To scale that ultimate mountain, none of these four-Ps – protests, petitions, process and policy - can be abandoned at any time.

Why citizen activism must be the 5th pillar of Indian democracy and how it can save Bengaluru
Voices Essay Friday, January 06, 2017 - 12:25

“Democracy is the name we give people whenever we need them!” - The French playwrights quoted were not only right about France in the early 1900s but also the largely One-Act play that is democracy in contemporary India. It is enacted once in five years and features an admirable number of citizens casting their vote. That opening scene, the single act of voting, is also the denouement. It outsources governance to elected helmsmen and allows citizens to spectate the sport for the next five years.

The exception is when Armageddon strikes. It evinces a dynamism and genuine godliness from citizens. Be it the recent Chennai floods or the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, citizens spontaneously rise to aid their fellows, inconsiderate of personal hazards. They go well beyond families and neighborhoods, even incurring personal deficit.

This is aberrant social behaviour. Everyday lackadaisical citizenship that is instantly imbued with superhero like attributes in the face of catastrophe. Reactive citizen activism in India, triggered by egregious tragedies like the Nirbhaya incident or a devastating tsunami is spontaneous outpouring of outrage or empathy that equally spontaneously extinguishes once the protest or disaster relief ends.

This hit and run activism may balm aggrieved souls but result in no tangible improvement in governance. For instance, there is partial improvement to rape laws due to the Justice Verma committee but public pressure flagged and the streets have seen no change. Similarly, while better disaster warning systems have been put in place in coastal areas, rudimentary drainage problems continue unabated.

Common Indian narrative is simplistic and lopsided in portraying the legislative, executive and judiciary as the sum total of democracy. In actuality, elections are a contract through which the voting public agree to pay the minority elected to deliver public services. Therefore, citizens must bear the burden of checking and verifying fulfilment of the contract through the term. Instead, the widespread notion amongst the educated and economically unencumbered that “politics is dirty,” has inverted India into becoming a republic of people subservient to state. Most cannot tell that there a councillor in their ward and what her job scope is, in contrast to a legislator or a parliamentarian. The net result is a polity divorced from citizenship.

No wonder, in the worldwide Gallup Poll 2016 on civic engagement, India stands in the bottom half at 29, versus 61 for the US, 60 for Australia and 54 for the UK. Myammar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are in the top 10 with scores at 70, 57 and 56! Sadly, less than a fifth of Indians volunteer time for public good.

Indian people were not always this way though and this is a substantial departure from tradition. Citizens of yore were themselves actively administering public resources, in the true spirit “of the people.” For instance, there are continual references to community maintained water tanks in Tamil Nadu, dating back to the Sangam era. While constructed by the king's authority, they were entirely managed by the community, accounting for 92% of all water needs. Elsewhere in Mauryan India, local administration of specific matters at the village level was performed by Gramikas, autonomous of the king and drawn by and from the local community. This fifth pillar, ironically, most pervasive and dynamic during monarchies in India has slowly and surely frittered away and the modern democratic republic, is nearly bereft of a strong civil society.

India has about 30 lakh elected representatives and about as many government employees to address the needs of 130 crore. That amounts to a fifth as many public servants as United States, normalised to population. This dips even further if the personnel at the border and conflict areas, and lower paid or lower skilled staff are discounted.

How then can so few, and with a dearth of skills, possibly prioritize and address the right problems for 130 crore Indians? Each Indian's safety, health, skills, jobs and local infrastructure? How could so few know the answers for so many? And who is to assess the quality of public service delivery?

As Gandhi said, “Real Swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

This is why any developed and functioning democracy relies on citizen engagement as an indispensable pillar of governance. In fact, elected officials follow, not lead. Laws, policies and various amendments often are devised in response to long overdue measures, well after enormous pain and lobbying by activists and Good Samaritans. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, for instance, accorded daughters the right to inherit ancestral property as recently as 2005. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act banned the ghastly practice only in 1993.

Forging change requires pressure from citizens that increases and lasts. Flash in the pan activism like a candlelight vigil for a given incident may assuage some guilt from citizens who participate but is a mere blip in the social voltage.

A recent citizen's movement with substantive charter and wide bearing was India Against Corruption. It garnered legions of followers, conducted public consultations, parlayed with government and proposed policy. Alas, it coalesced the citizen's movement into a political party. Though successful by political measures, it co-opted itself with the very institutions it set out to check and balance and is now moot.

City-centric activism by citizens

The Citizens for Bengaluru, perhaps the first city-centric and citizen-led movement in Bengaluru, established a stamp with their maiden street campaign on Oct 16, 2016. Thronged by thousands of residents from all corners of the city, they formed a human chain against the universally despised steel flyover. The still nascent movement has rallied greater citizen strength over the past two months through innovative ground campaigns both against the flyover and for public transport including the #SteelFlyoverBeda ballot and Satyagraha, and the #ChukuBukuBeku Rail Yatra.

