Can the Subaltern Plan?: Planning from Below: an Elusive Goal in India

Debraj Bhattacharya

Planning from below (PFB) in India has a long history going back to
experiments by Ajit Narayan Bose in Medinipur district of West Bengal in the
eighties (Bose 2000). However except for Kerala to some extent, planning from
below has remained an elusive goal for most parts of India. We are yet to achieve a
method that is simple enough for poor, semi-educated villagers to work with.
The villagers can of course plan; they are constantly planning for their
households and also for community festivals but the paper work of the official
planning experiments often prove to be beyond their capacity. We are yet to
arrive at the golden mean between the informal thought processes of the
subaltern and the elite expert planners’ love for data and exhaustive formats.

A few months back I got an opportunity to experiment with a method of
participatory planning in 8 villages of Jhalda II and Purulia II blocks of
Purulia district of West Bengal.[i] My aim was to test a
method of planning that would be simple enough for semi-educated and poor rural
citizens to understand and participate in. The context of the field visit was
that CARE, an International NGO, has been implementing a project named
“Briddhi” in Purulia district of West Bengal which aims to improve the
nutritional status among severely malnourished children through growth
monitoring, promotion of healthy habits (“behaviour change communication”) and
strengthening of health and nutrition service delivery system.[ii] It particularly focuses
on severely malnourished children in the age group 3-6 in two blocks of Purulia
district. I went to Pururlia with a young research assistant to understand how
far the project was able to make a difference to the lives of the villagers and
what they wanted to do in future.
In each village we carried out a Focus Group Discussion and a
planning exercise. In each case the groups consisted of adult men and women of
the village, Anganwadi workers, local youths, Accredited Social Health
Activists (ASHAs) and adolescent school going girls. They were part of a
village committee which is responsible for spreading health education. They did
not have any prior training in participatory planning.
The Experiment
I experimented with a method of rapid action planning which took
about 40 minutes on an average and a maximum of one hour. The reason behind
experimenting with a rapid method is that it is very difficult, if not
impossible, to hold the attention of the group for a long time in contemporary
times. Attention span has gone down, people have become busier and time
conscious. They are no more willing to spend a whole day slowly deliberating on
what the problems are and what needs to be done.
The planning process was divided into 5 stages. I kept a white chart
paper in front of me and firstly drew a road, from left to right. At the left I
wrote the month of experiment (March 2016) and at the end of the road I wrote
February-March 2017. This visual representation helped the participants to
understand the task. After this, the following questions were asked, answers
discussed and finally noted down in the chart paper.
Q1. What is the present situation? How many households are currently
doing the health practices prescribed in the project?
Q2. Where would you like to reach in one year? How many households
will be transformed?
Q3. What are the activities that would have to be done in order to
achieve the target?
Q4. What are the resources required to achieve the target?
Q5. Which activity will be done in which quarter?
As facilitator, I helped the group to go through each of the
questions one by one and not all at the same time. This helped the group to
think, discuss and answer without feeling overwhelmed. Photographic evidence
was collected by the Research Assistant. The group photo with the plan was
enthusiastically appreciated. The plans were left with the community and we
left with a photograph of it.
The groups in all eight cases knew about the present situation of
their villages in terms of how many households are showing improved health
habits at the time of the experiment. However this was not based on
door-to-door survey. So the data they have given should be seen as an
approximation rather than the exact figure. In some cases the figures were
expressed in numbers while in other cases it was expressed in terms of
percentage. For example, in village Chamchaka the group said that 40% of the
households were following the prescribed health guidelines while in
Raghunathpur, the group said that 50 out of 150 households were showing such behavioural
change. In general the groups seemed to be quite aware of the present situation
in the village.
When asked about the target they would like to reach after one year
all the groups sounded confident and upbeat about covering almost all the
households if not all the households. Chamchaka said that they would cover
100%; Pandra said 80%, Raghunathpur said 100%, Adhadhi said 100%; Golkunda said
all the households will be covered; Chargali said 175/250 will be covered;
Village Baikata said 99% and Nawdiha said that 500 out of 513 households will
be covered. None of the groups gave the impression that they are finding their
task an impossible one and were feeling discouraged.
On the question as to what needs to be done, all the groups came up
with suggestions that seemed to be feasible. A common answer in all eight
villages was that number of meetings would have to be increased. Meetings would
have to be held more often among the parents committee as well as with the
villagers, SHGs, etc. Some suggested that along with meetings there would also
have to be follow-ups. Along with the issue of the SAM child[iii] the issue of child marriage
also came up as one of the issues against which campaign is necessary
(Chamchaka, Golkunda, Baikata, Nawdiha). Another activity that was suggested
was demonstration of successful cases to the villagers so that they became
convinced about the usefulness of the message (Pandra, Nawdiha). In one village
a question was raised that is perhaps important from the point of view of the
future of the project. In village Raghunathpur one of the adolescent members of
the group asked how the very poor would manage to take the nutritious food. It
was decided that the group would talk to the Gram Panchayat regarding a
solution to this problem. There were other issues as well for which it was felt
that the government at different levels would have to approached such as for
tube wells and for toilets.
The discussions on resources required also showed that the groups
have practical ideas as to what needs to be done by them in order to achieve
their target. One point on which all of them agreed was that every meeting has
certain cost and some food packet is necessary in today’s cultural environment
to attract the villagers to the meeting. There was in fact one suggestion that
there should be more participation from CARE in the meetings as this will
increase the curiosity value and help attract the villagers to the meetings. It
was also felt that this would increase the credibility of the parents
committee. Along with the cost of the meetings it was felt that some mats,
water jugs etc are necessary to make the meetings successful and also perhaps a
designated place to meet for the parents committee. Another resource that the
groups felt will be useful to them was visually attractive posters to explain
the messages of the project. There were also some demands related to government
infrastructure – ICDS centre does not have its own building or not having
toilets or not having electricity connection. There were demands for weighing
machines for ICDS centres as well in case they were missing. Similarly the
groups felt that governmental support was necessary for tube wells and toilets.
Regarding quarter wise break-up of the activities the groups usually said that
all activities would have to be done throughout the year barring one or two
cases. At the end of each discussion the groups happily posed before the camera
for a group photo with the plan they had produced.
How is this method of planning different from earlier
experiments? The crucial difference with earlier forms of planning from below tried
out is that in this case the first stage of exhaustive data collection is
eliminated. Exhaustive data collection tends to discourage the villagers from
participating in the planning process. It is perhaps better to work with
approximate data rather than tire out the villagers at the first step itself. Second,
participatory planning often fails when the questions posed are rather abstract
– “what needs to be done to improve health scenario of the village?” Instead by
ascertaining the number of households which have learnt the health lessons and
then asking how many more households can be taught the health related lessons
it was easier to get the answers. When asked specifically – “What will be your
target in the next one year?” the group was able to give a precise answer.
Similarly they did not have a problem in answering what needs to be done to
achieve such targets or what are the resources required to achieve the target.
Once again the group was able to give sensible and practical answers, which is
what is required in case of participatory planning.
The most encouraging aspect of the planning experiment
was that the groups felt that they can do the plan quite easily and were happy
to pose with the plan for a photograph. They did not find it difficult, tedious
and time consuming.
One limitation of the exercise was of course that it was
a specific health related plan. Whether such a planning method will work for
other sectors – education, livelihood, etc – need to be experimented further.

