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Profile of a bristling local government in Kerala.

Vallikunnu, Kerala gets a worthy biographer in M. Sucharita.

The monsoon rains have been whipping the fishermen's huts on the Mudhiyam seashore for days together. The sea is furious.

As the angry waves' attempt to snatch away their huts continued, fishermen rush to the Vallikkunnu panchayat president. U.Kalanathan, with an SOS: "Please do something to save our huts from beach erosion."

Mr. Kalanathan along with his panchayat colleagues sets out to meet the Government officials. They tell him there was only one solution - to get a sea wall built. As a temporary measure, a barrier with sand bags would do. But then the agencies were short of funds and they could not help out.

A sea wall from scrounged bags!

The panchayat president and his men were made of sterner stuff. They went to the nearest city Kozhikode [Calicut], and visited scores of shops and businesses. By evening they had begged, borrowed or retrieved from dumps, 8000 empty polythene bags. They also bought 20 kG of twine to close the mouths of the bags.

The president called a meeting of the fishermen and other villagers on the seashore and said they should build a sea barrier with voluntary work. The fishermen knew if they continued to wait for the Government to build a sea wall, their huts would be grabbed by the sea one by one. The next day hundreds of fisher-women living in the colony filled sand into the cement bags. Over three following days, skipping their regular work, 300 men and women turned up. And a sea barrier of sand bags was raised to protect huts in the Vallikunnu panchayat.

Canal work by a cast of thousands!:

The sea barrier construction through voluntary work caught the attention of the State. Vallikunnu, a coastal gram panchayat in the backward, Muslim-majority Malappuram district was hailed as an example of people's participation in development.

A few months earlier, a group of 2442 villagers had resuscitated a choked canal, which had gone into disuse for years. The 1650 metre canal now has a major role in irrigating the rice fields and coconut groves of the village. Voluntary work involving 600 villagers found the 1643 metre Malayattil canal also come back to life. Some 2400 people took part in the building of the Kundampaadam canal. A boat jetty was built with the efforts of 1000 men.

People's participation in development effort is a way of life in the panchayat. "It is with the spirit of attending a village festival that we take part in such projects," an elderly villager says with pride. It's not for nothing that Vallikunnu was chosen the best panchayat for carrying out projects under the 'Janakeeya Aasootharana Paddathi' [People's Plan]. It also won State-level award for energy conservation. "The awards are a recognition for our people's co-operation in the panchayat's development efforts," says the panchayat president.

Lady masons and barefoot surveyors:

The latest Vallikunnu project to hit the headlines is a training programme for female masons. Masonry is one of the last few male bastions in job-hungry Kerala. The scheme has helped 43 young women to stand on their own.

The villagers say that the panchayat could, under the People's Plan, achieve more development in just three years than in the previous two decades. "Until recently planning started from above and administrative power filtered down from the top. But under the People's Plan, planning is from below," says Mr. Kalanathan. "This is one of the major reasons for the success of the 'Vallikunnu experiment'," says Mr. Kalanathan.

"When people take a deep interest and feel a sense of involvement, it is easy to take up such projects. The biggest advantage of people's participation is the implementation of the projects in time. Corruption and cost escalation can be held in check."

The People's Plan programmes started in Vallikunnu in 1996. To ensure participation of the villagers in the panchayat's administration. several committees like Agricultural development Committee, Cultural Committee, Women's Committee, Sports Committee, Water and Soil Committee and Education committee were set up.

Then, a Resource Survey, a Water availability Survey, a Socio-economic Survey and a General information Survey were carried out. These studies, conducted by voluntary workers were completed in four months, whereas they took upto three years in other villages.

The panchayat has 13 wards and each ward has its own ward council. The panchayat also set up 112 'ayalkkoottams' [neighbourhood committees] which have a key role in implementing projects in their respective areas. While the surveys take stock of the material resources of the village, the ward councils and the neighbourhood committees play a supervisory role.

The development projects have substantially changed the village in the past three years. But according to Mr.Unnikrishnan Nair, a retired school teacher, the biggest gain has been a feeling in the minds of the people that they too have a role in the village's administration and development.

A beauty by the sea and a river:

However, if the development in the past three years is set aside, Vallikunnu is like any other Kerala village with a lot of problem. It has its share of poverty, unemployment, social evils - and a charm of its own!

The Kadalundi river and the Arabian Sea keep this beautiful village company. Some 20 km from Kozhikode, the 25 sq.km village has roughly 42,000 inhabitants, of whom a little over 90 per cent are literate.

The village has 1400 fish workers. There are 865 families that depend on agriculture for their livelihood, apart from 1500 agricultural workers. Until a quarter century ago, one fourth of the total area of the village consisted of rice fields.

'But the situation has changed drastically," Mr.Moideenkutty, a farmer said. Because of the high wages of farm labour and rise in other input costs, my rice fields have turned into a coconut grove."

Half of the 631 hectares of rice fields in the village has been turned into either coconut estates or house sites. Many former agricultural workers have moved to other sectors like building construction. Some 2000 families still live under poverty line.

The panchayat has drawn up plans to tackle shortage of housing and drinking water. As a result of proximity to the sea, water in the village is mostly saline. "We are confident that with people's participation we can solve the drinking water shortage," Mr. Kalanathan says.

End to spooky  boats and black magic men:

Recently, a drinking water scheme for the islet of Bilathuruthy in the middle of Kadalundy river [here the water is saline because of the inflow of sea water] was completed in a novel way. A half of the material cost was borne by the 20 families on the islet. Voluntary work by the villagers and support from the panchayat made the scheme successful. "For many years, we fetched water in boats from the main village. Since this was possible only during the high tide, at times we had to wait until late into the night. Now we get enough drinking water from the new scheme," a housewife in Bilathuruthy, Sujatha said.

Until three decades ago, there was no modern medical facility in Vallikunnu. A few traditional medical men and some black magic men took care of the medical needs of the people. Today there is a profusion of medical facilities in the village. These include a primary health centre and an ayurvedic clinic run by the Government sector. And in the private sector: a homeopathy hospital, 7 homeopathy clinics, 10 ayurvedic practitioners, 20 traditional vaidyas and one traditional snake-bite specialist. However, there are no hospitals with in-patient facility. There are 18 leprosy patients in the village.

Despite all these medical facilities and great advances in medical care, people still go for miracle cure and faith healing. Dr.V.P.Sasidharan, an associate professor at the Calicut Medical college who hails from Vallikunnu, points out: the death rate in the panchayat area is 6.2 while the birth rate is 24. Both are much higher than the State average. And, the average family size is six.

As always, women cop tough luck:

Like in most other Kerala villages, there are more women in Vallikunnu than men. But the women's participation in public life is very low. In the 1970s, two women's associations were very active, but they are almost defunct now. Women are generally confined to the home. The number of unemployed women is high. Besides, women casual workers are discriminated against in wages. While a male farm hand is paid Rs.100 a day, a woman gets Rs.60 to 70. In the weaving and coir yarn making units, the wage rates are even lower as they employ only women.

Upto plus Two level, girls outnumber boys and also perform better, but in higher education the number of girls from Vallikunnu drops dramatically. Those who go for higher education prefer to train as teachers.

The society has changed a lot, but the role of women at home and outside has not. Says Vilasini, a young mother who works in a co-operative canteen for women set up for the panchayat: " I get up at 4 am and do household chores until 6 am. Then I go to the canteen where I work late into the afternoon. After returning from work, I continue my household chores till bed time." Housework is still a woman's responsibility, whether she is employed or not.

Women do not show much interest in the administration of the panchayat. Very few women attend the neighbourhood and ward meetings. Their participation Gram Sabha meetings too is negligible. Middle class women and office workers generally keep off such meetings, while women labourers show some interest.

