Speaking at a debate between environmentalists and the central government's Task Force on Interlinking Rivers in Pune last month, Mr.Suresh Prabhu, chairman of the task force, is reported to have said, "The Pune debate is only the first such step. Such debates should take place in every part of country ... There is a need to institutionalize the process of civil society dialogue." Clearly, such openness can inspire confidence that government decisions on important issues are made following public consultations. But the Task Force's own record in this regard is actually quite poor, notwithstanding such statements.
Listening to Mr Prabhu, one is likely to conclude that reports of pre-feasibility studies of the various river links under consideration are already available with the public, and discussions based on such information are the norm. Not so. Even at this well-attended debate, the primary plea from the citizenry was for more information. The task force has promised to make reports from these studies - assuming they have been completed, that is - available to the public in due course, and it is only after that can any informed debates can take place.
A few months ago, a symposium organized by the NGO Gene Campaign in New Delhi resulted in the environmental community asking for direct engagement with the Bio-tech and environmental ministries for a better regulatory and monitoring system for genetically modified crops. Few, even the proponents of GM, would argue with the need for an effective and efficient regulatory system; agricultural and public health concerns automatically require that the introduction of modified genes be well regulated. But even on this important issue, New Delhi isn't pro-active, and in February, the NGO had to file a PIL in the Supreme Court demanding a proper regulatory framework.
And another one, at the local tier of government. A recent pre-budget meeting organized by the Bangalore municipality for inputs from citizens deteriorated into a public grievance meeting. With irate citizens having scores of unresolved civic grievances around roads, drains and garbage collection, the otherwise progressive agenda of the meeting was thwarted by these more fundamental issues. Some of the din was also reportedly due to cynical citizens casting doubts on whether inputs from the meeting would indeed be included in the City Council's budget session that was to follow! Talk about confidence in 'the process'.
It is this disconnect between civil society and government that is a major cause for successive generations of policy and implementation failures. In itself, there is simply no dearth of policy information and analysis on a variety of issues within civil society. But the interfaces between the government and civil society are broken and have been for a long time.
It isn't that information-based dialogue for better policy has never worked for massive environmental and social questions. Examples exist. The national biodiversity plan, for instance, was the result of informed consultations. There are other examples of legislation in education, implementation of entitlement schemes and more whose purposefulness was enhanced because of dialogue between the government and the people. But such dialogues were not the result of established procedures in government; they were merely fortuitous exceptions to an otherwise sad state of affairs.
This sometimes-working and sometimes-failing nature of our dialogue process points to systemic weakness. Worse still, this disconnect has existed for so long that its absence is not even challenged very much, and it is only on the truly large issues - Interlinking Rivers being the most recent example - that much noise is made over this unacceptable state, and in a few of these cases the government responds with a debate. But national controversies cannot be the few issues where government functionaries commit to dialoguing on information. There are numerous local and regional issues on which policy dialogue needs to happen, but does not.
And yet, the government is not the only party that may be to blame. There is some culpability in civil society as well. Too many development conferences and meetings are held without planning for the stakeholding presence of government functionaries. Even when government representatives are included, our otherwise enriching discourse and engagement does not take into account the sheer lack of professional capacities and work climate within governments to actually implement regulations and policy. Often, the government is simply incapable of responding to public needs, because the systems for such responses are not in place.
In fact the very systems by which our governments record information for planning and policy are nearly always outdated and useless. The quality of public policy is directly tied to the fidelity of information that it possesses, and even if our governments were wholly well-intending - a very generous view, admittedly - they would lack the necessary information to perform creditably. That said, the lack of such systems cannot become reason to impugn 'the government'. It would be far better instead to work to create and strengthen such systems.
There are reasons to be hopeful. We are in an era of civic change. In 2003, Karnataka managed to legislate for mandatory meetings between local civic bodies and citizens on financial and policy matters. This is creditable, despite the expected starting troubles. A few other states are doing likewise for greater local dialogue. The Election Commission has now regularized nationwide dialoguing with civic and vigilance groups for a variety of reforms from implementing the disclosures rules to cleaning up voter rolls. All these are signs that process-level improvements are coming our way, but the citizenry needs to stay engaged, taking their example from the Pune participants and organizers. This will place the abundant progressive energy on a positive plane.