A Trip To Kerala, India

Kerala, India's Campaign for Democratic Decentralization is surely one of the world's boldest experiments in instituting participatory democracy. For the last several decades, the state has used democratic centralist methods to institute bold programs in education, health care, and other public sectors. These programs have resulted in extremely high literacy rates and health outcomes for Keralans despite relatively low growth and high poverty.

In the past few years, the state has turned away from democratic centralism to participatory democracy in an attempt to add economic development to its successful record of social development. Beginning in 1997, the state has devolved authority to spend 40% of public monies to Local Self-Governance Institutions (LSGIs) at the village and district levels. The Campaign's architects hoped that this dramatic turn would spark the creation of administrive, political, and social capacities at most local levels. These developments would provide citizens with opportunities to articulate their real needs to government and to hold officials and agencies accountable to satisfying those needs. For a detailed treatment of the history, theory, and reality of this initiative, see T.M. Thomas Isaac (with Richard Franke) Local Democracy and Development: People's Campaign for Decentralized Planning in Kerala (New Dehli: Left World Books, 2000).

Between May 23 and June 6, 2000, I went with several colleagues to see this initiative first hand. The occassion was an "International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation," sponsored by the Kerala State Planning Board, held from May 23-27 in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. Some 3000 academics, practitioners, and public officials attended the conference to learn and debate the Kerala experience.

A few of us stayed on past the conference to see more of the state and visit some of its villages. The next several pages photo-document that trip.

Thanks to the spectacular hospitality of our hosts, espcially to Thomas Isaac but many others as well, whose dedication, energy, and accomplishments in deepening Indian democracy inspire us and shows us how excellent public scholarship and leadership can be, and what it can do.

Archon Fung

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