Going from demanding rights to shouldering responsibilities is a leap of faith, and Bangaloreans are demonstrating this transition with gusto. One of the key players responsible for this trend is Janaagraha, and its initiatives at participatory democracy - the process of including citizens in local government. Pursuing its conviction that constructive citizen participation is an essential ingredient of a successful model of government, Janaagraha has engaged itself in motivating citizens to step forward and involve themselves in the solution-finding process for problems that concern them.
Disappointment and dissatisfaction mark our response to public governance. In order to achieve better public governance, what we need, according to Janaagraha, is a shift of the democratic paradigm - from representation to participation. Instead of indulging in passive reactions or idle discussions, citizens need to recognise their role and responsibility in the process of democracy.
Says Ramesh Ramanathan, campaign co-ordinator, Janaagraha, "In the alphabet of democracy, you cannot go from E to F - elect and forget. You need to stay on the letter E - elect and engage." Accordingly, the focus of the organisation's activities is constructive engagement. Herein, citizens and government are partners, nurturing a symbiotic relationship. There is no place for radical methods employed by the masses to expose the government.
Volunteers at an October workshopKeeping its specific aim of participatory democracy in mind, Janaagraha has coordinated a Ward Works Campaign. The objective is to ensure citizen participation in local works. It focuses on one item in the city's budget (the works budget, comprising about 6% of the total) and brings the citizens' voices into the selection, prioritisation and implementation of various local area works.
"Decentralisation of administration has been recognised to be one of the most efficient tools to ensure effective, transparent and responsive government," avers Ramanathan. "The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution have pushed autonomy down to the lowest level of government: to the village and town level. A new model of Participative Government has emerged in Porto Alegre, Brazil which has shown that the people, once included into the decision-making process, are capable of making effective and inclusionary decisions," he continues.
Accordingly, the Ward Works Campaign, launched two years ago, has been moving forward in a systematic fashion. Through the various workshops conducted under this umbrella, the citizens have first identified the problems that need their attention and participation. The second stage has seen them explore solutions to these issues. These have been divided into two groups - one that works on costing-related issues for roads, footpaths, drains, parks, and streetlights; the other works on policy-related issues such as traffic and zoning. While the costing is being discussed at the area-level, policy is discussed at the ward-level.
A Citizen Anchor has been appointed for each of these 25 issues concerning the quality of life of Bangaloreans. These Anchors are familiar with the local problems, and choosing their own approach towards the solution after gathering the opinions of the people in their wards. These citizens, with about 20 percent women, are committed to engaging with the local government to ensure improvements in their wards.
The Janaagraha handbook on Participatory Planning gives them information on specific topics and the Janaagraha centre provides them secretariat assistance and sets up discussions with subject experts and government agencies as desired. The emphasis, in this exercise, is more on communities rather the individual. As Ramanathan explains, this is because not just is there more strength in numbers, but it also helps people connect with each other and the government as a whole. Given that Ward Works are determined at the Ward level, the primary community affiliation is a geographic one - residents' associations, trade associations belonging to a particular street or neighbourhood, etc. However, other citizen-affiliations are also engaged - cultural, social, professional, religious, educational, etc.
Janaagraha makes a concerted effort to involve two specific citizen communities - students, and the elderly. This stems from the belief that the students represent the future of the city, and can bring their energies and passion to the campaign; the elderly contribute their wisdom, purpose and life long skills. Active involvement of the newly-elected corporators, the mayor, and the commissioner of the corporation is sought. The tone of the campaign is one of collective enterprise to reach the specific outcome.