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Citizens activism for inclusive growth

India's alert civilians are transforming representative democracy into a participatory form of governance. Citizens' activism suddenly looks like an idea whose time has come. For all helpless victims in this vast country, the reopened Jessica and Priyadarshini cases have turned into beacons of hope, reports Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 04:53 IST
Vipul Mudgal
Vipul Mudgal

Are educated Indians turning away from politics? To skeptics, urbanites seem more anxious choosing idols on reality TV rather than electing their representatives. It is fashionable to argue that the yuppies don't vote or connect with parliamentary business and they have no time or inclination for matters of governance.

Delhiites, therefore, surprised themselves when they rallied on the streets, mobilised signature campaigns and sent a barrage of angry e-mails and SMSs to get justice for Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo, nubile victims of India's unassailable class of power fiends. The middle class movement recharged Delhi's dwindling civic energies and sent a thumping message to the country's blasé set of the rich and powerful.

Citizens' activism suddenly looks like an idea whose time has come. For all helpless victims in this vast country, the reopened Jessica and Priyadarshini cases have turned into beacons of hope.

Democracy as freedom:

Public protest is a fairly new phenomenon for India's relatively well-off, and slothful, urban middle class. The more desperate rural folks have fought and won many battles in the past fifty years. Of late, their biggest successes have been enactments of Right to Information (RTI) and Employment Guarantee Schemes (EGS). Having won the right to free mid-day meals in schools through protest and litigation, India's leading civil society groups are now mobilising their arsenal for a nationwide right to food movement.

In his seminal work, "Development as Freedom," Amartya Sen has busted the myth that humans are "uncompromisingly self-interested" and a modern society would not involve itself in public good. Sen draws a lineage of liberal thought starting from Aristotle to Mill and from Karl Marx to Adam Smith to prove that the individual's freedom of choice can become a criterion for development.

This means that even in the times of clinical economics, fighting others' misery can become everyone's business. And more citizens' activism would result in more tools of empowerment. A case in point is the demand for a legislative provision for the protection of witnesses and whistleblowers that would serve the twin purpose of making intervention easier as well as upgrading democracy to a whole new level of participation.

Liberalism at work:

Friends of Manjunath Shanmugham, the IOC engineer allegedly murdered by a fuel adulterator of Gorakhpur, UP, are about to launch a national helpline to empower citizens to fight corruption through RTI. In theory, Manjunath's friends should be content with organising decent compensation package for his family, but they obviously have nobler ideas for expanding individual capacities.

Half a century of democracy has spawned a restless citizenry dissatisfied with a not so perfect representative system. More and more people strive for higher goals such as putting an end to corruption, poverty and environmental degradation through increased participation in public affairs. As a result, students are going to consumer courts, housewives are filing Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and pensioners are fighting for better power supply and quality urban spaces.

The expanding arena of civil society:

During 19 months of internal emergency, the Indian people found out what it meant to lose their liberty. Conversely, the fledgling civil society also learnt how to fight for freedom from an authoritarian state. The experience helped Indian people to value pluralistic democracy in which individuals, their groups and communities have a say.

India's nascent trend of civic engagement comes after years of dealing with the tyranny of majority, institutionalised oppression and non-transparent governance despite a robust electoral system. While these conditions have not vanished altogether, the new thrust is on bottom-up rather than top-down communication, where the civil society is able to question, criticise and expose dodgy and lopsided policies.

The new Indian civil society is no longer an assortment of free-floating radicals. It is more like a forward-looking community in which the ordinary people are main stakeholders. Sometimes it comes as an invisible set of on-line petitioners and sometimes meets us in the shape of a street theatre, a candle light procession or a successful project of public-private partnership. The public good is claimed for groups (gender, minorities, backward classes, tribals etc.) as well as for the individual. The stories that follow on this page show that this trend is all set to grow in the times to come for a variety of reasons.

First Published: Oct 30, 2006 03:51 IST