[i] The
was carried out at the following sites:
9 March 2016
9 March 2016
10 March 2016
10 March 2016
11 March 2016
11 March 2016
12 March 2016
12 March 2016
For an overview of the project see,
accessed 14.06.2016
SAM refers to “Severe Acute Malnourished”
Bose, Ajit Narayan (2000): ‘Decentralization: Learning
from Midnapore West Bengal, 1980-        2000’
in Purnendu Sekhar Das (ed.) Decentralized Planning and Participatory Rural    Development, Concept, New Delhi
I would like to acknowledge the support of Mr. Biswarup
Dey during the experiment. I also thank CARE for giving us an opportunity to do
this work.
The Author works at Institute of Social Sciences, Kolkata

2 thoughts on “Can the Subaltern Plan?: Planning from Below: an Elusive Goal in India”

  1. I have gone through the interesting article. I wish to mention by referring the author "Kerala to some extent, planning from below has remained an elusive goal for most parts of India. We are yet to achieve a method that is simple enough for poor, semi-educated villagers to work with" that I am having reservation while he writes the line. Because in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, for identifying poor under the caption of Participatory Identification of Poor (PIP) has been working well. It has been done meticulously, yielding good result. Like this , in many states many cases are there. I remember in Gujarat Gokul Gram Yojana worked well. So I am reservation while the author writes "planning from below has remained an elusive goal for most parts of India. We are yet to achieve a method that is simple enough for poor, semi-educated villagers to work with".

  2. The basic methodology of the Kerala's 'peoples plan' were adopted in Tripura, with appropriate modifications during 2001-02 under the name "Gramoday". This methodology was simple enough so that even the people in the remote tribal areas could follow it and prepare their development plans.

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