The Federation for Empowerment of Local Governments (FELG) and LOK SATTA had launched a campaign to collect one crore (ten million) signatures in support of local government empowerment in Andhra Pradesh on the 9th of August. The campaign officially concluded on the 2nd of October. Unparalleled and historic, the campaign met and exceeded the target of 10 million (one crore) signatures by over half a million, indicating the support for local government empowerment amidst citizens.
The campaign has evolved as a genuine peoples movement. Now for the first time in our democracy, instead of the parties setting agendas through their manifestos at campaign time, the people have. The voices of one crore people have resonance and the parties will have to respond. This assertion of public opinion will force parties to include the people's agenda in their election manifestos and through civil society pressure, we will ensure that they follow up on their promises.
LOK SATTA organized a massive public meeting on October 19th in Hyderabad to celebrate the historic achievement of collecting over one crore signatures. Thousands of activists representing tens of millions of voices across the state of Andhra Pradesh and noted activists from other states attended. Among them were LC Jain, George Mathew, P V Shenoi, S V Raju, A K Venkata Subramanian, Elango Rangaswamy, Shanta Sinha, Bhaskara Rao and Mayank Gandhi. The colourful celebrations featured inspiring performances by local folk artistes, songs, ghazals and messages from a few noted leaders. About 8000 people participated in the meeting, with several hundreds of people traveled from far off places at distances ranging from 300 to 800 kms.
The need for reforming the Indian democracy was subtly depicted in the cultural programmes. For instance, the magic show depicted how public money magically vanishes from the coffers and the melodious voice of noted music composer. Vande Maataram Srinivas urged the citizens to participate in the second freedom struggle. Praja Natya Mandali demonstrated through their popular palle sudullu the pain that they endure due to centralized bad governance, which struck a chord with the audience. The success of the cultural fest demonstrates that the various art forms can be used imaginatively to communicate ideas and build public opinion on governance reforms. It also provided an opportunity to examine seriously and experiment with various art forms, which can be used in our future endeavors to communicate our ideas at the state and national level.
The event broadcast live by cable channels in Hyderabad by C-Channel and IN-Cable. This validated the argument that commercial enterprises would willingly carry the message of reform if they are convincingly persuaded and if the programmes are creatively packaged. This was widely regarded as the largest gathering in decades at a meeting unrelated to political parties themselves, caste or religion. This is a demonstration that people can be mobilized in this country, even on constructive issues devoid of sectarian prejudice or emotion, on a large scale. It shows that genuine peoples participation on a mass scale is dependent on the clarity, credibility and creativity of the message.
On the following day, i.e. the 20th of October, we held a workshop with the theme: Deepening Democracy An Agenda for Action. Partners from other states and a few distinguished civil society representatives from Hyderabad participated. The discussion on the local governments focused on constitutional amendments, administrative measures and the necessity of public campaigns for strengthening of local governments. Taking cognizance of the lack of functional devolution to local governments, steps for further action were discussed. They included Specific constitutional amendments to strengthen local governments, forming a Federation for Empowerment of Local Governments (FELG) in each state, launching mass campaigns in select states on similar lines of AP, constituting association of Local Governments of India (ALGI) at national level for collective action, and measures for capacity building of elected local government representatives in each state.
State and local level goals have also been identified for further action. They included implementation of Right to Information with compensation for delays, Citizens charters with compensation for delays, empowerment of ward committees - for each ward, toilets for every household, comprehensive rural health care (Dr Arole model), local courts for speedy justice (patterned after the Draft Bill in AP), independent and effective anti-corruption agency in each state (Karnataka Lok Ayukta model), police reforms at the state level , independent crime investigation and elimination of corruption in subordinate judiciary (Maharashtra model).
Campaigners and other participants expressed satisfaction that the political parties are showing signs of responding positively to peoples urges. The success of the one-crore signature campaign and the public participation in the cultural fest can also be gauged from the fact that the major political players across the political spectrum in Andhra Pradesh have taken note of the achievement and are giving appropriate sound bites on local governments. LOK SATTA is now pressurizing various political parties to explicitly state their views on empowerment of local governments. At the national level, the new law on mandatory disclosure by candidates is an important step. The September 2003 political funding reform legislation is another step opening up legitimate funding avenues to parties and cleansing our electoral process. Broad bipartisan support to the latter indicated that parties are alive to the urgent need for political reforms.
Delegates from FELG and LOK SATTA have since called on the chief minister Sri Chandrababu Naidu as well as the Congress legislature party Sri Y S Rajasekhar Reddy and presented a memorandum outlining specific measures towards devolution of powers to local governments. Sri Reddy assured that if his party comes to power, the first signature to be affixed will be to empower local governments. Sri Naidu restated his partys oft-repeated commitment that they are all for devolution and requested the Cabinet Committee for local governments to study the issue. The campaigners have also written to other major political parties in the state seeking their support in this endeavour. A separate interaction with the Cabinet Committee on local governments has been sought for specific measures to be enacted to give a concrete shape to local government empowerment.
Never before attempted on such a scale on an issue which has neither emotive nor religious appeal, this effort is historic and unparalleled in India. Thousands of volunteers toiled day and night for 10 weeks. Not only were the numeric targets met, but people realized that local government empowerment is not a trade union issue of elected representatives but an issue which will truly empower them and improve their quality of life. The events of the past few months in AP conclusively establish that there is absolutely no room for cynicism or despair. Instead clarity of purpose, a sense of direction, and practical, effective action, is needed.