A clarion call

  • 27/02/1999

I t is painfully slow, but progress nevertheless. Already,people are talking about the next millennium. So let me make a prediction as well. The next millennium will increasingly be the period of the civil society. The centralised state will give way to systems of governance that increasingly involve and empower the people. In India, that would mean shedding away the 19th century governance system developed by the British and perfected in India during the second half of the 20th century. There was no dearth of people fascinated by a centralised state in this period. But with the Soviet Union, the most centralised state known to humankind, withering away by the 1990s and India's own governance system beginning to crack up, there is a growing worldwide recognition of the importance of the role of the civil society.

Of course, this change will come in India, too, but slow enough to be painful. This is to be expected because the bureaucracy will offer tremendous resistance. But it will come because the politician is more accountable in an electoral democracy and has to deliver at some stage or the other. And politicians, howsoever hesitant they may be, will slowly begin to see the light.

The survey of what different chief ministers are doing to promote sustainable development, conducted by Down to Earth and the Centre for Science and Environment and published in the February 15, 1998 issue of Down To Earth , was quite revealing from this point of view. Today, there is no dearth of chief ministers who recognise the importance of non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) and the civil society. Just about a month ago, Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal held a conference to bring together ngo s of his state in a bid to open up his state to interventions by the civil society. However, we must not forget there are recalcitrant chief ministers, too. But they are only successful in marginalising themselves. E K Nayanar of Kerala was criticised by all ngo s in the state for being insensitive to their concerns. But powerful ngo s like the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad have forced the government to take the boldest step in the country to decentralise the use of state funds.

There is a lesson to be learnt from Hindu mythology. For any creation, the Hindu god Brahma, lord of all creation, needs the knowledge of his wife, goddess Saraswati. Many politicians are also finding that if they want to overhaul India's governance and bring in village communities to govern their natural resources and their destiny, their Saraswati is the civil society. Not the vast bureaucracy and even the vast academic and research sector. Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh, who has created the finest people-based land-water-forest management system, has always said that the source of his inspiration has been Anna Hazare and the outstanding change he has brought about in his village, Ralegan Siddhi. And Chandrababu Naidu, the cyberpolitician of Andhra Pradesh, also turned to Anna Hazare for support when he wanted to start a watershed programme in the state.

While these developments give me great hope that India will one day get its rural governance in good shape, urban governance remains in a crisis. And with the economy, pollution and waste growing hand in hand, there is no doubt that India's towns and cities will get filthier and filthier and more and more unliveable. Again, the civil society will have to help in finding the knowledge and governance models needed to bring about good urban governance, though the going will be much more difficult because of the sheer size and scale of cities and towns and their problems, and also the total lack of community spirit that today pervades urban life. But one can already see a thousand mutinies if not a million. These are mutinies which have a creative protest. They will inevitably increase as the crisis grows and politicians will slowly turn more and more to ngo s and the civil society for answers.

ngo s can push this process by learning to interact with the political world more than the bureaucracy. It is a fact that few politicians today have any vision. But, ultimately, electoral democracy holds politicians more accountable than is the case with India's administrative system and its bureaucracy. Therefore, if the civil society spent more time educating politicians, I am sure that even a one per cent rate of hit would soon begin to yield results. Unfortunately, most ngo s tend to stay far away from politicians because of the corrupt image the latter have acquired; 'do-gooders' want to avoid bad company. This is quite contrary to what happens in Europe and the us , where the ngo lobby works consistently in the political system. After all, this is the basic principle of democracy. Even if we do not love our politicians, it is important for us to learn to work with and push them in desirable directions.

- Anil Agarwal

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