Decentralisation, elite capture and poverty reduction

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Posted on:02-01-15

 

My previous blogs had dwelt on the successes of the poverty eradication approach of Elapully and Nedumbassery Panchayats in Kerala. However, I had also questioned the completely local approach to poverty reduction and wondered whether that might succeed in all conditions.

 Kerala, sadly, also provides evidence that not all efforts in local poverty eradication are successful.

While Kerala is considered a success in its efforts at rapid reduction of poverty, it is not far back that the State was also infamous for the heinous practice of untouchability. Till the efforts of social reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bore fruit, the people of Kerala lived in a society fractured by rigid rules of how much distance was to separate castes, which even went to the extent of declaring that in some cases, the shadow on an individual falling on another was polluting.

The most wretched sufferers of Kerala’s insane caste hierarchy were the Nayadis, or forest dwelling tribes. These were considered as ‘un-seeable’; even the sight of them was considered polluting. In the northern part of the State, many of the Nayadis comprised of small groups of isolated tribal communities, some of them were literally in the stone age. When these densely forested areas were opened up for plantations and timber extraction, people from the plains came up to reap wealth, and the tribes withdrew even further into the jungle.

 Today, these tribal communities continue to suffer extreme poverty and deprivation. Many of them do not have the natural genetic immunity to communicable diseases due to their long isolation, and chronically suffer from debilitating ailments such as tuberculosis. Malnutrition is rampant and so also its consequences of high maternal and infant mortality and stunted mental and physical growth.

Kerala’s big bang decentralisation has not helped these communities to prosper to the extent they should. Most are scattered, or are not numerically significant enough to be politically important. They do not have adequate public representatives from their groups to negotiate effective anti-poverty programmes for themselves. More vocal groups amongst the poor are able to better negotiate politically, to garner benefits for themselves.

These observations highlight the fact that there are no hard and fast rules in how poverty programmes are to be implemented. In the overall analysis, while decentralisation and flexibility in local choice will vastly improve the relevance and effectiveness of anti-poverty programmes – as the examples of Elapully and Nedumbassery show - the possibility of elite capture is a real and ever present threat, even in relatively more equal societies such as Kerala. Besides, even amongst the deprived, there is a real danger that in a completely decentralised approach the marginally poor might edge out the marginalised poor. 

In the balance, India needs a much more decentralised approach to poverty reduction. However, in the case of ensuring the well-being and prosperity of the abjectly poor who are unable to negotiate a fair deal for themselves, conditionalities from the top reserving expenditure for them, will be required. In addition, independent monitoring will also be required to see that the expenditures reserved for the poorest, are monitored independently. 

 

 

 

 

 

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