Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha, writes in response to the bomb blasts in Mumbai on July 13.
I am writing in to request you’ll to read this after stepping away from the breathless pace of your lives!
If terrorism becomes something we get ‘used’ to, like poverty, garbage dumps and traffic jams, it is not an indictment of our citizens – after all, this is a natural coping mechanism when constantly confronted by something over which we have little control.
A country of our size and complexity cannot be governed by government alone. Such a paradigm is weak not only because it is practically not possible, but also because it lets citizens off the hook, allowing us to demand a free-ride on a system that is somehow magically meant to be built and run on its own.
This isn’t some theoretical hand-wringing from armchair activists. As you know, we have spent 12 years now on working systematically at fixing urban participatory systems in India, and actually have made much quiet progress, but much more needs to be done.
- We worked on getting a “COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION LAW” included in JNNURM, which requires AREA SABHAS (one AREA for 1 or more polling parts) to be set up in our cities, just like GRAM SABHAs in panchayats. Every state government that wanted to access JNNURM funds had to modify their municipal corporation acts to include such formal platforms for participation. This is critical because participation cannot be done with self-selected middle class Resident Welfare Associations; nor can it done with no teeth, or connection to the formal system of decision making in government.
- Over the past 6 years, 8 state governments have actually passed the community participation laws, and one of them – Andhra – has passed rules and actually implemented it. The others are dithering, for the same reason that no corporator or MLA actually wants to see power being shared with the people. There is a lot more pressure that can be placed to get these acts passed.
- Starting in 2004, we havebeen tracking urban voter roll issues, with the belief that poor turnout is not about apathy but something deeper – the quality of the voter rolls. After much advocacy, finally in 2010, we signed an unprecedented MoU with the Election Commission (first time that ECI has signed an MoU with a civil society institution) to clean up the SYSTEM of electoral roll maintenance in urban areas . Over the past year, we are working in 1 assembly constituency in Bangalore asa pilot. Part of the process is that we mobilise Area Voter Mitras (AVMs) to work in their polling parts or AREAS, which is no more than 150 – 200 households, and submit forms for addition/deletion/modification. It is gruelling work, we have mobilised, trained and continuously supported over 800 such AVMs in this constituency, and the results are finally beginning to show – close to 50,000 forms have been submitted from this AC alone, for addition/modification/deletion, and ACCEPTED by the ECI, representing 25% of the electorate. This is unprecedented. Most importantly, we can convert this into a replicable and scalable system, so that it can be taken across urban India.
- Since before 26/11, when the Bangalore terrorism encounter happened, we have been working diligently with the Civil Defence department to establish grassroots community volunteers who could become part of a structured Community Policing with their local police. Very few people know, but India has a Civil Defence Act, passed in Parliament in the 60s, under which all cities are to have a volunteer force. Until 26/11, the CD force was meant more for floods, natural disasters etc. We made the argument that this could easily be used as a grassroots, structured community policing force. Over the past 3 years, we have helped CD in Bangalore mobilise over 3000 citizen volunteers called Area Suraksha Mitras (ASMs), one in each polling part. They get trained on a variety of skills like first aid, disaster relief etc. Connecting them to the police is a complex task for a variety of reasons – territoriality, concerns about the local beat constable losing his hafta etc. But we are on the verge of a breakthrough. The same structure was suggested to Mumbai as well, and we had several rounds of discussions in 2009/10 with Police, CD, Home Secretary’s office etc. We even got support from Gopal Pillai at Union Home Ministry, but frankly there was no leadership from the state. These things can be implemented only if there is political leadership and clear signals to the entire admin and law and order machinery that it must be done.
We need to now go beyond the noise and talk about the details. We need in-depth discussion about this kind of stuff – the ‘HOW” of citizen participation, rather than the “WHY” of citizen participation, and the specific details of making it happen.