My wife Swati and I recently returned from a short trip to the US and UK. In our interactions with the NRI community there, the topic of what is wrong with India always came up; this time was no exception.

“Why is it so hard for us to get our basic infrastructure right?”, one of them asked in exasperation, adding, “I mean, look at the roads, the footpaths, the garbage, the public transport. The last time I was there, there was a hospital coming up in a residential area. Everything seems so, so … chaotic.” Whatever else may be wrong with the political establishment of these US and the UK, it is hard to deny that they have their basic infrastructure right. Their cities and towns are looking better than ever, their lakes are better preserved, the air is cleaner, their streets and services are models of standardisation, even CEOs of companies use public transport.

All these are local government issues. And there lies the answer.

One of the families we visited had just bought a new home in the Boston district, in a suburban town called Southborough. It is a beautiful town, with lakes accounting for 25% of its area.

We asked Shankar, our friend, “What made you buy a house here?”

He answered, “Well, there were many reasons. For one, the commute - travel time - to my work is quite short. But most importantly, the public schooling system here is among the top 10% in the entire district.”

Swati asked him, “By this, you mean the local government school, right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And this is free?”

“Yes. A private school education would cost us around 20,000 dollars each year for each of our children. That can work out to half a million dollars to put our two children through 12 years of school. The quality of the public school system is a big factor in deciding where to live.”

We went on. “What else? How about zoning, how are decisions taken about where the commercial areas should be, where the multi-storeyed apartments can come?”

His wife, Vandana, said, “There is a huge voice for the residents in all this. For example, in our previous town, there was a developer who wanted to build a commercial complex right across from our development. We knew that it would affect the quality of our life, so there was a big debate about this issue, and it was finally turned down. We didn’t take part, but our neighbours did.”

Nobody gets up every morning and says, “I am going to engage with my government today!” What we need is a SYSTEM that is in place for citizens involvement. And when it is really well-designed, it is invisible, it becomes a part of our sub-conscious.
We were sitting in front of the television as we were talking. As I changed channels, I suddenly noticed a channel that had only text on it, something about needing members for the sub-committees for health, the agenda for the next meeting of the town planning committee and so on. I asked what this was; they themselves were surprised, and said, “That seems to be our local government channel, giving announcements about all the meetings and activities for citizens.”

I said, “Do you see how the fabric of local government acts as the basis for the excellent quality of life that you have? Just look at how well the system is organised to allow you to be a part: you decide on land use and zoning; you participate in decisions about the public schools and so on. It is all so easy, ready-made for you to engage.”

They were surprised themselves. “You know, we had never really thought about this. In our previous town, our neighbours were quite active in all these issues, in fact the wife was on the education committee. We just took it for granted.”

They went on, “In fact, there are so many small issues that come to mind now, if you think about it. As soon as we moved into town, we had to register and get our voter id cards, otherwise we could not buy the property. And yesterday, we got a pamphlet in the mail about a new garbage disposal policy that the residents have voted on.”

The next day, we went to the local government. Swati and Shankar met the head of town planning, she was very helpful and gave Swati the engineering drawings for roads, and the zoning regulations. As we left the building, Vandana said, “Thanks for opening our eyes! I am getting on the education committee tomorrow, I saw the meeting notice while we were waiting.”

The story was the same in London. One of our friends there - Vijay Jois, from Bangalore - has been quite active in their local government issues. He ensured that the local street was not used for commercial parking; got a plan for a commercial development nullified; had the local gymnasium to include time for children and families before they could get the approval to open in the area.

The SYSTEM has been set up for citizens to be involved. They can take it for granted today, but someone put this in place several years or decades ago. And it must have been difficult, but it had to be done.

There is another important point. In both countries, the national political leadership is under severe attack on a variety of fronts, ranging from Iraq to domestic economic conditions. However, in both countries, the base of the political pyramid - local government - is strong and solidly intact. So much so that it is invisible to most citizens. Which is the way it ought to be.

Nobody gets up every morning and says, “I am going to engage with my government today!” Most people want to live their lives by enjoying their time with their children, listening to music, learning new things, reading, watching sports and so on. But in order to do this, we need a SYSTEM to be in place, where citizens are involved. And when it is really well-designed, it is invisible, it becomes a part of our sub-conscious.

And then we can talk about national politics, and international affairs. Otherwise, it is like trying to get a PhD without passing the tenth-standard SSLC exam. Or like constructing a multi-storeyed building without building the foundation.

Everything here (in India) seems out of control, because the base of the pyramid is not in place.

This is what we are doing in Janaagraha. We are building the base of the pyramid today, so that it can be invisible to our children tomorrow. It is the price of democracy, and the obligation of our generation.