Whose Resource is it anyway?

I visited Kerala in 2008, along with other volunteers of Parivartan, to understand the implementation and functioning of one of the progressive Panchayat Raj institutions [PRIs] in India. While Kerala has arguably a good Panchayat raj act relative to many other states, it still falls way short of being ideal, as it doesn’t give full power to the people through Gram Sabhas. The much proclaimed People’s planning campaign that started in 1996 with the goal of giving power to the people by decentralizing decision-making and distributing the executive power in local areas still remains a dream. As all the central funds flowing into PRI institutions are tied to particular schemes and very small discretionary funds available to PRIs, the idea of people discussing and deciding their priorities through Gram Sabha meetings remains ineffectual.  If the implementation of the plan is bad in Kerala, it is worse that other states haven’t even conceived any such ideas of decentralization efforts yet.

The era of absolute centralization of authority by Government has run its course and people are protesting demanding that they should be part of decision-making involving their community, the lack of which has been disastrous. One such story is that of Plachimada, Kerala; story of depletion and pollution of ground water which is the community’s only clean drinking water source, by a beverage company. Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd set up their plant in Plachimada in the year 1999 after getting permissions from the Government and PRI. But as soon as the people realized that their water sources are being polluted and depleted, protests erupted. The villagers, mainly Adivasis, began their agitation on April 2002, demanding their rights over the local water and the struggle still continues. Even though the plant has been shut down from Aug 2005 after the local Panchayat and Pollution control board’s order, the  water is still highly contaminated making it unfit for drinking. Around two thousand Adivasi families living in proximity to the plant neither have access to clean natural drinking water nor resources to buy water everyday for their consumption. Coca Cola company has refused these charges and has not taken responsibility for the water pollution. Meanwhile Coke has just announced 22 per cent increase in volume in India during 2009, leading others in a mind-boggling chunk of Coke’s 3 percent increase worldwide. How Ironic?

Come this April, this struggle will enter 8th year with no end in sight. Kaniamma, a local adivasi woman active in the struggle, said “The Company came to our land and used our resources. It dried up our water and now we are forced to buy water from outside. How can we afford water pipelines or buy water for Rs. 700-800 when we hardly make Rs. 100 a day and survive in this high inflation times?”

In 2002 the state government announced a 3-crore rupees alternate water supply scheme to bring clean drinking water to the affected area from neighboring places. But this scheme has been held up for seven years because of the delay in getting the technical sanction and approvals from government departments while people continue to suffer. In the meantime, people of Plachimada are fighting the case in the Supreme Court against the company to provide compensation for their losses and the government to provide clean drinking water. If only the bureaucrats were directly accountable and answerable to the people, a seven year delay for a technical sanction could have been very well avoided.

If the situation in Plachimada is of damage control and redemption, there is new trouble brewing in Puzhakkattiri village in Malappuram district. Local Panchayat proposed bringing in a wood processing and training complex in one of their wards. People of the area are against establishing the complex as it is planned in middle of residential area. They did not want to be subjected to the noise and water pollution from the plant as it may run up to 20 hours per day in 3 shifts.  Also, they believed that it will not benefit their community as employees may come from other places. With this, people voted and passed a resolution against this project in their Gram Sabha and the Panchayat conceded. What was supposed to be a success story for local governance turned sour when state government stepped in. Since Panchayat and State Government belonged to same political party, the government put undue pressure on the panchayat to proceed with project as they wanted to add this to their list of accomplishments in the state. Now the people of the area have set up an indefinite samaram[protest] vigil outside the proposed area and have vowed to oppose this project until its withdrawn. The Panchayat president who wants to listen to her constituents is pushed to go against their wishes because the decision was made by someone whose interest is to promote the party and the state government, not the local Panchayat. This goes directly against the spirit and the idea of Panchayat Raj/ local self Government conceived by the Indian government.

The struggles of Plachimada and Puzhakkattiri are not unique case by any means; there are many such instances like Mehdiganj, Dhinkia, Raigad, Singur, and the list goes on. These struggles raise the important question of who should govern the local natural resources and who should be taking decisions on matters that impact the ecology and livelihoods: the people living in the community or the government officials?

One of the popular movements in India currently is Swaraj Andolon or Local Self Governance led by social activist Arvind Kejriwal among others. The movement aims to bring in a legislation which will transfer control of local area’s funds, functions and functionaries to the citizens of the area. Such a move will decentralize decision-making, distribute executive power to the level of the average citizen and ensure accountability of the bureaucracy. If the people were allowed to collectively determine their priorities, above said struggles could have been avoided.

My study of PRIs in Kerala and elsewhere has taught me that the unharnessed power of local self-governance by the people has the potential to usher in an era of true participative democracy in India.

Verdict: Policy of De-centralizaion and Local Governance is Great and doesn’t fall into our: “Stupid-Crazy-Evil” category of politics.

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About Freak-o-litics!

Political junkie!
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One Response to Whose Resource is it anyway?

  1. Deepak Alevoor says:

    You should write more..Happy to find this blog, hope ur working with AAP

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