Book Review: Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Compaign for Decentralized Planning

The People’s Campaign for Democratic Decentralization mobilized over three million of Kerala’s people as the largest experiment in local democracy in the world when it was launched in 1996 under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. The pro-active methodology offered by the Campaign involved empowerment for elected local bodies to work out their own planning and project proposals.

Local Democracy and Development

T.M. Thomas Isaac & Richard W. Franke describe the background as well as its process in each stage and evaluates the outcome of the Campaign in the book, “Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning”. Through knowing the Kerala’s Campaign for decentralization, we can learn about the possibility to have local people’s direct participation in planning for development projects, the importance of achieving a high quality of participation, and a new type of process for decentralization.

The Kerala experiment provided a range of planning activities at four levels: grama (rural) panchayat or urban neighborhood, block, district, and state. Several kinds of groups and meetings were organized such as

  • gram sobha (village assemblies) to discuss problems
  • development seminars at the panchayat/municipality level to formulate local level plans
  • task forces to prepare the project proposals
  • council meetings to finalize annual plan document
  • block and district panchayats meetings to finalize the annual plans.

When each task force was created, the participation of officials and local level experts was required. Many local level experts for proposal writing might be found due to quite high literacy rate in Kerala. The author mentioned that Kerala’s literacy rate of over seven-year old people was 91% in 1991 because of The Total Literacy Campaign which started from 1988. Thus, it may be difficult to organize teams like these task forces in regions with low literacy rate.

However, it is interesting to see that local people can have high interest and enthusiasm for planning and finalizing their proposals. During the training camp held for all panchayat presidents, secretaries, and Key Resource Persons, project clinics were set up.  Participants could get advice from subject experts in the clinics, and the project clinic went on past midnight due to participant’s enthusiasm.

One of good achievement of the Campaign was to achieve a high quality of participation by focusing on small groups and providing enough training programs for facilitators. Mobilizing people in a large scale to participate in the grama sabhas presented the problem that people may hesitate to speak in front of even 200 to 300 participants. Participants were divided into small groups and organized around a particular development sector. In this small group form, ordinary people, especially women, were able to join in the discussions.

The small group approach required a large number of trained facilitators who can lead the discussion in each group, so the Campaign provided a three-tier training program at state, district, and panchayat/municipal level. This small group approach can remind us that the quality of participation should not be evaluated by only the number of participants and how often they join in workshop/meetings even if campaigns/projects scale up.

The Kerela Campaign showed the importance of moving forward with decentralization without waiting for institutional preparations. Typically it would be considered that certain preconditions such as administrative support structures, awareness, and training personnel have to be met for successful decentralization. In Kerala’s case, the LDF ministry made a decision to set aside 35 to 40% of the ninth five-year plan outlay for projects and programs to be drawn up by Local Self-Government Institutions (LSGIs). The government did not wait for the gradual process of building capacity for administration, and this decision compelled the government to carry out essential reforms to create appropriate conditions. Therefore, Kerala’s example showed that traditional “preconditions” can come after taking action.

The process of mobilizing people with mass participation, including ordinary people and non-official experts, can be seen during the process of the Campaign. The story of the Campaign tells us that decentralization is not only the goal, but it can be also a tool for mobilizing people and other conditions which had been considered necessary for decentralization.

Kerala’s example cannot be a standard model with its specific background, but it is worth to see as a good and unique example of decentralization with bottom-up planning. The book is a good tool to capture the essence of the People’s Campaign and provide hints and courage for going forward with decentralization.

The book is available in Amazon
*You can also learn the campaign from a short paper written by one of the authors. “Campaign for Democratic Decentralization in Kerala”

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