Interview | People's Planning is revolution : Thomas Isaac
August 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the People's Planning movement in Kerala. Thomas Isaac, CPM central committee member and former Finance Minister of the state who has been one of the prime movers of this movement, talks at length about its relevance and what it means for contemporary Kerala. He was the member of the state planning commission during the E K Nayanar government of 1996.
Are you satisfied with the outcome of the People's Planning?
I am proud of what we could pull off but never satisfied fully. Even though many have expressed concern about the results, the 2018 deluge and the Covid-19 pandemic have reinstated our trust in the local bodies. The latest annual report on state finances by RBI has dedicated a whole page to talk about the work of our local bodies in preventing Covid-19 spread. There are disagreements at the state level leadership of the parties. However, we can see that it doesn't exist at ground level. Members of all parties are part of the prevention activities. At local bodies, standing committees are inclusive. This stage was set during the period of People's Planning. They take part in governance. People's participation is ensured through grama sabha, seminars, action committees etc.
This is a revolution. We created a democratic space at the lower level. You don't need influence in the state government to get things done. You don't need to know your MLA personally either. You can speak to the panchayat president. Or at least, to your ward member. The members can do so many things for you.
You should visit ward 10 of Mulanthuruthy grama panchayat. The left-leaning Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad members have initiated many projects like waste management in the ward represented by a Congress member. It runs smoothly. I am not saying this is the scene in every panchayat. But, there are opportunities for a local body member that People's Planning opened up.
We know there were roads and bridges built during the People's Planning. What did we achieve in the long term? How do you explain it to the millennials?
Rapid fire. One, students were abandoning public schools. Now they are coming back. We have the country's best education system in our public schools. Two, the number of people visiting hospitals was just 38% earlier. Now it has risen to 48%. Three, local roads are doubled and they are in a better condition now. Four, we built 20 lakh houses in the last 25 years. Five, Kerala has the lowest poverty rate in India. We weren't like that (when the state was formed). Six, Kudumbasree, buds schools and other such projects helped the underprivileged in the state.
But this is insufficient. For example, production in the state has not increased as we aimed.
What would have been the future of People's Planning if the Nayanar government had a continuation in 2001?
It would have been very much different. However, I will not say growth will only happen if the left governments keep returning to power. There were four different governments after People's Planning. It only got better and sustainable.
We attempted to decentralise power back in 1957 and 1967. They failed. Then there were district councils. It was idle after the elections. What made the difference in 1996 was that the People's Planning had active involvement of people at the grassroots level. It was a movement. It had flexibility. It could go out of the box. However, before all the experiments were institutionalised, the movement lost momentum. Change of government was the reason. Even now, the institutionalisation is incomplete and some are fragile too. We could not send as many officers as planned to the local bodies.
During the planning, we thought we could finish the project in three to four years. The gravity was realised only when it started to roll.
Decentralisation was a fashionable term across the globe during that time. Wherever the World Bank has brought in the structural adjustment programmes (loans for the weak countries), they have demanded decentralisation. But that is different from what we did. We did not learn from them but Gandhi ji. Their programme did not succeed anywhere. Literally. Opposition against the World Bank funding became opposition against decentralisation in these places. Latin American countries also experimented in their own way.
Look at the situation of local self-governments in other states in India. Sadly, only Kerala celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 73rd and 74th amendments (Panchayati Raj system). Ashoka Mody, a retired official from the World Bank, called Kerala 'a ray of hope.' I was pleased to see that. He is not even a leftist.
You have talked about the growing middle class in Kerala. The Kerala government has major development projects on its agenda. Be it K Rail or industrial corridor or tunnel road to Wayanad. How is the developmental agenda of People's Planning reflected in these?
Subsidiarity is the principle of People's Planning. This means everything cannot be implemented at the top or bottom levels. Whatever can be done at the bottom level must be done there. Rest must be passed to the next level. Then to the next level. People's Planning attempted to hand over powers to do what could be done at the bottom level. Still, some more powers can be transferred to the local bodies.
Rs. 20,000 crores are allocated to the local bodies this year. It is not a small amount.
I feel this question is wrongly framed. I will explain. The Kerala development currently walks on two legs. At the lower levels, they implement projects they can handle. Farming, small-scale production, and services all need people's active participation. But larger projects require bigger investments and planning. It can be done only by the state government. There is no point in talking about people's participation at this level. You are represented by your MLAs at Assembly. That is the feasible participation.
We succeeded in running things at the lower levels. But we did not have money for larger infrastructure projects. So we developed the KIIFB. Whatever critics may say, projects worth Rs. 63,000 crores are on the road. Momentarily we are heading towards a knowledge society.
Both must go hand in hand. That is the comprehensive view of Kerala development from my perspective.
If we take three major projects- the land reformation, literacy movement and people's planning- proposals for a continuation of these were proposed at different times. But no fruitful progress was made. Why?
Change of rule is one of the issues. Surplus land was not acquired by the government because we couldn't continue the land reformation initiated in 1957. As a next step, an agricultural reformation was required. Not just land, we should also have given equipment for cultivation. The literacy movement could have continued with land literacy or digital literacy. Same with the case of people's planning.
