shape priorities actively on the ground, so that benefits are not reduced because of one-size-fits-all programmes from above.
Needless to stay, democracy in the twenty-first century is furthered by such a civil society, and not by caste-community institutions which are prone to majoritarian political inclinations. Especially, it is interest of the political left to foster it. Therefore, a key question for our local self-government policy must be about integrating the interests of these marginalized groups, of addressing their demands and meeting their demands in the framework of Kerala’ panchayati raj, from the Grama Sabha upward.
(2) Unlike in the late 1990s, capital is a major, even decisive, presence in Kerala’s rural panchayats. The sizes and shape it takes, the impact it makes differ quite drastically — from the experience of the so-called ‘twenty-twenty’ experiment in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat where a corporate company has now taken over local self-government, to Pallichal where illegal quarrying seems to have inundated local governance with corruption, to some coastal panchayats in which the panchayat stays beholden to powerful new real estate and landed interests.
If the LSG structure is not to completely instrumentalized to the different ends of capital, then surely, its framework needs to be altered to draw in capital explicitly into local governance directly, and not merely by evoking corporate social responsibility. Corporates setting up plants in rural areas, in other words, have to be made to grow local roots — and participate in governance, doing their part. If this is not prioritized, given the great upswing in predatory natural resource extraction in the wake of the state’s ‘infrastructural imagination’ of growth and development, it is almost certain that the local self governments will have to reduce themselves, in effect, to powerless service-providers, and not constitutionally-mandated institutions of democracy.
Worse, pretending otherwise can only deepen the neoliberal logic of government in ways that unbridle it beyond a calculated risk. We have seen this happening, for instance, with state’s policy on granite quarrying. In this case, liberal governmentality is not abandoned openly’; rather, it is retained as a façade while being steadily hollowed out with the neoliberal logic of government advancing in stealth. Thus pressure from civil society forces the government to stay away from giving direct incentives to quarries and actually to bring in disincentives. But they are weak, so poorly implemented, that people are prompted to reason ‘backward’ — i.e. weak and poorly implemented disincentives are read as silent assent by authorities for quarrying.
This non-transparent, stealthy, policy process can only undermine democracy in the long run. The reality of capital’s presence, force, and possible impact must be acknowledged and the framework of LSG in Kerala must be made adequate to the task of making capital grow roots in whichever rural area it has entered, such that it contributes to its well-being and sustainability beyond corporate social responsibility.
(3) It is by now undeniable that ‘governmental labour’ — the contribution of women to the different aspects of the work of local governance through the Kudumbashree network and otherwise — is a prominent element of the labour of Malayali women in the twenty-first century. Studies show that this is vital to the functioning of the LSG, if poorly acknowledged and rewarded, and its value was doubly revealed in the recent climate-change related disasters and during the pandemic.
The role played by the women of the Kudumbashree network during the pandemic must be assessed, I believe, in the background of the general consensus about the possibility of future pandemics in the twenty-first century as well as the discussions about the possible deepening of the surveillance state and the threat it poses to democracy.
In the twentieth century, communist militancy in mid-twentieth century Kerala was able to blunt the bureaucratic edge of the post-independence developmentalist state — by challenging rules, supporting the squatter-poor, and militantly advancing the demands of the poorest. Likewise, I wonder, can this huge state-centric development civil society be transformed in a way that could minimize the threats to democracy raised by the surveillance state? For sure, communist militancy did not thwart the developmentalist state, and it is equally certain that Kerala’s development civil society will not bust the surveillance state. However, it can soften its impact to preserve democracy in its face.
What I am suggesting is that we must make an active effort to reimagine the development civil society that is now the very base of local governance in Kerala in a way that goes beyond the much-flogged clichés of ‘women’s empowerment’, in which women are taken to be empowered when they serve the government and their communities. First of all, we need to honestly acknowledge that the contribution of women to local governance is indeed labour that needs to be rewarded fairly. Secondly, Kudumbashree members should be seen no more as just agents of responsibilized welfare, but as bulwarks of democracy in the face of the surveillance state. This requires a total ideological rehauling of the SHG network itself, endowing it with new values that will transform its members as citizens capable of limiting the surveillance state’s intrusions.
(4) Available research has documented well the decline of the Grama Sabha as a forum of citizens’ deliberation at the local level and its persistence as a forum for welfare-beneficiaries alone. But we have also seen, in key instances, how these forums have been used by vested interests to override ecological caution and even attack the voices that demand it.
It is a fact well-evident in the available researcher that the neoliberal welfare-benefit seeker is no longer a new or rare political subject in Kerala’s LSG. Indeed, this is the offspring of the ‘calculated risk’ that the Left in Kerala took in the 1990s — of the new regime of individualised, responsibilised welfare, which was somewhat tempered and still sheathed in the moral language of liberal governmentality. Welfare-benefit-seekers aim at maximising individual benefits, and have very little sense of ‘collective interests’ beyond the idea of it as the sum total of many tiny individual interests. Naturally, concerns about ecology and long-term sustenance are dismissed as ‘cheap talk’ and this is presently the political culture of the Grama Sabhas.
Perhaps we can leave the Grama Sabhas to the welfare-benefit-maximisers, but the fact that concerns about collective welfare and long-term sustenance are often minority concerns and have no voice in the LSGs looms in our face. But we have to think of ways in which the voices of ecological caution can be better heeded at the local level. The current energized thrust on waste collection and management is very welcome but it is a very tiny part of the ecological crisis we face. Indeed, the problem often is the penetration of the ‘infrastructural imagination’ of development even at the local level, manifest, for example, in the fascination with tarring and concreting and endless building. The dangers of this were evident during the great flood of 2018, but we have not changed a wee bit.
(5) It is also time that we changed the framework of LSG to seriously and honestly address the issues of people directly reliant on natural resources, in ways that are truly empowering to them. The challenges that became apparent in the wake of Cyclone Okhi and during the pandemic on coastal regions made it clear that local governance was not as powerful here as elsewhere. It is time we began to think of ‘coastal panchayats’ — integrating coastal wards and formulating special mandates and powers for them. At present, coastal wards are often parts of panchayats which contain a greater number of inland wards. Moving towards community-based coastal zone management may be vital if decentralized governance is to work for our coastal people who are especially vulnerable to climate change.
Similarly, it is high time the LSG framework be made adequate to the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the interest of Kerala’s tribal communities. They are among the most vulnerable communities in the face of twenty-first century challenges. This proposal, obviously, goes far beyond acknowledging them as welfare beneficiaries.
(6) Finally the forested and forest-fringe panchayats need to be strengthened to address sensitively the problems raised by the narrowing of the human-animal interface. The rampant destruction of forests and reckless plunder of natural resources in the recent years have deprived much wild life of natural habitat and they now frequently enter villages, creating destruction. More importantly the narrowing of this interface has serious health consequences, as evident in the pandemic.
This is an emerging trans-disciplinary challenge and it has its urban version as well, in the management of feral animals and urban wildlife both of which play a complex role in preventing epidemics in cities. It requires perhaps a serious transformation of our tacit everyday understanding of the human-animal interface, and of the impacts of wild/feral animals on our lives.
Perhaps the last point points us towards even the need for another name: is it just ‘People’s Planning’, or “Planning for Life’? I must say that the latter sounds right at this moment.