The democratic decentralisation and the people’s plan campaign of the government of Kerala during the 1996-97 period marked a new approach to development planning in the State. The gender dimension that had been built into the planning process, along with the Women Component Plan contributed to the Kudumbashree idea.
Decentralisation of Powers
Democratic decentralisation as it happened in Kerala was not only about devolution; it sought to make people participate in day-to-day governance and development planning. Progress on three fronts had been widely recognised in regard to Kerala’s decentralisation programme.
- Administrative decentralisation: local government institutions in both rural and urban areas were given new functions and powers of decision making, and officials of several line departments were brought under the authority of local governments.
- Fiscal decentralisation: Almost 40% of the State’s annual plan budget was allocated directly to the local government institutions.
- Decentralisation of political power: Elected representatives were given the autonomy to design, fund and implement a full range of development policies and projects; and people got the right to participate in the planning process through Gram Sabha.
In the process, Kerala’s decentralisation defied traditional logic, reversed the order of devolution, and launched a mass mobilisation drive to support the programme.
- Reversal of sequence of the decentralisation process; 35-40% of the State’s annual plan fund amounting to Rs 10,250 million was devolved to the local governments in the first year of decentralisation, followed by Rs 11,780 million in the second year. The total untied funds given to the local governments during the year before decentralisation was to the tune of Rs 200 million only.
- Planning as an instrument of social mobilisation; there was insistence on area plans for each local government, breaking the tradition of dividing the available resources equally between the elected members for their respective wards/ constituencies. People’s Plan Campaign was launched to empower the elected local governments by rallying the officials, experts, volunteers, and the mass of people around them, in order to facilitate local level planning addressing the real problems at the local level.
- Campaign for the creation of a new civic culture; the campaign sought to nurture a development culture that would promote grassroots democratic institutions; and worked towards creating a change in the attitude towards development process among the key players involved: elected representatives, officials, experts, and people.
An explicit aim of decentralisation was to give opportunity for as much direct participation of people in daily governance as possible. One of the major achievements of the People’s Plan Campaign had been the success in adapting the Gram Sabha to suit the specific conditions of the State and to make them effective vehicles of citizen participation in the decision making process.
This was where neighbourhood groups (NHGs) made a difference. Formation of NHGs of 40 to 50 families had been a spontaneous response from below to the limitations of Gram Sabha as a forum for discussions on development issues and planning in the State’s context. Though not required by the Act, NHGs were formed in 198 Gram Panchayats across the State. In around half of them, NHGs effectively functioned as grass roots forums for direct citizen participation in governance. A study undertaken of these 100 Grama Panchayats revealed that the NHGs were indeed carrying out the functions that supplemented the discussions and decisions at the Gram Sabha. NHGs engaged in
- Discussion of the local plan
- Review of plan implementation
- Selection of beneficiaries
- Review of general administration
It was also reported that many NHGs were involved in
- Settlement of family disputes
- Educational programmes for children
- Health programmes
- Cultural activities
- Thrift schemes
- Project implementation
NHGs in the process showed their ability to function as a supplement to the Gram Sabha; and not as substitute. NHG representatives often constituted a ward committee, which in most cases acted as an executive committee of the Gram Sabha. NHGs did help in improving the quality of Gram Sabha in their wards.
The Gender Dimension
Gender as a theme assumed particular significance in the context of reserving one-third of the seats and offices in local self-government institutions for women.
In the development reports prepared by the local government institutions through the five-stage people’s planning process, a separate chapter on women’s issues was made mandatory. This made local governments across the state think and explore on the state of women and ways of improving their state.
All training programmes across the five-stage people’s planning process included gender as a subject; this was unheard of in Kerala’s development discourse till then.
Every project, across all sectors, whether aimed specifically at women or not, had to have a statement on the project’s gender implications. This was a step that became the beginning of instilling a new sensitivity in local level planning process.
When the local government level plan documents were finalised, the extent to which the concerns of women had been incorporated had to be mentioned. This might have been done mechanically by several local governments; however, the government’s intention was clear: gender concerns were cross cutting, and these were meant to be kept alive across the planning process.
Women Component Plan (WCP)
- One of the remarkable features of Kerala’s decentralisation and the people’s plan process was the introduction of a women component plan (WCP) as an integral part of local government level development plans both urban and rural.
- The State government made it mandatory for local government institutions to earmark 10% of their annual plan funds exclusively for women’s projects from the second year of the Ninth Plan onwards.
Special guidelines were issued for the formulation and implementation of Women Component Plan (WCP). For discussing women and gender related issues, a subject group of ‘women and development’ was made mandatory. In these group meetings women were given opportunity to discuss the problems facing them and make suggestions for solutions to the problems identified.
The Government had asked the local government bodies to allocate 10% of the annual plan funds for WCP; however, it was found that the actual allocations in the first year fell far short of 10%. Projects under WCP left much to be desired; in many local governments general sector projects were packaged as WCP projects.
During the subsequent years, the suggestion to set apart 10% of the plan fund for WCP was made mandatory. The local governments were asked to hike the allocation to WCP beyond 10% in case of shortfall in the preceding years.
Many of the elected women representatives were better educated than men. However, most of them were young, lacked experience, and on several instances forced into the electoral fray for various reasons. A majority of them were not equipped with knowledge of rules, regulations, and administrative matters.
The Plan Campaign addressed these limitations by designing and administering a large number of capacity building programmes for women.
Training programmes were also conducted focusing on WCP; five volumes of training materials were prepared for this.
- Handbook on Women and Development
- People’s Planning and Women Empowerment
- Equality in Development
- Status of Women Studies
- People’s Planning; Advancement of Women
Many of the weaknesses of WCP were overcome during the second year.
- More than the statutory minimum requirement of 10% of the plan grant-in-aid was earmarked for WCP in all the districts
- Realistic project financing strategies were adopted; the over emphasis on beneficiary contribution and loan in women development projects was done away with
- There was clear improvement in the quality of projects. There was decline in the tendency to include general sector projects in WCP (This was a problem in the first year; general sector projects were included as WCP on the basis of notional and even questionable benefits to women. An example would be counting half the cost of a road project in WCP on the pretext that women would be half the users)
- New forms of development oriented women organisations such as NHGs began to emerge in more and more areas.
In short, the People’s Planning Campaign had the following components inbuilt into its overall strategy and content.
- Encouraging and mentoring women leaders at the local government level through series of training programmes and programmes aimed at critiquing the status of women
- Making NHGs the supplementary forums of Grama Sabhas
- Emphasising on continuous improvement of planning process and development programmes to ensure gender equality
- In ensuring due space for women’s agency in local governance and in firming up development projects