The world over, democracies witness citizens' groups, trade associations, and partisan groupings advocating their policy preferences to federal and regional governments. India is no exception; with a massive backlog of economic and human development goals, the country sees thousands of citizen formations taking shape and dissolving regularly. Some wish to protect labour, some the environment, and so forth. Some demands reach the doorstep of government; during the past few years we have seen several reform measures being recommended to governments by task forces as well as by citizens groups and councils directly.
How well is all this networking and advocacy working? A report card for Indian development advocacy, considering the full range of social and economic issues, would be handy, but compiling such a document - and summarizing it meaningfully is a lengthy task. Here, we look at select recent examples that give us some flavour of the gaps between civil society advocacy and real change.
The National Advisory Council is considered by many to be the apex advocacy body in the nation. Some of its members are powerful voices in their respective spheres: Aruna Roy for the right to information, Jean Dreze for food security, and Jayaprakash Narayan for governance reform. Each of these individuals has led and advocated progress abundantly for many years through non-government organizations and movements. In bringing them and other equally respected leaders together, the NAC has consolidated development advocacy in a manner not seen in recent times. And with Sonia Gandhi chairing it, the body's work may even carry a political momentum that is sometimes absent in non-government demands for change.
So when the NAC sent three major recommendations - spanning transparency in government, employment guarantees, and health sector reforms - to the government, people did take notice. And yet, it is widely recognised that this is only one step in a long journey. The council's draft RTI law is already facing opposition in the administrative services. Similarly, there is no sign (yet) of a politically agreeable way for the nation to find the money for rural employment guarantees. These hurdles clearly show that it is one thing to for the best minds to advocate for the public good, but at this time neither Sonia Gandhi nor the Prime Minister has convinced the public that the thrust of the NAC's advocacy will find its way into policy and actual outcomes.
A second lesson comes from studying the advocacy for a community radio (CR) policy. For nearly a decade most NGOs advocated that the government allow communities (especially rural ones) to own and manage their radio stations. Successive governments have held off, concerned that CR in rural hands may lead to 'communal' flareups. But the pressure remained, and since 2002 New Delhi has started acting.
Its response was twofold, largely. First, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry cautiously rolled out a red-tape-riddled licensing scheme for campus radio stations, but labeled that community radio. This disappointed nearly everyone who had expected that NGOs and village associations will be allowed to run community radio. When TRAI was asked to step in to help push things along in 2004, the consultative regulator asked NGOs recently to help frame the distinctions between CR and Commercial FM so that any fee exemptions granted to CR licenses will not be challenged by the commercial media houses. Instead of crafting policy broadly for non-commercial broadcasters as a whole, (which would allow for CR and campus stations together), the government has ended up searching for an agreeable formula to legislate CR. In the process, the differentiation between policy mechanism (regulation of non-commercial radio) and its application (community radio) was missed. The advocacy worked, but has not been enough, at least so far.
A third lesson is drawn over regional government in the field of education. A task force in education headed by the late Raja Ramanna convinced the Karnataka government to institute elected school councils consisting of parents, for oversight over the state's government school expenses and development. The government agreed, but instituted this measure by a mere executive order in 2001. Around 50,000 schools started having parents participate in school management and learn the ropes of community participation. But suddenly in August 2004, the order was was retracted and MLAs were allowed to nominate school council members. Had the state government enacted legislation to institutionalise parental participation more robustly, the retraction may not have been so easy. Here the advocacy was right, but because the good advice was instituted weakly, things have taken a wrong turn.
Turning that corner is the UPA government's challenge. In the early months after assuming power in New Delhi, citizens have judged its performance by asking if it is more alert to their concerns that its predecessor. Through the life of the Lok Sabha, however, mere legislative signaling of good intent will not be enough. Responsiveness of advocacy that initiates change, and diligence in crafting policies designed to achieve it, are both heartening promises, but ultimately progress must be judged by outcomes.