Watching local self-government at work has been one of the major learnings since coming to Calicut. Kerala has achieved the greatest decentralization of administration and it is a brilliant idea but has come with flaws, learnings and strategic shifts meant to get the system to work better. Local self-government as the word suggests – means just that, the people’s representatives directly administering most of the panchayat governance except for law and order. While the constant criticism I have heard is of funds lapsing, turf wars between government departments and local bodies, besides panchayat members and lower-level bureaucracy being incapable of visionary development and technical inadequacy, efforts are on to help these men and women at the grassroots understand the nittygritties and the responsibilities that come with funds and powers at their disposal.
Just for example, the NREGS system in Kozhikode has been a spectacular failure. Panchayats could not come up with projects that could give workers the mandatory 100 days of work partly due to the planners own lack of time and ability to plan, and partly due to the perception that nobody in Kerala will work for Rs.120 when jobs paying Rs.200 are available. The state then stepped in realizing the inadequacy of the decentralized process and got an expert body called Integrated Rural Technology Centre based in Palakkad to prepare a master plan on projects possible in the 78 panchayats of the district for the next five years and to identify the labour pool that can be given 100 days work. It remains to be seen if NREGS will work now and be able to rise from the paltry average of 12 days a year of work that the district is currently generating. Well, that’s something I will keep track of.
But the greatest failure of decentralization is not the system, but we the citizens. Empty audience stands at the council meeting and what I hear about sparse citizen presence at gram sabhas, which is an opportunity for people to hear their representatives and to tell them their grievances in public, shows how we are also to blame for a rotting system. We say we send these guys out to rule for five years and they don’t turn back. We never ask if we are doing our bit to keep them in check. Accountability can never be a one way street.
The motivation for this post came from a meeting of the Corporation Council that I attended today. This was my first opportunity to watch the town’s leaders in action. And the occasion did not disappoint. It was a learning experience and as I will reveal later in this post, was a humorous experience too. The Mayor is not a man who I was impressed with; his speeches at public meetings rarely had vision and are drab affairs. But his officiating at the council today was stately. He silenced the hecklers interrupting speakers, gave them opportunities to talk when they raised hands at the end of a speech and displayed a good command over most corporation affairs. The LDF enjoys a brute majority of 42 members while UDF has just 10 in the 55 member council. It was a pleasant surprise seeing the 33 per cent reservation for women in practise, but like all public stages in Kerala only a few of them rose to speak and that too a few tepid sentences yielding the stage to men to make grand, decisive speeches.
Watching the day’s proceedings, I couldn’t help but admire the LDF men. Though at the bottom tier of our democracy, these men could speak fluently about the all-powerful national UPA government and critique its actions eloquently. In a country like India with more than 50 per cent below the [real] poverty line, it’s not the BJP but a leftist party like the CPM which should have been naturally leading the opposition in parliament. To be honest, the CPM despite all their perversions and follies can speak better for the lower and lower-middle classes than any of the parties today. However the CPM continues to trip in being unable to come up with a sustainable economic model in Kerala different from the capitalist model. That Kerala under the left has a better social security net and is a welfare state compared to the India under the UPA came out today in the pronouncements the councillors made. While the central government according to them gives widow and old age pension to only people in BPL status and those who don’t have male children, the Kerala government implemented the central scheme for widows and elderly persons across the board – definitely a more sensible decision considering these are some of our most helpless groups.
Okay now to a few incidents from the council meeting…reading this post one should not take home the idea that all these guys are dimwits, some of them were real smart. There were several call-attention motions on pressing needs but I am unsure if any of these people have a vision to build a Kozhikode that can scale up for the coming boom. These are people we elected – so we can’t absolve ourselves for the quality of discussions in such meetings. But I had a jolly good laugh too and hope I get assigned for more of these meetings…both to learn and to laugh more! ;)
LDF guys ranting and raving for over an hour against globalization, disinvestment and the decision by central government to withdraw 10 lakh Group D jobs.
Me (to fellow journo): Aren’t these guys elected to deal with city issues?
He: Communistukaaralle. Polandil enthe sambhavichoonne prasangichillel meeting kazhinje manasaakshikuthe ondaakum.
(We laugh. I couldn’t help but remember Sreenivasan’s immortal movie, Sandesham.)
The Leader of Opposition stands up. I have heard stories of him from my colleagues in office. Once at a public meeting, my chief had told him about Lech Walesa. On stage, the LOP spoke about a Shaw Wallace who had freed Poland from the commies, to much laughter. Later, he blamed my chief for passing on wrong info.
LOP: If the UPA government has taken away 10 lakh jobs, they also know to brink back 9000 lakh jobs.
LDF guy: LOP, if you didn’t know, that’s about the country’s whole population. Not the number of jobs required.
LOP: Okay, okay. All I am saying is that these guys at the “Kendram”, orre nammale pole alla, nalla thala chore olla kakshikala.
(The LDF guys and we journos break out in laughter. The UDF guys hide their heads in embarrassment.)
UDF member: The Congress government would have solved this problem of price rise. All you Leftists do is blame the centre on what is a State subject.
(LDF guy stands up to rebut him and launches into a lengthy diatribe on the ruining of the PDS system by the Congress government. But then he winds up and says the following in all seriousness.)
LDF guy: The problem with you UDF guys is that you don’t read anything. At the most, some of you read tabloids like Manorama and Mathrubhumi. Vivaram vekkaan thaalparyam ondengil, try reading Deshabhimani.
(Now it was the turn of us journos to laugh)
Later an item on agenda, is the issue of buying hydraulic ladders to maintain the beautiful looking street lamps in Kozhikode, sadly none of which I have ever seen light up.
LOP (thundering): Wait, wait, don’t pass this yet. How many hydraulic ladders do we have?
Mayor: We have one. We’ll need one more.
LOP: By the way, what is this “hydraulic ladder”?
(Relief followed by laughter amongst the LDF who thought LOP was about to nail them with a real tough poser)
Mayor: Pump cheythe pokkunna eni ille. It is easier to get work done.
LOP: Aah, that I knew! (and nods his head like a beaming school boy who learnt something new)
(More laughter follows.)
A new item on agenda is about a court order to the corporation to pay compensation for a land acquisition within December.
LOP: I need more time to study this issue. Let’s hold it for next meeting.
Mayor: But the next meeting is one month away. We’ll be held in contempt of court.
LDF member(butts in gleefully): Let the LOP have his way. Just record in the minutes that the corporation could not proceed because of LOP’s objection as proof of corporation’s innocence, so that court will hold him responsible.
LOP (frantically): I withdraw my objection. Pass the agenda.
(LDF guys laugh. The LOP is the epitome of helplessness.)
The Mayor comes to one of the last items on the agenda.
LOP: I protest. This is something the UDF can’t agree to.
LDF member: Priyapetta LOP, please turn back and look. All the UDF members have left! But how can we blame them…they learn from their seniors in parliament. (More laughs…the LDF guys are using their brute majority and caustic wit to rub it in)
LOP (turning back…only 2 of the original 10 are left): Eh! I Pass.
At the end of the day, I was amazed at the reserves of confidence the LOP possessed despite being outwitted and laughed at, yet fought grandly the LDF who came armed with facts, figures and current affairs. Who knows, if the Congress can replicate its Lok Sabha and Assembly bypoll success in next year’s panchayat elections (a tall order!), our good man could very well become the next Honourable Mayor. But if citizens were present at local body meetings, wouldn't these council and panchayat meetings help strengthen our democracy and give people insight into the working of the political system and their representatives? Not to mention the healthy jokes and laughs they are missing...