Civic action & community builders

Just casting the vote, can’t end the duties of a citizen. To ensure better urban planning and sustainable living, we need to be more engaged in governance

Civic action & community builders

As yet another general election prompts our politicians to do their 5-yearly rounds, let me ask you a simple thing — how involved are you in governance? Civic participation by Indian citizens is almost invisible. We are all so extremely entangled in our menial lives, and entrenched in carrying the burden of familial duties, that very few actually have time, interest, or inclination to participate in civic matters. Most also just don’t give a hoot. A few months ago, hidden among the banal reels of Instagram, I chanced upon a gem. The brief video showed a tiny group of passionate civilians taking the district administration to task over the mindless chopping of trees in their area. Few other videos show common people raising their voice against the targeting of stray dog feeders. These instances to me are special — because when you leave professional activists and armchair (or should I say Insta-chair) cyber activists aside, the number of civic-conscious, active common people are sparse.

There are pockets of people who are essentially community builders — they will take up the cudgels to clean up beaches, plant trees, create awareness about water conservation and segregation of garbage, and so on. These are the people, who when given the chance, hold both governments and administration accountable for deeds and misdeeds. Unfortunately, the numbers of these conscientious, proactive folk seem to be dwindling around us rather than increasing. Social media has made it super convenient to vomit out our rants but hey, who’s listening? Has your rant brought on change? Being vociferous in the public space is needed, sure, but asking the tough questions when the media won’t (or can’t) is one of the only ways to participate in the governance process.

Why does our involvement in the governance of our local constituencies, cities, districts, and nation remain contained to casting votes alone? Cast your vote, take a selfie, show the finger on social media — that’s not the end of our duties as a citizen; it’s just the start. It’s also not that governments make it any easier for greater participation of civilians in governance. The best that I have seen so far is when important legislations or bills are opened up to the public for comments. But where are the people-to-people meetings? The hyperlocal interaction with local leaders and administrative folk, the smaller meetings (and not massive public rallies which are only a show of numbers) with citizens are necessary, and yet sorely missing. Imminent elections obviously mean that some politicians will be doing all this right now, as also making new promises, listening to the success or failure of old ones. My contention being, why do they wait till polls and why do we allow them to do so? If only there were mechanisms to keep local, state, and national politicians answerable all-year round.

By no means will higher public engagement be made easy. Imagine actually answering “the people”! None in power would want it. There will be scanty town halls, fewer press conferences, and negligent open forums with civic groups. But from time to time, governments, administrations, and citizens’ groups will make the right noises — as a citizen you must grab them! For example, Uttar Pradesh government is mulling increased public participation in urban planning, West Bengal government’s ‘Duare Sarkar’ scheme organises camps enabling doorstep delivery of services and welfare programmes, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy recently launched the Karnataka edition of ‘My City My Responsibility — A Handbook for Active Citizenship’, the central government has made online participation feasible through, Tamil Nadu government had a townhall to discuss banning of online games, etc.

In recent years, people in powerful offices have spoken at us or to us, but are they actually interacting with us? And are we also asking the right questions? For example — How does a city like Bangalore stand ruined within a few years of unsustainable, unplanned development? From 68 per cent green cover in the 1970s to the current 86 per cent of concretisation — didn’t citizens care that their garden city was being destroyed? The growing urban apathy smacks of citizens who become more selfish and myopic with each passing year. The percentage of rural voters for instance, outranks urban voters in most elections cutting across states. The urban indifference could also be an indication of the struggling middle class, who are exhausted simply from trying to protect their immediate family structure. When earning is hard, inflation high, and relentless climate conditions attack you — who can afford to partake in civic engagement? A majority of the masses are stupefied by either poverty or ignorance, and sometimes both. The privileged classes console themselves that there is nothing to be done, and browse their way through life. And what of the affluent? Well, the rich have grown wealthier all around the world, India included; most perhaps view the parched, plastic-spewing earth with pink-tinted glasses, and all seems rosy. A blessed few philanthropists are, and will continue to, promote climate action, sustainability, and social impact.

We need more of that rare breed of citizens who care — they read the news, follow Parliament sessions, track reports published by think tanks and NGOs/CSOs, file RTIs (Right to Information), stop people from honking, trashing, spitting. They engage with officials and leaders when the opportunity arises — public meetings, town halls, seminars, online feedback. They give back — to their neighbourhood, environment, and nation. Please note — we are here talking about governance first, not politics. No matter which party comes to power, the governance of the people, services, and public amenities should progress seamlessly, not regress, not make our metros unlivable. For way too long, we have relinquished power to the politicians, buying their glib talk for good governance. Look around your immediate surroundings — notice the roads, electricity, water supply, green cover, access to health and education, happiness of the people — an engaged, proactive community can ensure this long after that finger is inked.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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