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August 16, 2011

Pass the mirror around, please

There is no substitute for greater engagement in public affairs

Everything in India and about India comes with hype, emotion, drama and lots of theatre—even something as serious as eliminating corruption and improving governance is no exception. From the fast-unto-death undertaken by Anna Hazare to force the government to consider adopting and passing a Bill for creating a Lok Pal, to selecting the citizens who would ostensibly represent the people of India (an irony since our elected members of Parliament and State legislatures already represent the people), to deciding whether the image of Bharat Mata is secular (this is possible only in India), it has been one big theatre.

Photo: Watchsmart

Many have pointed out the risks in investing all efforts on creating another authority without any checks and balances. Further, the creation of an authority to punish corrupt government officials and ministers is about stepping in after the corrupt deed has occurred—far better to invest efforts in finding ways to eliminate the scope for corruption. Wherever scarcities have been eliminated through economic liberalisation and introduction of technology, corruption has disappeared. It is evident, for example, in the procurement of train tickets and in the availability of cooking gas cylinders.

Also, when there are many laws and regulations, even ordinary citizens might end up violating them without being conscious of it. Nitin Pai drew attention to a failing that even Mr Hazare’s trusts has not been exempt from.

Another tendency that has been evident for quite some time and one that is now common even among the common man is the penchant for absolutes: You are for secularism or against it; for Narendra Modi or against him and now, for Mr Hazare or against him. In this vein, one of my friends expressed strong disappointment at my blog post in which I had suggested that Mr Hazare has missed an opportunity to tell the millions of his followers that they too—and not just politicians and bureaucrats—have responsibilities.

Srinivas Thiruvadanthai shared with me some details of how active citizens are in the United States. We would do well to reflect on our sustained enthusiasm (or the lack of it) for civic engagement. Mr Thiruvadanthai writes:

?      I have been watching US democracy over the past 15 years: Making a democracy function is hard work—it requires commitment of time, money, and resources in general even if one’s interests are only very indirectly affected

?      In the US, the middle class, upper middle class, and upper class come out to vote, more so than the lower classes, and much more than their counterparts in India.

?      More importantly, they devote time and energy (and money) to causes they believe in. Take the local school district for instance—there are numerous things, from budget battles to Little League coaching—that require volunteer effort from parents. Of course, these are tangible causes. It is even more remarkable to find people work for more intangible causes.

?      The Tea Party—whether one agrees with its philosophy or not—is an example of a grassroots movement driven by tremendous volunteer effort (added to of course by interest group donations). They have been able to influence the electoral politics and thereby affect policy in a relatively short period.

?      Ultimately, society is full of externalities—positive and negative. If people were focused on only those activities that only they can capture the benefits, there won’t be any positive externalities or any free riding, but it will be a poor society.

Not only is it important to do what one has to do, it is also important to realise that criticisms have legitimacy only when we acknowledge praiseworthy initiatives. A quick scan through the Reserve Bank of India’s State of the State Budgets reveals many worthwhile initiatives. Arunachal Pradesh is to install CCTV cameras and electronic weighbridges at border checkgates. The state is creating a budget provision for improving statistical systems. Bihar will be using an e-muster roll based on biometric system for effective and transparent implementation of the rural employment guarantee scheme. For the first time in the country, a state government (Madhya Pradesh) deposited cash directly to farmers’ bank accounts against procurement of wheat. On the National Civil Services Day, the Prime Minister rewards those civil servants who had done exceptional work in their respective areas. The awards for 2009-10 were given out recently. How many of us take the effort to find out the awardees’ email addresses or phone numbers to congratulate them?

Madhu Kishwar recently reminded us that the task of cleaning our polity of crime and corruption is best done by people of compassion and humility; by people who remain fair and non-partisan. Probity, integrity and responsibility begin at home.


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