Local body polls: Active Citizenship factor needed

Local body polls: Active Citizenship factor needed

MAKING DEMOCRACY WORK

Active Citizenship is premised on encouraging citizens to use their agency to make claims on the state

‘Dance of democracy’, ‘Festival of democracy’ are some of the catchphrases used for elections in India which are characterised by noisy sloganeering and a festive atmosphere. However, this enthusiasm seems to be restricted to the Parliamentary elections and to a lesser extent to the state Assembly elections.

In the last few weeks, Hyderabad saw a high decibel campaign leading up to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections. The campaign was punctuated with mammoth rallies (amidst a pandemic) by several celebrity campaigners, making, among other promises, bizarre statements of ‘rooting out Nizam culture’ and changing the name of Hyderabad to Bhagyanagar. Notwithstanding the fact that this was not a positive campaign, could it have inadvertently put the spotlight on what should perhaps be the more important elections for the common citizenry?

Electoral participation, citizens protests and claim-making are the bedrock on which modern democracies stand. How do we fare on these three aspects at the local governance level? can we introduce a fourth element, Active Citizenship, to ensure the State performs its contractual obligations towards its citizens?

On the electoral participation front, the elections to the urban local bodies (ULBs) are boisterous on the ground, with reports of cash for votes and violence too. But in terms of coverage and awareness, these miss-if-you-blink events are relegated to the fringes of national newspapers or covered mostly by regional publications. Despite the high-pitched campaign, the voter turnout at the recently concluded GHMC elections stood at about 46% while the general elections of 2019 saw the highest ever 67%. Consistent awareness campaigns over the years have helped improve voter turnout at this level, but we still have some distance to go.

In a modern democracy, the state is entrusted with a monopoly over violence and tax collection in return for providing some services. While we participate in electoral democracy, our first point of contact in claim-making is through the local governments. It is on this parameter that we fare the worst. The Nobel laureate Albert Hirschman once said when citizens find government services deteriorating, they ‘voice’ or ‘exit’ the system. This exit happens mostly when income increases and citizens can opt for private solutions.

Journalist Shankar Aiyar in his book aptly named The Gated Republic describes in detail this phenomenon of gated communities as well as other citizens who are opting for private solutions instead of relying on the State. Water, electricity, security, education and healthcare— areas where the state should play a significant role— have been taken over by private solutions leaving citizens angry or apathetic. This is not to suggest that private solutions have no place in solving public problems. But ceding space to private solutions where there is a need for government interventions arising out of market failures will lead to greater inequalities which will manifest in other kinds of societal failures.

Have you noticed that the lake management in Bengaluru has significant citizen participation? could this be because there are no private solutions to the lake issue and we will participate only when there are no private solutions? For claim-making to be effective, the urban local bodies need to have more teeth. While the 74th Amendment to the Constitution entrusts the local governments with funds, functions and functionaries to carry out local developmental work such as roads, land development, waste management, water supply and sewer, the reality on the ground tells a different story.

The funding leaves a lot to be desired. As a report indicates, the total transfers to local governments or ULB have been a paltry 0.45% of GDP for the responsibilities they carry out. The ULBs themselves are plagued by inefficiencies resulting from suppression, the inability of the state government to hold elections on time and other such governance gaps. While ULBs are allowed to raise their own revenues— most of their funding comes from fiscal transfers— 63% of the revenue of the Urban Local Bodies comprise of intergovernmental fiscal transfers. Could doing away with the MPLADs scheme and channelling those funds through direct devolution solve the funds’ problem?

A fourth aspect of democracy which is gaining ground is the concept of Active Citizenship. While Active Citizenship has been in existence in different forms, Stacy Abrams’ campaign in the recently concluded US presidential elections has given it more structure. Active Citizenship is premised on encouraging citizens to use their agency to make claims on the state. As this article points out, a value framework, representatives on the ground and technological infrastructure are the three pillars of Active Citizenship.  

In civic life, this would involve coming up with compelling reasons for voters to be involved in day to day functioning of the ULBs. What could be the value proposition that will increase people’s involvement in laying claim to the state? If citizens internalise the fact that they are paying twice over— once in the form of taxes and secondly for the very services they pay taxes for— would it make us more demanding of the state? For example, we pay taxes yet we buy water from water tankers. Isn’t that a double whammy for citizens?

Secondly, representatives on the ground play an important role. The lake rejuvenation projects around Bengaluru engage a diverse group of people from the surrounding areas. Can this be replicated to ensure a more grassroots level involvement on all civic projects— from roads to healthcare to schools? Initiatives like the ‘My city my budget’ campaign are making valuable contributions towards increasing citizen-government interactions. The Budget Bus campaign carried out just before the state budget session is indeed a laudable effort.

Given the low state capacity, Active Citizenship is our best bet to make claims on the state and more importantly, to make politics work for us. Elections to the BBMP will be announced soon. Are you ready to first vote and then participate? Democracy cannot be a one-day festival - it needs to be an enduring celebration!

(The writer is Programme Manager, Takshashila Institution)