Friday, May 26, 2006

Participatory democracy

Seattle, where I live, is a medium sized city, only the twentieth largest city in the country. The greater Seattle area though is much bigger than the half a million population of Seattle, and the central Puget Sound area encompasses the populous technology hubs of Bellevue and Redmond, and the Boing dominated areas like Kent and Renton. The “greater Seattle area” has approximately 1.5-1.75 million people.

Not too large, by Indian standards, yet fairly large.

Not surprisingly, the area is having it’s own infrastructure problems, with pressures on (a currently good) public bus transport system, and highways clogged with cars inching along during rush hour.

The growing pressures of population demanded new infrastructure, and an increasing demand on efficient public transport. So the past five years (at least) have had heated debates on what would serve the city best: a greater network and fleet of buses, a monorail, or a light-rail. Interestingly, the regional transit system of the entire central Puget Sound area is managed by a single entity, Sound Transit.

For a while, it looked like the monorail would win this race. But finally, the decision fell on light rail, and the progress since work started a few months ago has been very speedy and systematic. The process was frustrating, and debates raged endlessly. People made glib jokes on the bureaucracy and lack of efficiency, and said “nothing would ever happen”. But, in this whole process, a few key features stood out (to me).

1) There was a commissioned study on the three modes of transport, with their pros and cons. The results of these studies were made available publicly (and were linked on sites such as this one.
2) Sound Transit held a number of public meetings, where the public were asked to come and participate (there were some ten in January), and the public were allowed to voice their opinions.
3) The transit system (eg. the monorail) were put to vote, and were part of the local elections.
4) There has been extensive coverage by the local media, that’s largely been very responsible, and has always announced public meetings/hearings in local headline news.

Nothing special, you might think.

But I look back to my home “town” of Bangalore (should I say mega village?). With around 6-7 million people, it’s bursting at the seams, and the efforts to improve public transportation are perhaps starting 3 million people too late (but starting, none the less).
Every day one reads a report saying “metro on its way”, but what’s on its way is usually shrouded in complete secrecy.

I do not know if any study was ever carried out on what mode of public transport would be best for the city (metro, monorail, feeder bus systems, whatever else), where the details have been made publicly available (even after the Right to Information act that came about recently).

As far as I know, there were no public meetings held to ask the people of the city to participate in the creation of a system that would adversely affect them during its creation, and they are the ones supposed to benefit from it after it is made.

Local media coverage by the big newspapers (TOI, Deccan Herald, the Kannada dailies) has largely been devoid of any useful information, and contain only some announcements made by the incumbent chief minister (starting with Krishna, through Dharam Singh and now Kumaraswamy).

The point of this post really is to highlight the fact that democracy is alive and kicking at the national or perhaps even state level. People, especially the poor, go out in droves and vote during elections. Media gleefully report 60% turnouts, and snigger at the 25% turnouts (on good days) in America and other countries of the west. But the concept of local democracy, and people having a say in what affects their daily lives, remain alien to most people.

This is partly why the Right to Information Act, passed recently, which can be such a powerful empowering tool, is yet to even begin making a difference. The key to a vibrant, efficient democracy (and even the US is far from being one) is participatory local democracy. When the CM touts “Public-private” initiative, the public, meaning citizens, need to know what they are being involved in. And if they’ve been taxed for a metro (yes, petrol in Bangalore has a metro tax on it), the darn well deserve to know where the metro is, or where the money is.

In this regard, I’d like to also point you towards a fantastic initiative in Bangalore for people’s participation for better quality governance, collective ownership, and greater government accountability, Janaagraha. I heard about it from some friends, and from what I see and have heard, these are the kind of efforts that citizens need to take. If you live in Bangalore, and are reading this, go get involved.


Raj said...

I agree with you. We seem to believe that exercising our franchise at the polls, once in 5 years, is all there is to democracy. We place our blind faith on the elected representatives, and expect them to engage in parliamentary debates to weigh the pros and cons of any proposal and take informed decisions. This never happens. Even the Finance Bill can be passed through without so much as a discussion. In states such as TN, oppostion leaders do not even attend the assembly sessions. The concept of participatory or consultative democracy simply does not exist.

ashok said...

hi sunil, first time here...interesting writeups...cheers!

Sunil said...

Raj.....yes, good points.....even the finance bill is passed without much discussion. And what you point out about assembly sessions in TN is very unfortunate. I though was talking of democracy at a local level, where really the local citizen can be involved in projects that will affect him/her visibly and directly, in his/her own locality. Too bad that even that is missing.

Ashok....welcome, and visit often.