Books

Democracy by the People: The Elusive Kerala Experience

M. P. Parameswaran (India: Alternatives Asia, 2008)

Wednesday 20 August 2008, by Emrah Sahin

In Democracy by the People: the Elusive Kerala Experience, M. P. Parameswaran, a former nuclear physicist and now Kerala’s leading alternative thinker and activist, accounts for the success of Kerala in participatory democracy and the arduous journey of development.

Parameswaran, a global thinker and local actor, argues that the micro-development of Kerala (a region in south-west India) can set a model for similar projects in both India and the rest of the world. Democracy by the People examines how the Keralite neighborhood groups evolved into the formation of the Panchayat Development Society, an NGO which attracts two million citizens for its general assembly and has mobilized over 10 million volunteers for its campaign to literate 120 million eager-learners.

Parameswaran associates the Kerala experience with PSM, People’s Science Movement, a Kerala-based NGO that promotes citizen participation in development. Founded in 1962 by the scientists from the Forum for Science Writers in Malayalam, PSM promoted an activist worldview with collective ambition and imagination, teaching Keralites about local economy, public investment and providing them with technical knowledge to earn their livelihoods. Democracy by the People is the first monograph that examines this broader vision and influence of PSM.

PSM is not a political organization, but its vision conveys the message that unless people have the power, as in the ancient city-states, that no change will be effective. Ownership of the means of production should be diffused, operations be collectivized, and local economies be strengthened in order to resist the globalization of the local economy. In doing so, individual participation, sustainable economy, use of renewable resources, and local non-consumerist culture will all develop, resulting in an increase in quality of life.

Joel Rocamore, who penned the forward to Democracy by the People, uses the phrase “a late alternative to revisionist neo-liberalism” in describing Parameswaran’s work. Parameswaran is more of a Gandhian socialist who champions the spiritual, cultural, and participatory qualities of the human experience. Decentralization and participatory democracy are at the center of his solution for a better Kerala.

Democracy by the People is an insightful work to grasp Parameswaran’s perspective on decentralization and participatory democracy in the Kerala context, which could be applied to countries undergoing simliar transformations, such as Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Emrah Sahin is a lecturer at Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

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