Civic Sanskriti: Talk the talk, and ensure our city walks the walk
Late at night, last week, I listened to ‘Conversations’, a fusion jazz music piece by L Subramaniam and Stephane Grappelli. The violinists play in turn, their melodies responding to each other to make a harmonious whole. The music reaches a peak, and then seems to start another, quieter, more reflective strand of conversation.
Our public conversations are hardly like that. TV is driven by TRPs, social media is troll prone, isolating and limited by the digital divide. NGOs and social movements do organise public debates and discussions, but we can and must go further.
I mean democratic forums where ordinary citizens can come together on issues they care about, to have well-informed deliberations, the results of which influence public decision-making.
One may say that we elect representatives to discuss civic issues and make public decisions. But, around the world, we are seeing that representative democracy is just not enough!
The problem is not only that the typical elected representative is more focused on winning the next election. The problem is in thinking that a few people, just because they were elected on the basis of some promises made, actually know best on all issues.
What a responsibility to leave to elected representatives, and what a burden for them to carry!
Civic issues, such as air quality, green zones, traffic, waste, housing, are complex. They have more than one side, since people in different situations experience them differently. The collective situation is changing over time and has impacts that may go unnoticed and disregarded in public decisions.
A young woman travelling 20 km on a bike to a factory, a plumber cycling house-to-house for work, and a person on crutches crossing the road – each have different views on how to make their journey more comfortable.
Scientists point to the increasing number of private vehicles taking up more road space; more accidents, air pollution, and climate change.
Experts recommend walking, cycling and public transport. Such issues need talking through, so that we understand them better and figure out how to address them here in our own city and neighbourhoods.
But, we don’t have forums for people from different walks of life to deliberate on the most important issues of our lives and times.
In 2017, through the Centre for Environment Education, we conducted street surveys in Pune, on how people viewed current civic governance, their opportunities for participation, and their interest in and ability to participate.
About half the respondents were dissatisfied with government decisions. Most people were interested to participate in civic affairs, but felt that they did not have opportunities to do so.
Citizens’ Assemblies are in fact happening in many parts of the world. Participants in these assemblies are selected through a lottery system. In Melbourne, recommendations from a mini-public on the entire municipal budget were actually implemented.
In Ireland, a citizens’ mini-public recommendations were included in constitutional reforms. Over the last few months, climate assemblies have been convened in the UK and France on country commitments. I would like to see our local government arranging citizens’ forums that include people from different walks of life in democratic dialogue and deliberation.
A citizens’ jury that can examine different views, scientific evidence, and good practices in a structured way, will likely yield highly relevant recommendations that are better for people, our local environment and the planet.
Such a deliberative democracy forum does not replace, but enriches representative democracy. I think it is time to practice democracy in the true sense with well-structured inclusive public forums. Let’s have civil, civic conversations!
(Author: Sanskriti Menon is senior programme director, Centre for Environment Education. She writes on urban
sustainability and participatory governance. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )