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Since 1st March, 1999
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Power, Politics and Rural Development: Essays on India By G.K. Lieten, Manohar, Rs 575

Setting aside meta-narratives and grand theorizations, G. K. Lieten in this book has taken recourse to intensive anthropological fieldwork. So far, the day to day lives of people in Indiaís villages have either been romanticized or simplistically described. Lieten delves into the real life of the rural people and provides insights that are revealing and thought provoking. He argues that much academic knowledge can be obtained from the rural population as they are both active agents and victims of history and they realize how the local structures of power and powerlessness operate. Effects of decentralization,, working of panchayats, assessment of land reforms and analysis of alternatives in development are the main focusses of this book. Field concentrates mainly on West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.

The idea of the decentralization of administration was first introduced in the late 19th century by the colonial administrators and followed up by the Congress after independence. However, the experiment with decentralization mainly in the form of the panchayati raj was a failure. Factionalism and power politics hamstrung the system. Recently, with the ushering in of globalization, the subjects of decentralization and empowerment have received renewed focus.

Against this backdrop, Lieten gives us a comparative analysis of the working of the panchayat system in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. West Bengal is one of the few states which has done quite well in decentralized governance, whereas Uttar Pradesh has failed to do so. The process of decentralization and the initiation of structural reforms went hand in hand in West Bengal, thus explaining the success in the state. On the other hand, the absence of joint operation explains the failure in UP.

In West Bengal, the panchayat system has become popular, with the majority of its members drawn from the village poor such as agricultural labourers. Even female representation is quite high in the state. In contrast, panchayats in UP remain dominated by the upper castes. Lieten further observes that in UP, the state government has kept its financial powers and administrative control intact whereas the government in West Bengal has gone quite far in devolving rights and powers to the elected panchayats.

In the recent past, debates in development theory have undergone marked change, and the advocacy of land reforms appears outdated. But Lieten argues that land reform has had a crucial impact on regional development and he strengthens this argument by citing the example of West Bengal. He believes that development in this state has been mainly due to the initiation of the process of land reforms in 1977. Since then there has been a significant growth in agrarian production and an apparent decline in class polarization and poverty. In fact, according to Lieten, political stability in West Bengal in itself is a pointer to the success of the regime that has implemented land reforms and decentralisation seriously.

While the greater part of the book focuses on West Bengal and UP, Lieten has done extensive field work in Kerala as well. Like West Bengal, agrarian reforms play a pivotal role here. It is Lietenís contention that this change along with educational awareness, rather than various institutional factors, has been responsible for the Kerala development model. The satisfactory standards in literacy, child mortality and fertility are a pointer to the fact that structure and agency go hand in hand in Kerala. This book would be useful to research scholars studying development economics, political institution and rural sociology. Lieten deserves credit for throwing new light on the existing knowledge on development.

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