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Big Ideas for India Contest: Question 3: How should the government-citizen engagement model be?

March 31st, 2011 · 11 Comments

India has a federal structure of government, but that is increasingly getting centralised. Delhi has been deciding what is good for everyone, and creating policies for the states to implement. Is that the best model? What about the third-tier of government – at the corporation / panchayat level? Is that getting marginalised?

For the most part, Indian citizens’ involvement in government seems to begin and end with the ballot box. In urban areas, even that is not happening – as the pathetic voting percentages have shown. Other than the occasional candlelight vigil, there is little involvement that Middle India has in governance. So, is the result any surprise?

Given this, what should the new engagement model be? Can groups of citizens get more involved in local government? Can experts provide inputs to the various Bills being passed in Parliament – or is that best left to our elected representatives? What should the new model for government-citizen partnership be?

Contest Overview.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 FirstBallSix // Mar 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I think the system design is based on trust and confidence, both of which no longer exist.

    For India, we need to tackle this through incentives. That will work. Participation needs to be incentivised appropriately. Although it is a terrible example, look at TN elections. We need to ensure that we dont upset the applecart.

    ” Can experts provide inputs to the various Bills being passed in Parliament ” – i dont think this model would work. This model just shifts the trust to influencers.

    I think one approach that would work is to educate people (including elected reps). A structured process here would do wonders to the system.

    The new relationship between government and citizen should really be based on a clear understanding of each others roles. This is the first thing we need to do.

  • 2 Aaren // Mar 31, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Local government is a great place to start, but the key is to empower people. Voting is nice, but it doesnt really allow voters to individually contribute to / CONTROL the rate of change or growth in their lives.

    To engage people, they need to be empowered. Something akin to what David Cameron is looking to acheive as’Big Society’ is directionally, the way to go.

    This would be easier to start in urban areas than rural – higher population densities mean more resources potentially available to solve local problems. Let communities figure out their own solutions to local concerns – water and electricity theft, garbage collection, land record maintenance, public schooling, are all good places to start.

  • 3 Sidharth // Apr 1, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Too many cooks spoil the broth, so would too many opinionated participants. Once citizens have elected their representatives with due-diligence, they (citizens) should only be provided means to voice their concerns/issues or perhaps make a suggestion, while the elected representatives should be the ones working to find the solution to the issues. In this day and age, I’m sure the means for raising and addressing issues would not be a difficult proposition. If an educated-man-with-access-to-internet sees a dirty neighborhood, he can post a issue online for the municipality folks to address. If the local-not-so-literate-doodhwaala wants to raise an issue, he could probably just call in and place an issue over an IVR unit. If the government does not do this, perhaps the opposition should. The issues (after validation) would surely be good ammo in the arms of the opposition.

  • 4 Sushil // Apr 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    The government-citizen model should be that of coaching (selection) staff – cricket team.

    The coaching staff (citizens) will propose changes, corrections, improvements in their own right, but the final execution is that of the cricket team (government).
    Accountability and performance is the only way that the government will keep working.
    That said the selection committee/coaching staff should be specialists in their particular field and should be representatives of a bigger society.

  • 5 mockingbuddha // Apr 3, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Given the multiplicities that India is I am not sure that this is the right time to disband its centralized structure.

    Such centralization is the only reason why India survives as a nation state, or the politicians would have torn it to shreds long back.

    Let us dare not fiddle with this structure for our collective future will be bleaker.

    Despite the slow pace of growth and the peculiarities of politics that have lopsided our development agendas, centralization has done more than its bit to further the agenda for a modern India.

    Imagine what would have happened if we had implemented Gandhi’s Panchayat Raj soon after Independence.

    We would have remained a much backward nation, still spinning tall tales of historical glory and not to forget, yards and yards of stuffy Khadi.

    The casteist structure would have remained, we would have been a nation forever encumbered in darkness like the Saudis, the Pakistanis, the Afghans, and the yuck Shariatis.

    The modernisation that central governments thrust upon us helped us move away from these Gandhian inspired silliness. Moreover they helped us become a modern nation state.

    Let us not forget that modern democracies emerged from such citizen engagement networks as Rajesh imagines.

    After some time of inspired and later insipid activism, they tend to settle down to pretty much the same model as we have now. Look back at the optimism that preceded Obama and the realities of his governance.

    In this context, I would call Rajesh’s sense of politics and his political imagination naive, like a child imagining himself t0 be Superman.

    As regards Indian governance, up to now decentralization can only be called bad, it has only managed to make the distance to corruption shorter.

    With cities having millions in taxes, you don’t really need to become a central minister to make some money. Sidharth is right, too many cooks not only spoil the broth, but they make it rancid.

    Rajesh has a point, we can all join in and try to make the system better, at least in the short term.

    The good news is that such change is coming, the tools that can enable this change are creeping into the framework, and it needs some imaginative politician to find the model that will make citizen engagement work.

    As to what that model is and will be, will only emerge out of practice, and is difficult to guess at this stage.

