The terms ‘people’s participation’ and ‘community participation’ are related phrases used in the development literature across the world from the past three decades. The intellectual roots of the concept of participation, as said by Rajni Kothari, can be traced to “the liberal theory of progress, equality and democracy”. In the contemporary period, ‘people’s participation’ at the assumption level occupies an institutional basis in the total process of development.
By the 1970s, the realisation took place on the part of the Third World intellectuals and administrators, that the growth model of development failed to provide the desired services to the masses. Consequently, from the later 1970s, the emphasis was laid on people participation in planning, administration and in areas that effect their lives. In political and administrative literature people’s participation is defined in terms of the ends, participation is supposed to serve.
In an extended version of this view, “it means the widening of choices available to them and of capacity building and empowerment through ‘putting the last first’”. The role of government in this sense of participation, as L.C.Jain pointed out, “ it (state) should be to facilitate the process of people’s involvement in developmental activities by creating the right type of institutional infrastructure, particularly in rural areas”.
At the practical level, the World Bank emerged as the latest advocator of democratic participation from people in the formulation of development projects. There seems to be a convergence of views of the World Bank and some of the Third World intellectuals. But the efforts to realise people’s participation in development have been largely made on the basis of the Western analysis of the Third World development problems. This resulted in so many flaws both at the assumptions and practical levels.
This often led to the ignorance of ideology of state system in suggesting alternative development practices within the broad framework of growth model of development. As Kishore Saint pointed out, “development, in whatever form and under whichever ‘ism’ bears the imprint of the command ideology of the state system”. Saint extended this argument to the implicit view of man in present day ‘development’ as that of a producer – consumer role controlled by various oligarchies and corporations that are partners in the exercise of state power. In this framework, “people’s participation takes the form of skill training and attitude formation related to producer-consumer role in society”.
Rajni Kothari gave a more comprehensive view of the paradoxes in the present meaning of the concept of participation. According to him, the basic paradox of participation is the persistence of myth of participation among the ‘masses’ themselves.’ Two powerful streams of thought have propelled this myth, “one is populist politics, which perfected as an art of arousing faith among the masses in their benefactors. The other is populist economies developed as an expertise in legitimising such a faith”. The paradox which lies in this is in the stand of ruling elite to the challenge of participation. In the words of Kothari, “they (ruling class) keep pressing for more resources, more technology by claiming that the politics are all right, the basic model is right, all we need is people’s co-operation and law obedience and less conflict and for some, especially economists, less politics”.
The second paradox lies in the de-politicisation nature of increasing populist rhetoric. This de-politicisation is reflected in the people, the development process and indeed the operation of the political system itself. As opined by Rajni Kothari, “ this type of de-politicisation efforts resulted in the growing numbers of powerless populace get marginalised both from the organised economy and organised politics and became dependent on one or a few dominant individuals and their authorised agents”. This withdrawal of power from the people and from organisations representing them resulted in the third paradox of participation. With this dependency of people, the concept of participation, like development, in the words of Kothari, “becomes a legitimisation of centralised governance, dismantling of intermediate structures, a regime of law and order, and repression”.
The World Bank’s view of people’s participation is attracting some scholars in the Third World, because of its emphasis on capabilities building of people through the effective use of their resources. This view does not consider the unequal distribution of basic resources as cause for the lack of people’s participation. As Kishore Saint pointed out, “one of the main reasons why the people’s productive energies are under utilised is the unequal distribution of the production assets like land, water and technology. No truly participant development is possible under these conditions”.