No substitute for pro-active citizenship

Decentralisation and litigation are not substitutes for pro-active citizenship

A denizen of Bollywood takes time off to take the Maharashtra state government to court for failing in its responsibility (via Youth Curry). Some others have argued that since Mumbai city gives more to its apathetic parent state than it receives in return, its citizens may as well liberate themselves from their poor country cousins and live life in a self-governing state (or union territory) of their own (via The Examined Life and Ceteris Paribus). These measures may help prevent, mitigate or correct the worst failures of governance — for it was nothing but a failure of governance that lies behind Mumbai’s unsatisfactory response to a natural disaster — but they will not supplant the need for Mumbai’s citizens and their counterparts across the rest of India to take a greater interest in their own local affairs.

Reactionary citizenship — as demonstrated by Mahesh Bhatt and his cohort — is easy. Natural disasters, power failures, accidents wake otherwise apathetic citizens into the need for action. Public Interest Litigations (PILs) come in as useful tools to practise reactionary citizenship. The relative effectiveness of reactionary citizenship and PILs have made this the desired form of civic activity. This is unfortunate, because this involves getting the higher judiciary to contemplate and determine bread-and-butter public policy matters and direct the executive to carry them out. But it comes with a double danger — concerning itself with executive matters comes at the cost of an increasing judicial backlog; and more importantly risks the overt politicisation of judiciary. PILs have their place in India’s democratic system — but even reactionary citizenship is not immune from the law of diminishing returns.

Greater federalism and decentralisation do help — but there is little reason to believe that elected members of a future Mumbai state legislature will be any more responsible or effective than the elected members of the current Mumbai city corporation. The politics of vote-banks and special interests is unlikely to change just because of some constitutional rejigging.

While the people of Mumbai (and the people of India) are rightly appalled and justifiably angry at the abject failure of the Mumbai city authorities to prevent and manage the deluge of 26th July, the uncomfortable fact remains that many citizens are failed to ensure that they are well governed. Every other citizen of Mumbai did not turn up to exercise the vote — turnout was about 40% in the 2002 local elections, and in the same range in the 2004 general elections. The richest parts of Mumbai were also the places with the lowest turnout. More than half the population of India’s richest city did not care who it was they chose to ultimately fix their pipes. What is surprising is not that Mumbai’s infrastructure gave way, but that it held up so long. Pointing out that elected representatives do not actually run the city administration is beside the point — electing the right candidate, and ensuring electoral promises are kept is part of the democratic process. In computer science, this is called garbage-in, garbage-out.

As angry citizens of Mumbai go about litigating and thinking up constitutional changes, they must ask themselves when was the last time they held their elected representatives to account. And how well and for how long do they plan to breathe down the necks of their elected representatives (and not allow themselves to be cowed by thuggery). There is reason to hope that the outcome of the public interest litigation will help change Mumbai for the better. But there is also reason to fear that its citizens will end up assuming that that is all there is to it.

14 thoughts on “No substitute for pro-active citizenship”

  1. Another (offtopic) suggestion which should be tried out (following the American model) is to separate the State Capitals from the large cities. In America, most state capitals are not the big cities (i.e. Sacramento is the capital of California, not San Francisco, or Los Angeles). This would mean that the large cities are left to their own devices, instead of having to deal with other regional politics. I think this system would help Bombay and Bangalore improve drastically. Delhi is lucky in having Sheila Dikshit, who has (relatively) done a lot for the citizens of Delhi, however, I propose that having a new Capital of the country is not such a bad idea either. Why should we be forced to use a British-made city as our Capital? No reason. Building new national (and state) capitals and providing them with the required infrastructure would definitely give the economy a boost. Pick some godforsaken spot in the middle of Madhya Pradesh, and make it the capital of New India. Other than sentimentality, is there really any reason for Delhi to be the Capital (or for that matter any city) of India?

  2. 1) Sorry for hijacking your comments with a slightly off-topic post
    2) Just read the Wikipedia reference. My reaction: Whoops…
    3) Your point about pro-active citizenry goes to the core. Complain about how it’s not safe to for women to wander the streets – then stand around while some poor woman gets molested instead of taking the molester to task. I’ve been wondering for a long time about to get people pro-actively involved. I think it stems from the fact that most people don’t really feel like this is their country. When you feel like you own a thing, truly own something, you care about it, and you fight for it…. Still researching how to instill that feeling in the masses and the classes…

  3. Its not just the people who dont vote for the Civic elections – its that NO ONE, except the contestants care.

    1)The media does not put it up on the front page – Lived across Indian cities, and despite hearing about the mayors never had info on venues or candidates or constituencies.
    All I read is when X mayor of N city is inagurating some complex which no one else bothered to – or is there because of protocol.

    2) The Parties – contrast the hullaballo of a lok sabha or assembly election – or even a silly by-election to either of those with Civic elections – most parties donte ven distribute those id slips that they would otherwise do.

    3) The Public – We cant escape blame, certainly, but if no one brings it to our notice, where are we to go? its not like government offices are very entertaining places for us to go and enquire. Bangalore has a Janaagraha – but its effectiveness is beign systematically reduced by Dharam Singh (after he successfully killed BATF, and related improvements)

  4. There is something about the big city also being the capital. All over Europe and Asia that is the case. Historically, the cities have been very important…..London, Paris, Rome, Delhi, Istanbul, Tokyo….and hence it was logical to make them the capital cities when democracy was born in those nations.

    There is a reason why the cities are so important, and finance and commerce are not the only reason.

