Recharge local bodies

J Devika | Updated on September 03, 2018 Published on September 03, 2018

They are vital for rebuilding disaster-hit Kerala

Even as the plaudits for Kerala’s superb collective response to the unprecedented floods and landslides continue to pour in, it’s time for realistic reflection about our collective future. The happy thought that the environmental movement will be taken more seriously has not yet faded, yet there are ominous signs of that happening. As the great wave of civil social awakening recedes, the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy are already surfacing.

There are also indications that the centralisation of power within Kerala’s dominant Left may actually worsen. There is even the complaint that data vital for democratic decision-making to avoid similar disasters, such as that on water levels in Kerala’s dams, are being fudged. In the current debate about our future, the environment movement begs to be heard; however, in limited bureaucratic circles at least, there is talk of prioritising the restoration of infrastructure for capital.

Hearing all voices

But collective well-being depends on a fair hearing for all the diverse experiences of loss. From this, it is apparent that local democracy needs to be urgently strengthened for both the short-term rehabilitation and the long-term rebuilding processes.

Especially so because Kerala possesses working local self-government institutions. In the wake of the disaster, it was evident that these are the institutions to which affected people turn. In contrast, the bureaucratic rustiness introduced by the revenue department has been more than apparent. The great wave of civil social action indicates that the renewal of local democracy is a real possibility.

The danger is that we may adopt a version of the utterly-normalised pre-deluge version of ‘development’ prevalent in Kerala. Such development advocates wax eloquent on the many merits of local self-government, but remain silent witnesses to the progressive erosion of its substantial powers, and the unfettered advance of irresponsible capitalism. Stripped of political power, Kerala’s local bodies were descending steadily into mere welfare-distribution centres. Devoid of power, local bodies cannot be the mighty arms of local democracy overseeing the rehabilitation-reconstruction processes.

Instead, we may end up with them saddled with the laborious work of rehabilitation while all decisions about reconstruction are made by high-level politicians, bureaucrats, and even capital. If bureaucratic snags in distributing supplies and services persist, the worst-affected and neglected may turn to relief offered by narrow religious and sectarian groups. Bureaucratic supervision of relief claim assessment can lead to major exclusions — especially since poor tenants, people with no documents or living on what is technically waste land, who are more likely to be female and of the most disadvantaged communities, are the worst affected.

Perhaps the immediate task should be to organise grama sabhas to discuss the varied experiences of loss and trauma at the local level and a mass mobilisation to produce a ‘Disaster-Experience Report’ of each local body.Planning at this level needs to replace the highly-individualised competition for resources among elected members, or between local bodies, with approaches sensitive to the trans-boundary nature of effective environment governance. The structure of the present grama sabha must be altered so that minority views about the environment are heard.

The writer is Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

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Published on September 03, 2018
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