On public consultations and online polls

Why democratic governments must consult, but must neither be obliged to nor bound by the results

Aparajita Ray, Senior Correspondent (Urban Infrastructure) of Times of India asked me to comment on public consultation and opinion polls in the context of the Steel Flyover controversy in Bangalore. Here are the questions and answer.

Q. Recently a senior government official in Karnataka admitted that there are no SOPs in the system to take public consensus into consideration while announcing or executing projects. Is this not the right time to charter a protocol in the government on the need and how to hold public consultation as a procedural obligation?

Q. What should the basic norms/processes be like, in setting a standard for public consultation? What are the legal bindings, if any, on government to take public consent.

Q. In times of Digital India, how should should government hold public consultation that is transparent and will have maximum reach? BDA created fake twitter accounts and bots to claim it got 299 responses in 5 days of which 73% voted for the steel flyover and that gives the government an upper hand so far.

Q. What are the global examples that come to your mind and are there any guiding principles in public policy making on this subject in particularly? I have heard, in UK even before releasing a postal stamp, public consensus is taken.

Q. Most importantly, what do you think citizens need to have or must do to let themselves be heard, each time when the government thrusts upon them a decision like the steel flyover. How can citizens engage with governments or should there be a system in place as to how they can do it.

My response:
Governments across the world have used forms of public consultation on policy issues. In the Britain and countries that share its parliamentary system, there is a tradition of publishing white papers (stating the government’s position) and green papers (for public discussion). Now, in many cases, the decision to issue green papers is a matter of tradition, more than a statutory requirement.

It is necessary for governments to retain the discretion on when to go for public consultation. However, in the modern, hyperconnected world, it makes good sense for the government to engage in public consultation on important policy changes, design of buildings and infrastructure projects, location of power stations, airports etc. This is not to say that they must be obliged to engage in public consultations, rather, that they must have very strong moral and political incentives to do so.

Ideally, for large infrastructure projects like the steel flyover, a two stage public consultation would be appropriate. In the first stage, the government would invite industry and citizens to propose alternatives to solve a particular problem (in this case, decongestion of the airport road). This would allow the government to benefit from the diversity of expertise in the community. After it has shortlisted the option, or selected one of them, it can put it up for further consultation and refinement. It is important to include both cost & benefit estimates in the consultation, so that people can take a balanced view.

This said, ultimately, the government must have the discretion to make the decision. As Brexit has shown, doing what the majority wants does not necessarily benefit the public interest. If it comes to that, the government has the legitimate authority to decide against the most popular choice. It might have to incur political costs of doing this, but a constitutional government’s authority must be upheld.

Internet voting, especially online polls, are plagued with shortcomings: we do not know who is the electorate, how they vote and what is the credibility of the process. Given that social media trends are now almost always manipulated, we should treat twitter and facebook polls with a pinch of salt. Let’s not forget that a vast number of our citizens are not online, and are ‘disenfranchised’ from such counts of public opinion.

Why not just put the IPI pipeline to rest?

It’s a bad idea to interlock India’s energy supplies with Pakistan. Period.

It was a stupid idea right from the start. Of course, it looks a lot more stupid now. Swaminathan Aiyar points out why the IPI gas pipeline project should now be officially declared dead. But you don’t have to read Mr Aiyar’s article at all if you had been reading The Acorn during the halcyon days of the ‘peace process’ when it was unfashionable to point out that ideas such as “creating mutual dependencies” with Pakistan are masochistic and that the risk premium will junk the business case in any case.

After explaining why involving Pakistan in a gas purchase deal with Iran is such a bad idea, Mr Aiyar inexplicably proposes a shallow undersea pipeline with a different architecture. It might be better than the overland pipeline but it still carries the risk of a Pakistan hurting itself to hurt India.

It makes far more sense to invest in LNG. This calls for investing in the technology, processing and domestic distribution infrastructure required to handle the imports. This calls for developing a maritime strategy that ensures that India’s LNG supply routes are secure, around the world. And it calls for foreign policy that ensures that LNG becomes the predominant way to ship the world’s natural gas, and the global market becomes competitive.

Of course all this is tall order. But let’s face it—its better than letting Pakistan hold us by the…you know what.

The road that India built

…in Afghanistan

Zaranj-Delaram Map

The 218-km road connecting Delaram (on the Kandahar-Herat highway) to Zaranj, on the border with Iran has been completed (via Swami Iyer). The strategic importance of this road—as news reports never fail to mention—is to provide landlocked Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea, allowing it to break free from Pakistan’s traditional stranglehold.

Since this route passes through several hundred kilometres of Iranian territory before connecting to Chabahar on the Persian Gulf, it remains to be seen if Iran will prove to be a better neighbour than Pakistan. From a purely economic standpoint though, Afghanistan should benefit from the competition between the two routes.

There is a lot of hope pinned on this alternative route. For Afghanistan, this is an opportunity to regain better access to the Indian market that it lost in 1947. For India, it is an opportunity to regain better access to Central Asia that it too lost in 1947. To the extent that Pakistan remains wedded to its traditional strategic rent-seeking behaviour it is likely to attempt to foil these plans. And as the attack on the Indian embassy has shown, it remains wedded to old tactics as much as it is to old strategies.

This being so, it is strange that the India should be considering withdrawing four companies (around 400 personnel) of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police currently deployed in Afghanistan. There is a case for a robust Indian military presence in Afghanistan; with force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Reducing India’s military presence at a critical phase in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency war is uncalled for at this stage.

Pragati June 2008: The New Jihadis

Issue 15 - Jun 2008
Issue Contents


The New Jihadis
Local manifestations of a global pattern
Nitin Pai

Getting human rights right
Are human rights activists playing into the hands of
Sandeep Balakrishna, Salil Tripathi & Rohit Pradhan

Towards a cultural liberalism
Governments must stop siding with intolerant mobs
Jayakrishnan Nair


A survey of think-tanks
Feline counter-terrorism; Measuring up against international human rights standards; On what makes foreign policy tick; Assessing energy security policies


Look before you hop

A discussion on strategic affairs with Stephen P Cohen
Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs


A review of Budget Session 2008
Kaushiki Sanyal


Where is the financial superhighway?
Two reports later, there is still no movement on reforms
Aadisht Khanna

Improving economic literacy
Effective delivery of public services requires sound public policy education
Mukul G Asher & Amarendu Nandy

A food credit card scheme
How microfinance and the public distribution scheme can work together
Ankit Rawal


History is in the writing
The changing fashions of recording history
Sunil Laxman

Read excerpts | Download