Wednesday, July 01, 2015

At crossroads – deliberative democracy and accountable governance

Few days back in a workshop, a government official (should I dare say servant) remarked that, "too much of democracy is the root of all problems". The context was some communities living in informal settlements refusing to give their 'data' to the officials who had decided to implement 24x7 water supply. These communities were never consulted while planning this scheme and they saw it as a ploy to extract more money from them in the name of services charges for the new scheme. Even the political wing (technically the people’s representative) were also not fully on board. But the officials expected the community to abide by their order (co-operate) and facilitate the implementation of the scheme. This is a classic case of the mutual mis-trust and breakdown in communication stalling the project. A lot could be inferred from this episode but let’s keep our focus on this remark.

Incidentally, it is the 40th anniversary of the declaration of emergency in India when all civil liberties were curtailed for two years, between 1975-77. The years under emergency reflected the attitude that ‘democracy doesn't work, we know what is best for the people and we need free hand to implement those good things’.  While it might seem unfair to connect casual remarks about the imperfections of democracy with the coercive act of subverting democracy at the national level, but both attitudes are born out of the same germs. People who do not like democratic processes are the ones who want to enjoy power without any accountability and govern on whims and fancies. Yes, democratic processes are messy and they take time but they are the fairest ways of dealing with public resources and discourses. More democracy is often answer to complicated public life problems rather less democracy. More democracy means developing projects and their budgets with people and making them part of the decision-making process – especially for the local issues which affect their life directly.

Good governance requires both the preparedness for the last minute and long-term planning for mitigation and adaptation. For example, water-logging and cave-ins in monsoon, heat stress in summer and Swine Flu in winter – how are these events dealt with? Many government officials will admit privately that they have a little time for long-term planning and new ideas. They are either in celebratory mode by managing events or they are chasing the last minute preparedness. And after achieving short-term goals, they come into self-congratulatory mode quickly. There is hardly any long-term planning directed towards mitigation or adaptation. Perpetual adhocism and last minute decisions work best with ‘command and control’ kind of attitudes and democratic processes seems as hindrances. 

In such situation, the only possible relationship between the people and the official is that of a petitioner and a lord. The officials have lost their ability to engage with the citizens on any issue. And the citizens have also lost patience in being part of any deliberative process set up by the government. Yes, we are often not too kind in our criticism of the government. And they are not too kind in dealing with rising expectations. Do we have a fix to this mutually developed fissure in the relationship? Yes, but the fix is not a quick one - more accountability, more deliberations, more engagement on both sides, probably. 

(29th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

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