Since women rarely go to the local library cum reading room, the panchayat started a mobile library for them in April [ 1999]. For this the panchayat area has been divided into five regions. There are five volunteers who are paid Rs.500 a month each. They go to the individual homes to lend books. As the reading habit caught on, the system got streamlined and books are now distributed at selected 'anganwadi' s in each of the five regions. In nine months, some 25000 books were issued to women. " Reading is necessary for women to improve their thinking," Mr. Lakshmanan Paruthikkad, who heads the cultural committee of the panchayat remarked.

Craze for English medium schools:

There have been great social changes in Vallikunnu in the past half century or more. Like other parts of Kerala, casteism, untouchability and social stratification were prevalent. " I still remember how the feudal lords used to beat up and torture low-caste Hindus in the 1920s and 30s,' says the octogenarian freedom fighter Mr.Pannat Kunhiraman Nair, who later on brought the Communist Party to Vallikunnu. . He recalls a revolutionary anti-untouchability movement in the village in the 1940s; the activists took dozens of 'untouchables' to the temple tank to take a mass dip. This led to a great furore, but helped end untouchability.

About 90% of the lands in the village is owned by a few upper caste Hindu feudal landlords. With land reforms implemented in the 1970s, the 'lords' lost their land and most of the Vallikunnu inhabitants came into possession of pieces of land. The change in the land ownership caused revolutionary changes in social relations also. Mr. Kunhiraman Nair remembers that the Vallikunnu people have always been politically conscious.

One reason for this consciousness could have been the exposure of the village to modern education. The first school in the village came up in 1920 - the Mappila Board School. The first high school was set up in 1962 and the second in 1976. Now there are a total of 18 schools attended by 9300 children. However, there are no colleges, technical institutes or computer training centres in the Vallikunnu panchayat area. The Calicut University which is a few kilometres away fro Vallikunnu, has made no contributions to the educational status.

Though the total literacy movement of 1990s had made the village almost 100% literate, the winding up of the programme midway has caused a relapse into illiteracy: now about 10% of the inhabitants are unable to read and write. Another disturbing trend according to the retired teacher Unnikrishnan Nair is the craze for English-medium school. "Even though there are so many Malayalam-medium schools in the panchayat area, many parents send their children to far away English-medium schools," he said.

And finally, the verdict:

Talking about the changes that have come to the village over the past quarter century Mr. Lakshmanan Paruthikkad noted the change in the attitude of the youth: " They have become too individualistic; they care two hoots for social work." In his days the young were fired with a zeal for social change and welfare. "There was a high degree of camaraderie and togetherness among the youth and they were actively involved in one social project or the other." These days, it is very difficult to collect a few for a cause. He also regretted the spread of liquor among the youth. But his son Ajay Kumar countered this view: " Our village reflects the changes taking place in other parts of the world. It cannot remain insulated from the outside." One change noticed by Ajay Kumar is the gradual death of football and basketball clubs in the panchayat area. Everyone is into cricket now."

But Vallikunnu people would say with one voice that there has indeed, been all round development in their living conditions. Though not to their expectations.


Yes, this article is a bit long.

But, don't skip.

Do read it. 

Sucharita's  profile of Vallikunnu will give you a perspective on how change in a democracy is never dramatic but painstakingly incremental.

This article was carried originally in 'Grassroots' [Jan,2000],  whose kind permission to reproduce it here, is gratefully acknowledged.

As it appears substantially unedited,  an explanatory comment is in order: the article's reference to a 'village' and 'panchayat' might give you the impression of a single location with a monstrous population of 42000. Relax. In India, a 'village panchayat' invariably governs several settlements spread over a vast area, the whole still called a 'village'. Observe as you read, that Vallikunnu Panchayat actually covers an area of 25 Sq.km. There are several social variations, micro economies and 'local' issues in that kind of size.

This panchayat takes all that on.

That's why:  Do Read!