The question facing Bengaluru now is whether the Citizens for Bengaluru will have enough volume, pace and stamina to run the marathon that is civic engagement. Will Bengaluru fear the urban tyranny of Delhi enough to strengthen it and achieve success? What is success in citizen activism anyway?

Success, for a citizen's movement in a democratic republic is simply the narrowing of gap between people's expectations of public services, and actual outcomes delivered through governance. This can be measured by increase in transparency, accountability and legitimacy of governance. Transparency makes the government's processes - priorities, work flow, decisions - open to scrutiny. Accountability recognizes government obligation to quality of public projects and services and makes them answerable to beneficiaries. Legitimacy ensures due representation and due consideration of the broad spectrum of diverse citizens so as to reflect the will of the people.

To truly bridge the governance gap, civic engagement needs to exert enough pressure to penetrate, feedback and collaborate with governance. Proactively and reactively, as producers and consumers, adversarial and shoulder to shoulder with the government.

This begs the question, how to make a reluctant and unaccustomed government negotiate with citizens, or even take them seriously?

A citizen's movement must display robust development along three axes: quantum, spread and depth of civic engagement.

First and foremost, it needs to have legions of citizens actively engaging in ground level campaigns. Feet on the street. Again, and again. Sustained and unflagging over the long term. This is singularly important and cannot be overstated. No amount of viral spread on social media can cause the government to blink on anything substantial like an army of citizens on the streets.

Second, it must include the diverse demographic of the public it seeks to represent. A fight for well-run city must perforce attract denizens from all walks of life in Bengaluru - sanitation workers, bankers, slum dwellers, RWAs, garment and IT workers. It must proactively spotlight like-minded groups and NGOs, prioritize objectives and common good while putting aside personal glory and disconnected agenda. It must become a mirror of the diverse, multi-hued microcosm that is Bengaluru, with its hordes of immigrants from all corners of India, following different faiths and speaking different tongues. Their interests must be aggregated in representative fashion and negotiated with the establishment. Any narrow, under represented citizen's group can only claim so much legitimacy.

Lastly, the scope of the movement, over time, must span the spectrum of governance ranging from laws and policy to process and consultation to implementation and oversight of city issues. This will maximize impact and transition the movement from reacting to impending doom to setting an agenda.

But what’s the starting point?

The starting point though, is the congregation of a staggering number of citizenry. Institutions of great merit that start out as think tanks, policy experts, advocacy groups, lobbyists and data analysts rarely transform to citizen movements.

To breach the fortress, sheer crowd that is the opening act must also feature in every scene that follows. The trajectory that starts with “protest,” must journey through “petition” and “process” before a seat at the “policy” table. An interleaving of moves that are combative like protests, satyagrahas, dharnas and other nonviolent non-co-operative gatherings, and co-operative ones like petitions, appeals, signature campaigns, ground opinion polls and surveys are essential to sustaining the pressure.

A measure of success is when government action course corrects to follow due process, or maybe alter or devise the process itself with public participation.

The ultimate achievement, one that drives institutional and systemic change in governance is to merit a seat, and a permanent one at that policy table. Agenda can now be set or modified, the process of governance itself and hence the functioning of government can be tweaked to being more cognizant, consultative and collaborative of public.

To scale that ultimate mountain, none of these four-Ps – protests, petitions, process and policy - can be abandoned at any time. Instead, they must be employed as citizen action instruments, alternately played as cards that continually mount pressure.

The 'P' that must not be named is core though. Politics. Its is nothing but activities associated with governance and activities to increase power of civic engagement. Not necessarily elections. And that, by the way, is what the Indian “republic” is meant to be. Get over it and embrace it or it will swallow the country whole.

Vibrant civil society calls for a reversal of common public attitudes - social apathy and disdain for politics. Feeding the hungry on a given day of the year or sponsoring a child's education only goes so far. It is good for the individual's soul and assuages the guilt of plenty in a land of grave disparities, but does zilch for socio-political change and people-centric governance to institutionalize a better society. The former is hit-and-run, the latter is lasting change. The former targets a few, the latter improves society as a whole. The former feeds the woman, the latter teaches her to fish.

If Citizens For Bengaluru are to achieve that sweet spot, the middle class of Bengaluru need to swallow their imagined distaste for politics, aka governance and flush out their obsession with self-centered lives, for they are the only ones without worry of daily bread, water and roof. They are the ones best positioned to transition from a life dominated by personal and family advancement to a life that accommodates and engenders public good. They need to come out in hordes and mobilise the weaker, poorer, disadvantaged and marginalized fellow city dwellers to forge a genuinely representative group. Then engage in a sustained and gigantic governance reconstruction exercise in the city.

Otherwise, as Plato forewarned in The Republic, “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”