    Try something, and something else till you find one that works, I think that is the only way

  • 6 plodder // Apr 10, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Just came across this brilliant suggestion by Prof. P. V. Indiresan in his article “Some Risks need to be taken”. This article appeared in the “Vision 2020” series sponsored by the Hindu newspaper. You can see this article and others (pg. 83) at http://www.scribd.com/doc/36104528/Vision-2020-Articles-by-Prof-Dr-PV-Indiresan-Former-Director-IIT-Madras-in-2004?query=prosecutor
    Essentially, it suggests creation of an ombudsman like institution that performs the role of Comptroller and Auditor General and the Attorney General at say the taluk or district level to monitor, audit and prosecute the various public service delivery obligations of the government. Office bearers should include legislators as well as the runner-up candidates, promoting robust oversight and competition (between them) in the process. This will also help reduce the corrosive nature of political discourse and put their energies to constructive use.
    I was thinking more in the lines of apportioning the MPLAD fund between the winner and the runner up to promote competition between the two, but this suggestion definitely trumps mine. At this point thought, the only tweak I would suggest is to consider only the runner up candidates as office bearers. This is to avoid the possible abuse of power due to the ability to winner to legislate as well as prosecute.

    Here are is an excerpt from the article–

    We need a reform that will (a) confer an electoral advantage on the competent; (b) keep legislators continuously busy; and, (c) introduce a competitive check on the activities of legislators continuously and not merely at election times. In theory, legislators are expected to look after the welfare of their constituents. In practice, there is no formal mechanism by which they can do so even if they are sincere about it. At the most, they can write to the minister concerned or raise a question in the legislature. Either way, it is a tenuous process that takes a long time and fails to provide the desired relief and certainly not as often as it is required. Here is a possibility to keep legislators busy doing good work. Suppose they are formally made the focal point of redressing all citizens’ grievances, particularly in the case of public goods and services and for which few citizens have the resources to take on the government. Then, the legislator becomes the de jure prosecutor in all cases of citizen complaints against government services. The Constituency Development Fund that legislators get at present may be converted as a fee for the legal services they will now render.
    Currently, legislators do help but not in a formal legal sense. They use their influence rather than the letter of the law. The use of influence is generally harmful: It is secretive; it helps favourites only; it undermines the Rule of Law. On the other hand, when legislators are made legal interlocutors whose services the voters have a right to demand, the situation changes: Everyone gets equal entitlement; the operation takes place in open courts; the Rule of Law is upheld.
    Further, it would help to include not only the winner in the elections but also the runner-up, who may be made authorised legal counsel on behalf of the citizens. Then, the citizens have a choice and the legislator has competition. Success in elections will not depend on a few weeks campaign but on the service provided over long years. Only those who are professionally competent and sincere can hope to succeed. Not just legislators but their immediate opponents too will be kept busy. There will be less opportunity for the Devil to make use of either of them.

  • 7 plodder // Apr 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm


    In this article (“Clearing the Air with electoral reforms”, April 4, 11 in the Businessline newspaper) on electoral reforms, Prof. Indiresan has suggested that candidates standing for election should be selected through primaries in which only taxpayers are eligible to vote.
    I think the suggestion, while sensible, would be unconstitutional for obvious reasons. Instead, these primaries could be used as a mechanism to select members of civil society with the necessary technical and managerial expertise to fill up positions in the watchdog institution suggested above. This would provide a sense of participation in the field of public service for accountants, teachers, lawyers, workers, engineers, farmers, and other members of civil society (especially members of the middle class). Further, it would be a valuable training ground for individuals who seek a career in public service before they move into positions of power.

  • 8 Rohit // Apr 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

    1) Free the information. If citizens can ask for any information , then government should simply provide it using internet in open formats. This at least gives all the people access to the very important thing in any policy decision: actual data.
    If government does not know how to do it, Ask Google.

    2) Let third tier control all local issues and even the implementation of state/central policies/schemes at local level. Rather empower them in doing this. As these are the places which makes it very easy for common man to participate in government process. It much easier for Indians to participate in panchayat/corporation governance than State/Central on regular basis.

    3) There should be bi-weekly meetings to overview the status of all the work that is being carried out by the government in local area and all questions asked by citizens must be answered. Again all information about such projects must be made available on internet in open format unless national security matter.

    4) At the state/Central level, it must be mandatory for each MP/MLA to go to his/her constituency and conduct open debate with scholars in each sector.This debate must be open to all public and made available live for anybody in the world to see. Every constituency has a right to know what its candidates think in detail about every policy decision that is made and not just one line reply as I support the bill blah..blah.
    Sure they might not understand each sector but that’s why the advisor/scholars are for.

    5) Citizens must have a right to call back any candidate they elected if more voters than the number of voters who voted him/her , support such action.

    6) At the central level also all MPs must conduct open debate with scholars in each sector and answer/defend their decisions. Again all of this should be free for public to attend/access/watch later.

    7) Laws which allow candidate to be minister before being elected should be thrown away.

    8) For central/State affairs , citizens should unite for state/nationwide discussions around state/central government policies/their implementation / flaws that are visible at the local level etc. These discussions must be free from government control.

    9) Citizen’s participation matters a lot but there is always time constraint. So cheap modern technology tools like internel/cellphone should be widely used by citizen and government for any communication/information sharing which speeds up the whole thing.

    10) Other most important thing for citizens to do even before doing any of the 9 things above, is get educated first and understand the problem / solutions first. Also as a country we need to focus less on cricket and bollywood and more on country’s future.

    As Ambedkar said , ‘Learn, Unite and Fight’

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