Opening the Planning Commission to the people: Sayeeda Hameed

By Rajashri Dasgupta for InfoChange News & Features, September 2004


Sayeeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission, talks about a system to invite people’s participation in the planning process



Sayeeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission, has been involved with the women’s rights and peace movement. She is an executive member of the Pak India Forum for Peace and Democracy and a former member of the National Women's Commission.   While in the Commission she published the report ‘My Voice Will be Heard’ on Muslim women in India and following the Gujarat riots of 2002 she headed the women's fact-finding team that investigated the impact of the riots on minority women and published a report titled ‘The Survivors Speak’.

I believe you are keen to open up the planning process within the Planning Commission to the people? How will you do this?

Although the 10th Plan document is voluminous and somewhat difficult to read, there are some gems in it. Let me read you a portion: “Plans should be reflective of the actual requirements of people and economically and socially sensitive to the ethos of people for whom they are meant. People must feel the sense of ownership of such plans and must contribute to such end. The trend of expecting the government to do everything for the people must end; programmes and schedules where people participate have been known to be much more successful.”

When I read parts like this, I think, why can’t we open up the Planning Commission to the people? A few weeks ago, this was a formidable place for a social activist like me. Then I asked myself how I could open a window to let people participate.

We are now trying to put a system in place. Generally, the commission has corporate groups, major IT companies and banking institutions making presentations. But there are other kinds of groups that are concerned, say, about the rehabilitation of victims in Gujarat. Or who are grappling with starvation deaths in Nandurbar in Maharashtra. Or are worried about the plight of the meira phibis (women’s groups) in Manipur. Why can’t people who are at the cutting edge give their inputs so that they become part of the planning process and their concerns are reflected in the plan?

Once this process is put in place, the commission can invite any citizen or civil society group that wants to express its concerns.

What role does gender have in the planning process?

The last plan had a women’s component plan (WCP) -- 30% of budgets in all ‘women-related sectors’ was earmarked for gender. The issue of gender was tagged on to all the schemes. But, in fact, every single aspect of our planning document is concerned with gender. Gender cuts across energy, agriculture, the environment...

So how do we treat gender? We are in the middle of a mid-term review. The plan comes to an end in 2007. There are two-and-a-half years to go. I plan to look at the gender component that is always forgotten and left out. Has it been implemented? Has it had the required impact? It is certainly not part of the main discourse in planning.

Take the question of water. What is the role of gender in water? We know that women are at the vanguard in water management. How do we deal with a universe where, as the prime minister said, we are either facing droughts or floods?

Every year Khusheswarsthan in Dharbanga, Bihar, is cut off by severe floods. I remember visiting the area as a member of the National Commission for Women, and seeing the immense havoc caused to members of the Musahar community -- considered the lowliest of the low in these parts. The people live with the constant knowledge that they will lose their homes, cattle and meagre belongings. And that the boat pirates will rape and molest their women. We have to bring these issues forward in the commission.

What exactly do you intend doing during the mid-term review?

The main question is where are we two-and-a-half-years after the goals were first laid down in the 10th Plan document.

The commission has decided to form consultative groups (CGs), with each member setting up one or more CGs consisting of people from various parts of the country who know what is happening on the ground and who can suggest what needs to be changed and how. These people will be invited to provide inputs as part of the mid-term review.

I am responsible for five areas. Women and child (sometimes I wish that just to prove a point a man were given this portfolio!), health and family welfare, including nutrition and population, village and small scale industry and the voluntary action cell, which is the Planning Commission’s interface with the voluntary sector. I have two CGs, one is primarily focussed on health and the other on gender and development.

The names of members of the CGs will be announced soon. I can say that a large number of my CG members are women. My idea is to make the gender group look at the entire spectrum of the mid-term plan. For example, whoever looks at environment will need to consider the issue in the context of gender and development. These are the people who can say what is happening at the state level, district level and even village level, depending on how deep they want to go.

What will the next step be?

We will look at what to do, and what to change. We can’t do much this year. But if things have not moved, the goals we have targeted have not been met or are not close to being met in the mid-term review, then we need to redirect our resources. That is the kind of input we are seeking.

One aspect I want to look at with the CG is the declining sex ratio. What is happening to the girl-child? I come from a family that has lived in Haryana for 800 years. We boast that this is an area with a long Sufi tradition and history of women’s education. But today it has one of the country’s worst sex ratios. The census commissioner has been speaking to us for several months and expresses great concern about districts where the female sex ratio is as low as 700. This is the case in neighbouring Punjab too -- a so-called developed state. The issue of declining sex ratio within the 0-6 age-group is also of concern in states like West Bengal.

What are the commission’s priority areas?

We have had meetings with both the finance minister and the prime minister. Basically, the prime minister emphasised 11 priority areas including agriculture, food for work and education. How to strengthen programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the mid-day meals scheme and the right to food.

The Common Minimum Programme emphasises all these areas. We have also been asked to cut programmes that appear year after year but achieve nothing. I am certainly going to take this issue very seriously.

You are the only woman in the Planning Commission, and perhaps the only non-economist…

I am a member of the Planning Commission in a somewhat minority status -- I am always in a minority whether here or in any other part of the world! I am the only non-economist in a galaxy of economists.

I am an academic turned activist and my work is in social sciences, in the humanities, in literature, in women’s activism and peace. It is important to bring a different perspective in a purely economic environment. As a social scientist I see issues as photographs in my mental gallery. It’s true I don’t know how to look at what I have seen of India during my extensive travels in economic terms. How to use the numbers, the statistics. For this I will seek suggestions and inputs from friends who are experts and who have a deep empathy with people and their problems.

Everywhere friends have said: “Now at least we have our woman in the Planning Commission.” That to me is a great responsibility and I hope, in the few years that have been given to me, that I will be able to fulfil and deliver palpable results to civil society.

( Rajashri Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and researcher)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2004