India's ambitious programme of decentralisation in the 1990s has led to a huge demand for training for local government representatives and officials.This content was published on December 20, 2001 - 15:37
The Kerala Institute of Local Administration (Kila) whose work is supported by the Swiss Development Agency, has risen to the challenge.
"The biggest problem we are facing is that for more than two centuries, India has been used to a very centralised administrative set-up," said Kila's director, Michael Tharakan.
"From there to shift over to a decentralised system, irrespective of who or what is supporting it, is a bit of a difficult task."
Accountability and transparency
About 10,000 people a year pass through Kila's classrooms. A flick through the training calendar reveals workshops on solid waste management and emerging trends in information technology, a meeting of state leprosy officers, community health programmes, courses to help women leaders develop managerial skills.
The institute, which has a teaching staff of 12, boasts a conference room, lecture halls, auditorium, computer centre and library. Two guesthouses on site offer accommodation for about 200 trainees.
"With people's participation, plans are now formulated on the basis of an area's specific problems so the development projects are those which are most suitable for the village," said A Sreedharan, a teacher and scheduled caste member of a village assembly, who is attending a training course.
"Through this process, we have created many services for the poor people - sanitation, latrines, infrastructure. We've experienced a great leap in development in the rural sector. Another thing is transparency. Everything's accountable so there's no question of corruption."
However, Sreedharan admits that there are difficulties. In the village assembly, he says, everyone raises their own problems and there are too many demands for the available funds.
Another problem, which Kila is trying to address, arises from the novelty of the decentralisation experience - there are few examples for anyone to copy.
"We are trying to evolve models," said associate professor, C R Angelique. "It's difficult to sell a concept when you are faced with a weak organisational structure and a weak information base. It's easier to sell a done project."
Kila has adopted the panchayat or local assembly of the village where it is situated to help in the formulation of its local plans.
The members are trying to drawing up a sanitation programme and professor Angelique has just presented them with an example of a waste project, which Kila has successfully helped to introduce in a slum colony in nearby Trichur.
There, committee members chose a composting unit which is now self-sustaining. Wages for the plant operators and expenses are met by selling the compost.
"With additional revenue, they are introducing industries which are related to recycling so it is also providing employment opportunities," said Angelique. "Part of the fund is also set apart to renovate a village library so it's got social spin-offs and cultural spin-offs and it all started from waste."
Teachers and trainees alike extol the virtues of devolving power and funds to local bodies but they also admit that there are a lot of problems, which need to be tackled.
Associate professor, P Madhu, said the new bodies had simply added another tier to government. To make decentralisation really effective, you have to work with people below the panchayat level, he said.
"The people who come here are from lower middle class groups. They have their own interests. They are becoming leaders because they want to have a social standing so we cannot always expect them always to be pro-poor or pro-people."
Moreover, he said, they belong to political parties so their interest has sometimes more to do with raising party profile than working for the groups they represent.
Rossily Kurian represents ward number four of the village panchayat where Kila is based. Her ward consists of 480 households or 1,500 voters. Last year, she and nine other members - six men and three women - were sworn in for a five-year term.
Although there are quotas for women - just as there are for scheduled castes, Kurian said she would not be standing for re-election.
"My house is eight kilometres away and it's in a hilly area so it is difficult for me to come early in the morning and return late at night. I cannot afford to have a taxi every day and, as a woman, it's difficult because the place is basically quite conservative and it's generally unacceptable for a woman to come home late.
"I also have to look after my daughter and I can't afford to leave her alone in the house. So I want pay more attention to my family. That's why I've decided not to stand again."
Some of the families in Kurian's ward do not have adequate sanitary arrangements; some do not have electricity
"People expect me to do everything for them and, of course, that's often impossible," she said. "When I can't provide latrines for everyone, I'm accused of favouritism. Then, because my ward is quite hilly and spread out, it is difficult to get around and inform everybody what's happening.
"People's expectations are very high and they expect me to do things which are quite beyond my capacity. They don't really understand the role and limitations of a village panchayat."
Therein lies the paradox, said Professor Madhu. Decentralisation has been imposed from above - from the national government in Delhi and the state government in Trivandrum. Kila's task, he said, is to convert that idea into a demand from the grassroots level.
"What is being managed from Trivandrum is now being managed from panchayats. This has to change. It should be more demand-driven. The people should become really participatory."
by Vincent Landon
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