Monday, July 11, 2016

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 experiment was carried out at the following sites:

Gram Panchayat
9 March 2016
9 March 2016
10 March 2016
10 March 2016
11 March 2016
11 March 2016
12 March 2016
12 March 2016

[ii] For an overview of the project see, accessed 14.06.2016
[iii] 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


  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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