But we have to see that none of these projects was destroyed entirely. Because we organised people to implement these.
You must read EMS Namboothiripad's article that appeared in 'Mathrubhumi' in 1938 where he had given a reply to C Rajagopalachari. EMS argued the decentralisation of power in the province (Madras Presidency) by the Congress government was not on par with the idea of Congress and power was not given to the lower levels. Since then, he has been mooting for decentralisation. He wanted a movement like land reformation in which at least two lakh people participated. He criticised the government publicly when things got delayed in 1996. He did not bother that our government was in power.
The infrastructure development that we moot now is just a continuation of the larger agenda. We should now develop Kerala into a knowledge society. Our farming, service and small scale industries should become knowledge-intensive. We have to adopt innovative technologies. I have explained all these in detail in my last budget.
We can continue doing what we said for the first time because we are re-elected. This government has high expectations.
A major factor of People's Planning was providing local bodies with a large sum of money. Currently, we are witnessing a concentration of power at the Centre along with 'threats to the federal system.' Be it GST or the Centre passing laws which fall under state subject. How tough is it going to be for the local bodies to run as we expect?
The consolidation of power in India is a huge challenge to decentralisation.
Finance was a major challenge to the Nayanar government during the People's Planning. 35-40% of the share was going to be transferred to the local bodies. How do we find the money? Cut it from allocations to the different departments. But they will create an issue. So at least a 30% increase in plan funds was made during that year. All this may have caused a financial crisis in the future.
During the previous government, I had to reject a proposal of the state finance commission for changing tax devolution. The state could have increased its income, almost by 50%, if we had accepted their formula. But then, it goes against the principles of decentralisation. We had to suffer to keep this running.
At the same time, many projects of the union government are implemented through external agencies. They do not give it to the local bodies. They talk about local bodies only to skip the state governments.
How did People's Planning help in fighting the Covid-19?
Look at what has been changed in the primary health care system in the last 25 years. All PHCs ( Primary Health Centres ) have hospital development committees. People participate in it. Some places have a beneficiary committee or other self-help groups. If you want to know what such a committee can achieve, visit the Punalur Taluk Hospital. 40% of the expenses of the last 25 years, including the salary to the staff, are met by the management committee through user fees, donations etc. They are advanced not just in infrastructure but in treatment too. They give individual attention to all the patients. Can you imagine it in a government hospital? You can also go to the PHCs at Noolpuzha (Wayanad) or Ottasekharamangalam (Thiruvananthapuram). They got national accreditation not just because of the state support. If a visionary doctor joins hands with a supportive local body, magic will happen. We have the set-up to make things better. Only that the responsible people need to make that decision.
When infrastructure is ready, FHCs( Family Health centres ) in Kerala focus on prevention. That is what is necessary for the present situation of the state. We have to change our lifestyle. An FHC in my previous constituency had collected cholesterol levels and other relevant details of people who come under its purview, through volunteers. They then helped the patients and the vulnerable through multiple camps. How do you do this without people's participation? What is the point of building hospitals if we can't take the treatment to the next level? See, this is the solution.
There were debates about whether the MLA fund is needed or not. Do our current MLAs inherit the spirit of People's Planning while utilising the amount?
We were against MLA funds during the people's planning era. But it has been a reality for the last 20 years and no point in discussing its relevance now. The way they spend it has also changed. Projects are implemented through local bodies. The only remaining change is the decentralisation of planning. Some MLAs are already doing that. For example, IB Satheesh of Kattakada, former MLAs James Mathew, Taliparamba, A Pradeep Kumar, Kozhikode North. They all co-operated with their local bodies. This trend has to be strengthened in future.
How do you look back at the accusations of being associated with the CIA ?
It is all a joke now. Does anyone talk about it now? But it was really serious back then. Everyone was contesting to bring new evidence about spying. Poor Richard Franke! All these people had to do was to accuse him of being a CIA agent. The onus is on him to prove that he is not. How is that even possible?
In the US, there is a freedom of information act, like our RTI. He collected information about him from the FBI. It was a huge file, though most parts were blackened out. He has been researching in different countries. The CIA has collected meticulous data about him. He was a suspect for them. And people here accused him of being a CIA agent. How ridiculous was it? At present, we are writing a new book together on the 'liberation struggle' of 1957.
However, the ideological questions the critics raised are discussed on different occasions. I have written extensively on how our project is different from the idea propelled by the World Bank. The unnecessary controversies took our precious time away. It demoralised many of our workers.
Was M P Parameswaran made a scapegoat by the party to protect you?
No, that is a wrong assumption. MP quit his job to work for CPM and KSSP as a full-timer. He inspired many of us. He was also a good organiser. He played a huge role in making me write. When the controversy became a factional fight within the party, no one looked at the essence of the discussion. Words and sentences were cherry picked and interpreted intentionally. M P was not ready to change his opinion. So the party was forced to take action. It can be debated if this is how it has to be dealt with. Dr Ekbal and Dr Joy Elamon also faced actions. They all returned and are currently in important positions. MP is at another level. It is not an issue for him. When I met him the other day, he was reading the computer screen. He can't see properly. The letters on the screen are large. He is also typing in between. When I asked about it, he said he is writing about what Kerala should do next. That is his spirit.