India is not a democracy. Governance by the will of the people, and its automatic corollary, accountability of the State’s representatives are a basic premise of democracy. In India, the State is not accountable to its constituents, the public. While there are many progressive and honest politicians/bureaucrats, the organizational structure of our government with its centralization, administration opacity and multiple overlapping functions allows corrupt officials to evade responsibility. Consequently, apart from voting once every five years (the vote, constantly devaluing in the face of population explosion), the citizen has no say in the governance and no institutionalized processes to safeguard against failure or mismanagement by the government representatives.
The status quo must change. The citizens in a democracy must be able to influence State policy (the part about our representatives “representing” us) and at the local level, the associated state machinery must be accountable to us and not some supervisor. While some of us may nod in affirmation in our living rooms, in the absence of a legislative framework, individuals cannot truly hold the state accountable. Individuals can’t; however, organized citizens can. History is replete with examples where the sheer force of public opinion overthrew repressive regimes, forced change of course, and enacted reformist legislation.
It is now past time that we the citizens of India organize and develop a counterweight to the State. At Swaraj Abhiyaan, we envision clearly defined channels of communication between the State and the individual, with transparency in the flow of information downward and accountability in moving consensus upwards. For instance, both the State and Central governments enact major laws without any input even from those people directly (and often negatively) affected. Under the Swaraj framework, the State/Central governments would be obliged to distribute draft legislative to the people and update as per the legitimate input of the people.
This seems fantastical in the current India. However, in a small measure, it has already started happening. As a precursor to the legislative framework, we have done a pilot in two Delhi wards: Trilokpuri and Sonia Vihar. Here, people directly decide allocation of government funds in their area. Area residents hold monthly public meetings, “Mohalla Sabha” in concert with the councilor and MCD officers to discuss local issues and collectively take decisions. To facilitate decision making, the councilor and MCD officers provide information on availability of funds, public works in progress, disbursement and approval of beneficiary schemes, and other pertinent information. Payments are made to contractors only if mohalla sabhas certify that the work done is to their satisfaction. In the past few meetings held in these wards, funds have been allocated on the spot for public works, pensions sanctioned, and most satisfyingly, work lying pending for years completed within days. These Mohalla Sabhas hence ensure administrative transparency, implementation oversight, and bureaucratic accountability.
Many of you are probably uninspired by the talk of drains and street lights. These issues seem so trivial compared to the larger issues of poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy. However, these Mohallas are the very building blocks of an organized and informed populace. Each Mohalla Sabha creates a people’s collective that is able to collaborate and hold the state’s machinery accountable at its level. Each Mohalla is then able to move its learnings, viewpoints, and consensus upwards to contribute fully at the next level of decision making. Moreover, even information dissemination is simplified. Since each Mohalla is an organized collective with institutionalized processes for information sharing, only partial coverage (e.g., the democratically elected representative) is required initially for complete coverage. The population of Delhi, a staggering 16 million is easily sectioned into 272 wards, and then only ~2000 mohallas! We only need to get the information to one mohalla rep, and in the next MS, everyone will have the opportunity to weigh in.
One significant way then to the big sea-change is through these ward-level people’s assemblies. Spurred by the successes of our pilot in Sonia Vihar and Trilokpuri, we are now working to institute these meetings across all 272 wards of Delhi. If you’re as excited about the transformative power of Swaraj as we are, please join us. For those of you outside of Delhi/India, please urge your friends and family in Delhi to join us. In addition, we will love to hear from you with feedback, ideas for outreach, grassroots organizing etc.