Governance Reform

Governance Reform

Hierarchy became the self-perpetuating instrument by which people remained continually separated and divided as ‘rulers and ruled’ and ‘masters and subject’.

While the term ‘Good Governance’ is now a common term when referring to development, it is not often easily defined. Particularly within countries carrying a colonial past, governance structures need to be examined within their historical context.

The common conception of the state as an authority established to provide for and benefit the local population does not hold true for colonized nations. In India, as in many other nations with a colonial past, state structures were set up to control the local population, and manipulate them for efficient extraction of resources which were then repatriated to the master states.

Following a ‘divide-and-rule’ policy, governance structures succeeded in fragmenting local communities and taking away their sense of ownership in the governance processes. Hierarchy became the self-perpetuating instrument by which people remained continually separated and divided as ‘rulers and ruled’ and ‘masters and subject’. Hierarchy and bureaucracy pervaded governance systems not just as structural concepts but as a mental state of being. Unquestioning submission to authority, uncritical acceptance of commands and unswerving dedication to rules were accompanied by a deep-rooted reluctance to share power, suspicion of demand for transparency of information, and unwillingness to encourage innovative and independent thinking or action.

Our present day systems echo the governance structures of the past. Government still exists as separate from community; officials within government processes often think of themselves and are thought of as outsiders, and local populations carry a deep suspicion and disillusionment of government.

In our challenge to democratise governance, the first step is to address the mental constructs surrounding the notion of governance. Any attempt at democratising governance systems and transforming them to imbibe democratic mores of equity and egalitarianism, justice and integrity, inclusiveness and transparency, which does not address these deeply entrenched cultural and mentally internalised models is doomed to failure.

The Barefoot Belief: Democratisation of Governance

Through our work with local communities and government structures, we turned to the Tamil concept of ‘Koodam’ as a tool to reconstruct the community and create a space for community energy to evolve and take action to reform governance. 

The Koodam is our model for community dialogue and decision making, which draws upon a cultural practice prevalent within communities for millennia. ‘Koodam’ is a Tamil word literally meaning ‘gathering place’, however the cultural idea holds far greater value in the governance paradigm. As a concept and cultural practice, the Koodam recognizes the division of people based on several criteria such as caste, gender, education etc, in social contexts. However, within the Koodam, all members are recognized as equal stakeholders of the community, allowing for multiple and contradictory positions to be reconciled in the course of dialogue and discussion. The Koodam operates from a mutual sense of equity, and a Dharmic principle to establish what is best for the community at large and not any one particular individual.

Laying the Foundation for Change

There are three fundamental processes that need to occur for a Koodam to operate successfully. These processes occur simultaneously and continuously reinforce each other, allowing for a strong sense of community to evolve amongst the people.

  • Establishing trust and trustworthiness. Participants in the Koodam are encouraged to express themselves and recognize their existence as members of the community. Such a process is cathartic and often revolutionary for many, as, for the first time, they have the opportunity to reflect and respond from a personal standpoint. The Koodam also emphasizes that all members have to be personally committed to the processes involved and that all change is voluntary and cannot be enforced by any governing authority.
  • Enabling the community to recognize themselves as stakeholders within the community. By being present to the process within the Koodam, participants begin to view themselves and ‘the other’ as individuals of the same community, worthy of respect and dignity. A realization dawns that “we are all in this together”. “It is this sense of shared living, common concern and collective commitment that the Koodam generates which makes it a unique space for bringing together people across diversities of caste, community, gender, ethnic origin, language, and other identities and finding common ground for all to co-exist and co-operate.” The collective, community energy that is created through the Koodam then finds expression through actions for the betterment of the entire community. This enables a dialogue to emerge, where all members are recognised. While an official may have a different function and different resources from which he/she can act, the stake-holding and community wellbeing is shared by all members of the community.

The Koodam is, therefore, the ‘gathering place’ where people learn to engage in critical analysis of themselves, their dreams, values and vision for themselves, and see themselves as dynamically interrelated with others in the governance process.

  • Encouraging action from a Dharmic position with a view to the betterment of the entire community. Once each member of the Koodam understands the interdependence of community and respects the culture of co-existence, the next question becomes “What is the right thing to do for the whole community?” Issues are discussed and dialogued from a Dharmic position, a sense of mutual stake-holding and understanding. Members also understand that the Koodam is self-regulated and all decisions are made by collective consensus, from rule making and boundary regulation of the Koodam itself to decisions and actions taken upon a particular issue at hand. The success of the Koodam rests upon each person’s agreement to doing that which has been publicly agreed upon within the Koodam.

The Koodam becomes a way of life, a way of looking at every human system and therefore can be applied to various sites of change – the home, the work space, and the work site. This widening of the Koodam principle creates a ripple of change that takes root in the psyche of the people, leading to the creation of new ground for governance that is equitable and sustainable.

Neerundu Nilamundu : Mission Possible

A Film By Bala Kailasam

Follow a group of water engineers, from the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD), who embarked on this journey of governance reform. Read More >>