    How many people visit Washington DC to see anything but the political structures and related stuff. Because it is the national capital it has all the trimmings that come with it…the national museums, cemetries and monuments. What else ??

    NYC infact is the de facto capital of the world and a lot of the hubris of the city has to do with the fact that the UN has been HQed here.

    Digressing……as an architect and urban designer, I would like to throw light on some interesting trivia between Washington DC and New Delhi. ND was planned by Lutyens using DC as a model. DC was envisioned by L’enfant. You will find a lot of similarities in the way it is laid out and the iconic statements of placing the monuments to democracy the way they are. The whole idea of placing the two opposing parts of the government…the legislature and the executive on each end of the axis is one of them. What everyone in the architectural circle will agree on (including US architects and planners) is New Delhi succeeded in pulling off this grand scheme with a bang, while in DC it is a whimper, in half measures.

    On the other hand, i agree that the politicians and the government should move out of bombay. For a little while the govt meets in Nagpur, so why not keep them there forever…good riddance to bad rubbish, I would say.

  5. Arzan,

    I saw Dilip’s post. I disagree with his post. He has long been opposed to the plans to rejuvenate Mumbai and is using the flood tragedy to strike below the belt. Think about it, slum dwellers were among the worst affected by the flood. If the number of slum dwellers is reduced, isn’t it logical to conclude that the number of people who will be affected by future floods will be reduced proportionately (even if the drainage system remains as it is)?

    I do not think Mumbai as a whole gains by shelving any plans at modernisation. Unless it is Dilip’s argument that world-class cities are not livable and their citizens are unhappy, I don’t see how the ambition to make Mumbai a world-class city is somehow a perverse idea.

  6. My argument, Nitin, is that I don’t even see what “world-class” means. For example, in what sense is Bom not a world-class city now? There’s a booming stock market, the city spearheads a growing and vibrant economic power, it has extremely efficient bus and train services…

    My argument is, why do we look elsewhere for what we want to be?

    I have “long been opposed to the plans to rejuvenate”? News to me! I’ve written for years now on the need to find solutions for traffic, drainage, policing, open spaces … yet somehow I’m “opposed to the plans to rejuvenate” this city.

    What I’m opposed to is the approach I sense in Vision Mumbai (besides my feeling that it’s sketchy), and that’s what you don’t care for, and that’s really part of my problem: the assumption that this document is automatically the way to go. Whatever happened to debate and review?

    Of course there would have been much less suffering in the recent flood had there been fewer slum dwellers. So? What I, and a lot of others, are saying is that demolishing slum homes is not the way to reduce the number of slum dwellers. In fact, it is demonstrably the most inefficient way ot reducing the number of slum dwellers: after all, the city demolished on a large scale 20 years ago too — and did that campaign produce fewer slum dwellers?

  7. How ironical is it to read Dilip’s comments in a blog entry glorifying pro-active citizenship and criticizing reactionary citizenship?!

    Anyhoo – coming back to Nitin’s thoughts, I concur wholeheartedly. There is too much negative rejection of what others are trying to do in the reactionary approach. This appears to stem from our understanding of our country’s governance structure.

    In India, democracy is an imposed system of governance. Partly because of our culture of “The Residual State” (, partly because it is a representative democracy with too many layers between citizen and the state. As a result, we don’t own our government enough. We find it easy to blame the government which we elected ourselves but do not hesitate to vote according to caste based affiliations or for our chacha’s school friend for a petrol pump permit.

    In my humble opinion, resolving the ownership issue can solve a vast majority of India’s problems. There is no substitute for a functioning government to get rid of illiteracy, violence, communalism, dilip d’souza-ism (just kidding ;-), reactionary citizens, etc. Mumbai could still flood but there will be help around the corner. Our citizens would not sit on rooftops waiting for sarkari boat but figure something out for themselves and neighbours.

    We need to “empower” ourselves.
    Where is the Krishna to awaken the Arjunas in bharat?
    Where is the bhaloo dude Jambavant and party who convinced Hanuman of his powers?

  8. Interesting discussion here..
    My humble thoughts follows,
    I agree with Nitin, if condition are to improve it will need more pro active steps from the citizens. As Manu pointed in earlier post removing layes of administration will help in this task, however this malaise of apathy and indifference goes deeper than layers of administrations.
    In true sense, democracy has still not taken it’s roots in India.
    We (educated or not) have still not come to terms with the fact that we are responsible for our own well being.

    I agree with Dilip (for a change).Mumbai has to develop and improve its ofcus, but I will hate to see Mumbai lose its character and verve, which I am afraid, will happen through senseless imitation of Shanghai.

    People mindlessly compare Mumbai to Shanghai or Singapore, without realizing that Shanghai or Singapore and Mumbai are entirely different cultures.

    Mumbai to millions of desperate indians represents the last hope for survival and prosperity. Unlike other indian cities, it is not populated by that most ignoble caste “sarkari babu”, but by hard working and enterprising people.

    Mumbai, in true sense, represents India, in its triumph, and in its tragedy

  9. I think the problem is not just in Mumbai but in any Indian city. It simply is lack of accountability of city administrators to anyone. No amount of litigation will help. It has become a pattern everywhere of using judiciary to solve problems instead of forcing legislatures to keep executive branch accountable. But that takes persistence and involvement. But who has time for that. It is easier and fun to file a PIL and start the blame game.

  10. i think everything that happened on that day was a fault of the citizens only. i mean is there any place in this city that we do not treat like a garbage can except perhaps r homes and it is all this garbage that led to the clogging up of the drains.

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