Grassroots democracy or vigilantism
The Aam Aadmi Party’s brief dance with governance, 49 days to be precise, brought fundamental questions about India’s democratic tradition to the surface. One the last day of its tumultuous reign, besides the Jan Lokpal Bill that grabbed all the headlines, was another piece of legislation called the Delhi Nagar Swaraj Bill that fell by the wayside. However it is the latter bill that has greater implications on the inner workings of our democracy.
Formulated by former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, SC Behar, the bill addresses a lacuna in our democratic tradition, which is our inability as a nation to move from representative democracy to a participative one. The bill envisages a redrawing of the organisational structure of governance in the city, with maximum emphasis on people’s participation. Each ward is to be divided into a minimum of 8 to a maximum of 12 mohallas. All residents are members of the mohalla sabhas that have to meet at least once a month. Mohalla sabhas will have one Mohalla committee constituting one woman and one man and in case of a transgender, the person can opt to be elected as either male or female.
Sanjay Singh, member of AAP’s political affairs committee, said, ‘All members of the mohalla, above the age of 18, will vote for this representative. It is the mohalla that will decide what schemes to undertake and it will the job of these representatives to carry out these decisions. Each sabha will have an account to carry out development projects and infrastructure works. We’ll be done with the old MLA development fund scheme. Now, the people will have a direct stake’. Each mohalla is to have a representative from various departments in the government, such as the Delhi Jal Board, to address the people’s grievances. The councillor and all local municipal officials are present at mohalla sabha meetings. People decide how the municipal funds are to be used in that particular mohalla.
The powers these mohalla sabhas possess include acquiring any information from any state government official or municipal body, to direct and authorize any expenditure, power to recall councillor (Ten percent of registered voters can recommend for the removal and 2/3rd of the people have to approve the recall), prior consultation of mohallasabha before any decision to convert land use (direct confrontation with DDA) and police shall register a FIR if referred to them by the mohalla sabha (in direct confrontation with Home Ministry).
Behar explains the process at three levels. At first, is the concept of direct democracy. ‘Here people directly will have the power to take decisions and solve problems on their own at Mohalla sabha's, which is a model of that from’. If this doesn’t work, participative democracy provides safeguards against the citizen’s interest. He said, ‘where this direct democracy cannot be implemented, participatory democracy comes to the scene where there is large public participation to solve issues and problems. The idea here is to bridge the gap between government, authorities and people’. Finally, he says, ‘And where both these are not possible, there will be accountable representative democracy. Under this system, the person in-charge will be accountable on a regular basis and not after five, ten years’. The attempt is to bring the political process to the citizen’s doorstep, where he/she could has a direct stake in terms of the decisions that are being taken at the mohalla sabhas.
However, this isn’t the first attempt at establishing proximity between local population and the administration. In January 2000, the Sheila Dikshit government introduced the ‘Bhagidari’ (partnership) system that envisaged civic participation in local governance. However, the system failed primarily due to the time lag that existed between moment a complaint was made and the execution by the local administration was too long. Nowhere a system was in place where the local administration was accountable to the people. If a citizen were to make a complaint during the monsoon season regarding clogged drains, a letter was sent to an official, who would then direct the complaint to the concerned flood control department.
Under the garb of figuring out ‘expenditure estimates’, such departments would take a few months to allot money required to address the people’s concerns. By the time these grievances are ‘taken care of’, monsoons were on their way out. One such tweaks suggested by members of Resident Welfare Association members was bringing into legislation an action taken report (ATR), filed within 15 days to a month, after a complaint has been registered. Delays in such works have to be explained to the complainant.
It is this very frustration with erstwhile systems that has brought the Aam Aadmi Party to the forefront. The party has tapped into a space, where people, especially the lower middle class and the urban poor are frustrated at the subjugation they face on a daily basis under the garb of ‘procedure’ or ‘due process’. In such times, AAP has posited an idea that brings governance to the doorstep of the citizen and promises a fast mechanism for grievance redressal. It is a fascinating idea, but it is fraught with dangers, especially for minority communities, as witnessed in recent incidents at Khirki Extension and Munirka.
One of the key points in the Swaraj Act is that all decisions by the mohalla sabha will be binding upon the representatives they select. Despite Yogendra Yadav’s claims that khap panchayats have ‘no legal sanctity’ and AAP’s adherence to the constitution, incidents such as those witnessed at Khirki cannot be glossed over. In a city where deep fault lines exist in the social fabric, decisions taken by the majority are bound to coerce minorities living in a community to fall in line with their diktat. The question arises: Who is the mohalla sabha accountable to? Speaking to Millennium Post, Dilip Pandey, AAP’s spokesperson and member of screening committee, claims that they’re accountable to the constitution. ‘Mohalla sabhas will address local issues and solve it with the help of government or with their own capacity, depending on the nature of the problem. However they can not violate the law at any cost’, he said. As sane as it sounds, we’ve all heard this before.
In Delhi, we already have Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), which are elected civic bodies that represent the interests of the residents of a specific urban or suburban locality in Indian cities. After Delhi government finalised their decision to table Swaraj Act, United Residents & RWAs Joint Action (URJA), a confederation of 1463 RWAs in the city, came out with a statement opposing the mohalla sabha model. They claimed that the model was brought in ‘to hijack the equitable, apolitical and democratic process of decentralized decision making via the RWAs and resident ward committees (RWC) by packing the mohalla sabha by its cadre who will run amok and vitiate the process of sensible decision making as per rule of law.’ The fear is that such bodies, despite their lack of real administrative powers, are apolitical bodies. The fear is that once funds are allocated to mohalla sabhas and are used at their desecration, it will become another platform for political parties to rouse local cadre and establish their vested interests at the citizen’s doorstep.
Another complaint by RWAs and by those in the media has been the lack of transparency in pushing this piece of legislation. Unlike the Jan Lokpal Bill, a copy of which is available to the general public online, only selected portion of the Swaraj Act was released to the media. Despite claims of wider consultations on the matter, members from RWAs are not very happy with the way they’ve been sidelined in the entire process. A senior member of the Saket RWA, not wishing to be named, said, ‘The government should have brought in wider levels of consultation with the public regarding the bill. There is a sense of unhappiness at the way RWAs have been negated in the process of consultation. Such bodies are elected bodies that have worked for the benefit of residents. Instead of bringing in these sweeping changes, why not strengthen RWAs, which are inherently apolitical bodies’. This lack of transparency in bringing out this bill, of which no copy is available online, goes against the very grain of transparency that the party has preached all along. Only selective portions of the bill were released.