This weekend LOK SATTA will be celebrating the successful completion of “One Crore Signature Campaign.” Often, we were asked why is it we want to empower the local governments. Our answer has always been that it is not merely about empowering local governments. Rather, it is also about empowering people. There are many well-intentioned people, who are appalled at the existing state of affairs and want to contribute to the well being of the society. In spite of good intentions and willingness to spend some time, many feel powerless and don’t know what to do and where to start, and they go back to their chores. This apathy and directionlessness are symptomatic of greater malaise that is afflicting our political system. In the world’s largest democracy, the citizens have been de-politicized. Common people just cannot take part in the political process except during elections. There are no processes, structures or institutions that facilitate citizen involvement in the governing process. The only way for an ordinary citizen to do something is to become a Mother Theresa.
Why did this happen? How come in the world’s largest democracy, we are not able to ensure greater citizen participation in the governance process? The holocaust that accompanied the partition prompted the constitutional makers to adopt a centralized state. The centralized state did big things - big dams, steel plants, scientific institutions and satellites in space - better. However, it failed miserably in providing basic services such as health and school education, and engendered red-tapism and corruption. More importantly, the state and its institutions were not within the reach of the common people. All that an ordinary citizen could do was wait till the next election to vote out the existing party and go through the same process all over again. It is due to this absence of institutions, which facilitate active participation in political process, that the populace of this country has been trained in political apathy over the past five decades. The deaths of children or ghastly railway accidents fail to move them. Even if they do, what are the institutions that are available to channelise their angst or their energies? None.
The economic crisis in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s presented an opportunity to change the character of the Indian state. Unfortunately, the discourse on the role of the state revolved around whether the state should withdraw, if so how much and from which sectors. The necessity of making the state and its institutions participatory was rarely reflected upon. Greater role for civil society was advocated to justify the withdrawal of the state. Some civil society players did perform brilliantly in the past few years but the deficiencies of this approach are increasingly evident. Social divisions are getting reflected in some of the civil society groups and more importantly, the incapacity to generate sufficient resources is making them more dependent on the state. Therefore, there is greater need today than ever to reinvent the state and to make it more participatory.
An important process through which a citizen can be brought into the governance process is through the empowerment of local governments. Local governments are closest and most accessible to us. A retired school teacher, a farmer or small entrepreneur becoming a councilor or Sarpanch is more possible than becoming a MLA or a MP. The citizenry is thus encouraged to actively participate in the local governments, not merely in terms of voting but also in terms of influencing the decision making process. But the active participation of the citizens is contingent on the nature of these local governments. It is only when they function effectively as independent and substantially autonomous governments that citizen will have an incentive to participate actively in the local governance. Greater citizen participation demands empowerment of local governments. As some Greek philosophers explained, there is a difference between a citizen and an inhabitant. An inhabitant is one who merely resides in a given territory. A citizen, on the contrary, by participating in the governance process determines his living conditions and therefore is a free individual. Its time to empower local governments and start treating people not as inhabitants, but as citizens; and not as subjects, but as sovereigns.