“Participatory democracy” is the one mantra that we have been hearing in public discourse often nowadays, and more so after AAP’s remarkable debut into national politics. Prashant Bhushan recently said that though we think we are living in a ‘working democracy’ the reality is that we are a ‘nominal democracy’. And that when the people, through their gram sabhas/mohallas, take development into their hands and participate in decision-making, it can be called a real ‘participatory democracy’; that will be when India is truly democratized.
This is the beautiful vision of India that resonates in my heart, in fact resonates with many a heart from diverse backgrounds. It somehow feels good to listen to this idea, each and every time, and hope that somehow it will be a reality, either with or without AAP.
But in reality, are we as a society ready to take charge of our lives? Do we dare to democratize? Don’t we rather want others to ‘make decisions for us’ so that we can go on with our daily life and later just blame others who made faulty decisions? Who has the time anyway? Don’t we rather look for leaders to bring in changes in our lives? Do we really like to ‘participate’? In democracy of all things??
What It Entails
To democratize our country truly means hard work. It means peeping outside our own doors and gates to see what’s happening on the road outside our house. When was it last laid? Is it in good condition? It means taking the time to go around, breathe the stench of the dustbin with rubbish strewn all around, and understand who comes to pick our garbage and what happens to it. It means understanding where our water comes from, whether it is clean and whether all of us living in the area have access to at least moderate amounts of it. It means getting a picture of government schools and hospitals in the area, and understanding what it means to study and get healthcare in those places. It means taking a stand against cutting trees, against men who ill-treat their women folk, against illegal constructions which gobble up empty spaces, and yes, against people who demand bribes for services due to us. It means taking care of our neighbourhood – the people, animals, trees – as if it were own family and our own home /backyard. We do take decisions for our families ourselves, don’t we? We do not rely on others to take decisions on what is good for our family!
And that’s not the end.
Once we have taken the walk around the neighbourhood, it means sitting together and questioning for the first time, “Who lays our roads? Whom should we ask if our garbage is not picked up? What should we do about the non-functioning healthcare centre in our locality” And then taking appropriate action – through petitions, filing RTIs, meeting concerned officials, protest marches if required – whatever it takes to make our government work for us. It means participating regularly in our neighborhood meetings so that ‘what we want for ourselves’ comes from an understanding of ‘what is there’ and ‘what we need to do to get what we want’. We get the power to tell the government what our priorities are and how much money should be spent on what. The government has to implement our decisions. Thus it will become mandatory for the authorities to lay out clearly what development they intend to do in our area, so that we can decide whether we want it or not. That’s the ‘Swaraj’ that AAP stands for.
I work with a handloom weaver support organization based in Hyderabad. Our motto is to organize weavers, pretty much on the same lines, as above. We would like them to come together, for them to participate in matters related to their development. We would like them to step up from being mere wage earners to those who can manage their own business enterprises. We would like them to step out into the market, negotiate and bargain, understand and hold control over the value-chain, so they are not always earning only wages and piece rates. Again sounds great, doesn’t it?
But are weavers ready? The ‘stepping outside’ their homes is even more difficult for them. The immediates of life stare at them and they end up measuring every single minute they do not spend on the loom with money or wages lost. They would rather just do weaving and remain wage-earners. Just like us, who would rather remain complaining citizens.
So, is ‘Participative Democracy’ for our society not possible because it demands too much of us? That we simply do not want to take charge of our lives and cannot measure up to something that requires a little bit of thinking for ‘all of us’ instead of ‘just us’?
A friend once told me that he started by trying to find a solution to a persisting personal problem that involved a government office. He had previously tried all the regular methods like meeting the relevant authorities, writing to them, etc. but there was no outcome. Then he read about the RTI and used it. The matter was settled within 25 days of his filing. Once he met with success for the first time, he felt, why don’t I do it for my uncles and aunts who are facing the same problem. It worked again, though in his second try. This ‘common man’ slowly discovered his power. Then he started taking up civic issues in the area he lives and people around him saw that things do happen if we use some tools available to citizens effectively, knock on the right doors, and spam the right inboxes! “This can be quite addictive”, he confesses. The knowledge that he can change things like HE, himself! “Not all attempts are successful, but that power needs to be experienced” he ended, as if he were a politician.
Though, it is extremely difficult, could be even chaotic initially, and requires a great deal of strength to cross the laxman rekha of inertia that is deeply entrenched in us, we need to give this idea – that we should participate in decisions that concern our life – a good try. We need to taste the power that comes with participation, so that we can believe in ourselves, for ourselves. We need to dare to democratize.
Today is that day. Shall we go out for a walk?
By Samyuktha Gorrepati