August 9, 2005Public Policy

No substitute for pro-active citizenship

Decentralisation and litigation are not substitutes for pro-active citizenship

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

A denizen of Bollywood takes time off to take the Maharashtra state government to court for failing in its responsibility (via Youth Curry). Some others have argued that since Mumbai city gives more to its apathetic parent state than it receives in return, its citizens may as well liberate themselves from their poor country cousins and live life in a self-governing state (or union territory) of their own (via The Examined Life and Ceteris Paribus). These measures may help prevent, mitigate or correct the worst failures of governance — for it was nothing but a failure of governance that lies behind Mumbai’s unsatisfactory response to a natural disaster — but they will not supplant the need for Mumbai’s citizens and their counterparts across the rest of India to take a greater interest in their own local affairs.

Reactionary citizenship — as demonstrated by Mahesh Bhatt and his cohort — is easy. Natural disasters, power failures, accidents wake otherwise apathetic citizens into the need for action. Public Interest Litigations (PILs) come in as useful tools to practise reactionary citizenship. The relative effectiveness of reactionary citizenship and PILs have made this the desired form of civic activity. This is unfortunate, because this involves getting the higher judiciary to contemplate and determine bread-and-butter public policy matters and direct the executive to carry them out. But it comes with a double danger — concerning itself with executive matters comes at the cost of an increasing judicial backlog; and more importantly risks the overt politicisation of judiciary. PILs have their place in India’s democratic system — but even reactionary citizenship is not immune from the law of diminishing returns.

Greater federalism and decentralisation do help — but there is little reason to believe that elected members of a future Mumbai state legislature will be any more responsible or effective than the elected members of the current Mumbai city corporation. The politics of vote-banks and special interests is unlikely to change just because of some constitutional rejigging.

While the people of Mumbai (and the people of India) are rightly appalled and justifiably angry at the abject failure of the Mumbai city authorities to prevent and manage the deluge of 26th July, the uncomfortable fact remains that many citizens are failed to ensure that they are well governed. Every other citizen of Mumbai did not turn up to exercise the vote — turnout was about 40% in the 2002 local elections, and in the same range in the 2004 general elections. The richest parts of Mumbai were also the places with the lowest turnout. More than half the population of India’s richest city did not care who it was they chose to ultimately fix their pipes. What is surprising is not that Mumbai’s infrastructure gave way, but that it held up so long. Pointing out that elected representatives do not actually run the city administration is beside the point — electing the right candidate, and ensuring electoral promises are kept is part of the democratic process. In computer science, this is called garbage-in, garbage-out.

As angry citizens of Mumbai go about litigating and thinking up constitutional changes, they must ask themselves when was the last time they held their elected representatives to account. And how well and for how long do they plan to breathe down the necks of their elected representatives (and not allow themselves to be cowed by thuggery). There is reason to hope that the outcome of the public interest litigation will help change Mumbai for the better. But there is also reason to fear that its citizens will end up assuming that that is all there is to it.

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