Often times I am asked why I have embarked on this unusual journey – medical education, civil service and now governance reform. Born about a decade after Independence, I grew up in a village in coastal Andhra. My father was employed in a small town in Maharashtra, and an old aunt, a child widow who never remarried, raised me. These somewhat unusual circumstances gave me the different perspective of a participant/observer of public defecation, caste, hierarchies, superstitions, poverty and underdevelopment.
College education opened many new vistas, and I read everything I could lay my hands on. Medical education gave deep insights into what matters in life. My admiration for Mrs Indira Gandhi was shattered by the centralization, decline in state institutions, corruption, autocracy and arbitrariness. The Emergency between 1975 and 1977 was a defining period of my life. The suspension of civil liberties and muzzling of the press angered many of us and made a deep impact on our lives.
The rout of Mrs Gandhi in 1977 and the democratic resurgence filled us with hope and expectation. But soon the Janata experiment collapsed. The agony at the prevailing political situation, and the gulf between promise and performance made me realize that those of us who cared for the country must be willing to play an active role to preserve freedom and help fulfill our potential. That led me to the Indian Administrative Service.
By any standard, mine was one of the most successful careers in civil services in free India. My work in various capacities made me realize how much our people are capable of, if only the fetters imposed on them are removed and they are given freedom. There are plenty of wonderful people in politics, bureaucracy and judiciary. But the successes of even the finest among them are at best only limited. It dawned on me that what is required is not a mere change of players, but a fundamental change in the rules of the game.
It did not take long for me to realize that specific governance reforms ─ in particular electoral reforms, separation of powers, decentralization, speedy and accessible justice and instruments to promote accountability and transparency – are needed to curb corruption and help us fulfill our potential.
I benefited immensely from good quality education in a village school. Today the children, mostly poor, going to government schools have no real future. Instead of better access over the years to education, health care and basic services, there is an actual decline at the cost of the poor and oppressed sections. As a result, most poor children are engaged in drudgery, and oppressive and needless poverty is crushing the bulk of our people. Most state resources are misdirected, and even when deployed in the right sectors, are wasted in corruption, sloth and inefficiency. We need to reinvent the government to make it perform, and liberate the citizen from needless state controls.
It is this vision that made me leave a comfortable job at the peak of my career. Once you understand what is wrong and know how to set it right, you have an obligation to work for change, and be a part of the solution. In a sane democracy, the electoral process and party politics should provide a solution to our predicament. But the nature of our elections and politics ensured status quo, and the political process has become the problem itself. The ball therefore is in people’s court, and a popular movement for specific democratic reforms has become necessary. That is what Lok Satta is about.
Lok Satta movement touched a chord in millions of hearts yearning for a fundamental change. We could harness this desire for a better India and Lok Satta is now the nation’s largest and most respected civil society initiative for democratic reforms. Our efforts yielded tangible results in AP and also at the national level. Initiatives are underway to help others build similar movements in Maharashtra, WB, TN, Karnataka, Orissa and Gujarat.
Lok Satta’s focus is on two fronts – building a powerful grassroots movement in AP to curb corruption and promote accountability, and mounting collective pressure nationally for internal democracy in political parties, electoral reform, proportional representation mixed with constituency election and judicial reforms. It is a large agenda, but is vital for building a strong, prosperous, democratic India.
I am absolutely certain that Indian people are ready for major changes. Our problems are not intractable, and there are specific, practical, effective solutions to resolve our crisis. We need clarity, vision, commitment and integrity of purpose to build a better India. Our youngsters have the talent to match the best in the world, and they deserve a better future.
Each of us can make a difference to the world around us. No matter how rich or self-contained a person is, much of our happiness depends on the social capital we build. We can choose any area that interests us – school, health center or civic amenities. We need to be active citizens to change the appalling conditions. It does not cost much, and no sacrifice is needed. Well-directed, simple efforts pay huge dividends to society. We need to come out of our cocoons and make a difference to the world around us.