Kizhakkambalam: Model Panchayat or Siren Song?

Kizhakkambalam, a small village in Ernakulam, is often described as a corporate-led utopia. Kizhakkambalam has great roads, good housing, affordable supermarkets, and all its residents seem to be happy. The reason behind this happiness is Mr. Sabu M Jacob, the Managing Director of Kitex Group and his Twenty20 Party, the corporate substitute to the more or less inept political parties in the area. They have been so successful in wooing people that they have won two consecutive panchayat elections with majority votes.

Kizhakkambalam

The Kizhakkambalam Model: Development First, Zero Corruption

Twenty20 has been making waves since 2015, when the party first decided to contest elections. Their promise was that they would make Kizhakkambalam a model panchayat by 2020. Hence the name, Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam. 2020 has come and gone. While there is still no dearth of dissenters against Twenty20, including leader Mr. K.V. Jacob, who recently fell out with the organisation, there is no mistaking how much the locality has changed for the better.

The roads have become better, made in accordance with international standards. People without shelter have great housing, with Kitex Group’s Corporate Social Responsibility wing funded Twenty20 spending nearly 10 lakh Rupees on each house. For me, as a distant observer, the most striking feature is their supermarket. Inside the Twenty20 Bhakshya Suraksha Market, people from Kizhakambalam get to buy products at a 20-60% discount from the retail price. This has managed to impress even Union Minister Nithin Gadkari.

They also have an ingenious distribution system. Twenty20 has issued three types of cards: red for people below the poverty line, yellow for low-income families, and green or blue for well to do families. Out of nearly 8000 resident families, 71% falls in the red/yellow category. To get these cards and avail of these benefits all a family has to do is register with Twenty20. Then electronic cards are allotted based on internal surveys done by the company and can be used to avail discounts for a wide range of products at the supermarket. These cards can also be used to get other lucrative benefits such as subsidised medical treatment.

Residents also have better access to drinking water, they have free Wi-Fi, subsidised laptops, educational funding and agricultural initiatives. Another interesting aspect is Twenty20’s three-tier system for clearing projects; it consists of a large working committee, an executive committee, and a distinguished executive board. However, it seems that most of the control rests in the hand of one person – Mr. Sabu M Jacob.

How Acceptable is the Corporate Government in Kizhakkambalam?

This brings us to why we must be wary of corporate-led outfits such as Twenty20. The modern world functions on democratic freedom. The world has been scarred by well-meaning autocrats many times in the past. What sounds great to dictators may not always be what is good for the people. History has proved time and again that with great power comes great insensitivity. Mr. K.V. Jacob, who was a leader of the Twenty20 party broke away from the party in January 2020, thoroughly unimpressed. Before joining Twenty20, Mr. K.V. Jacob used to be a member of the C.P.I.

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He says of Mr. Sabu M Jacob, “He has become a dictator…the governance here is in violation of all established practices of administration in a democratic system” and “He had no concern for laws”. In February, a month after Mr. K.V.Jacob had resigned, two journalists were heckled by a mob of Twenty20 supporters for interviewing him. Mr. Sabu M Jacob has also been accused of giving elected members monthly payments. He justifies it by saying that panchayat members do not get paid enough to not be corrupted, which is actually quite true.

In Twenty20’s new system, augmented monthly salaries enable local body members to be more efficient. Commenting on Mr. K.V. Jacob’s allegations, Mr. Sabu Jacob said that it was due to a personal grudge over him getting ‘fired’ for misconduct. Other allegations against Twenty20 state that most development works were done by Mr. Sabu Jacob’s benamis; how more classy roads have come up next to his factory; Twenty20 cancelled the cards of those who didn’t boycott parliament elections as per their advice and that they ostracise anyone who expresses dissent. At the start of 2020, there were also over a dozen cases against the Twenty20 Party. There are several people including researchers who are of the opinion that like the Tata’s in Jamshedpur, Twenty20 is not going to be successful. 

Democratic Freedom vs Development and Welfare

What is the assurance that Twenty20 is not another party that lures people in with its welfare schemes? It is true that the democratic diffusion of power creates chaos in development endeavours, but we must not forget that it is this feature of democracy that grants us the promise of freedom. The last time a company ruled over us, India was still steeped in colonial slavery. Yet, the fact is that there are a lot of people in this land who would prefer a diminished democracy instead of starvation and in the face of the security Twenty20 offers to these people whom democracy has failed, there are no arguments.

Note again that many voices against Twenty20 have little to no basis and arise from political jealousy more than anything else. Twenty20 passes the biggest test of democracy – they have the approval of the people to such an extent that we begin to question if all these accusations matter as long as benefits keep coming. After all, the final power rests in the hands of the people who can at any time vote for and against anyone they choose.

Besides, we only need to do brief research to see what the need is for corporate organisations to interfere – Twenty20 has managed to transform a village where development was lagging under traditional politicians. If they’ve managed to do that where existing politicians proved lacklustre, how much worse can they be? Also, note that Twenty20 is not the only corporate organisation with political ambitions.

The only grating question is if the time comes, would they be able to choose between welfare and democratic autonomy? Twenty20 is competing in the assembly elections this year. Time will tell if Twenty20 is just another elaborate form of social manipulation or the people’s Mahabali reincarnate.

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