There is a buzz in the city of Bengaluru that reflects the sociological transformation that is becoming evident across different parts of the country. The elections to the local civic body have not only raised the decibel levels in the city but are also seeing a heightened level of citizen engagement. From Citizen groups to Resident Welfare Associations to Student’s bodies – everyone seems to have got into the act of being visibly engaged. While elections give a good entry point for citizen action, one needs to explore how citizens can continue to stay engaged even and take forward the momentum gained.
One needs to recognize that citizen engagement is not about confrontation or about expressing restlessness and dissatisfaction. It is more about collaborative partnerships and dialogue. It is about inclusion, empowerment and is undoubtedly a political process. And the elections provide just the right recipe for beginning such an engagement. When one considers the ‘citizen-indifference’ that has existed for many decades, this increasing engagement is indeed welcome news. But we need to be pragmatic and take a measured view of the state of this engagement. One needs to appreciate that the evolution of citizen engagement is the evolution of democracy itself. Citizen engagement can strengthen governance processes, deepen democracy, and help in not just overcoming income poverty but also in overcoming ‘voice’ poverty and social exclusion. Citizen engagement should neither be viewed as the ‘citizen against the state’ nor as the ‘state against the citizen’, but as two complementary forces working together to ensure overall development of a community or a Nation.
Beyond elections, citizen action should be taken forward to empowering communities, fighting inequities and participating in the development process. Development by the people and for the people is indeed possible. There are however several questions we must deal with to know whether such an ideal is really possible and how we could work towards it. The first among them is whether as citizens, we are ready to constantly step out of our comfort zones and engage with the process of development deeply. Most urban citizens are beneficiaries of a system and of fruits of development that has hidden costs borne often by the economically poor and socially marginalized. From indigenous communities whose forests are sacrificed to unprotected industrial laborers, from people in whose villages our trash is dumped, to victims of industrial pollution and internal displacement, all are contributors to the growth story without necessarily reaping its benefits. Citizen engagement towards democratizing the process of development necessarily involves constructively critiquing the model of development that we have benefitted from and are engaged in furthering. Can such critiquing happen on a scale significant enough to make development meaningful and enriching for all? Can heads of states and Industry leaders do it? Can it be done by a large mass of ordinary people, students, teachers and all others on a sustained basis? Would it be too much to ask for all stakeholders to simply engage in introspection, self-analysis and honest critiquing long enough to make a noticeable difference?
There is a crying need for it as well, as we find ourselves in the midst of a development paradigm where the role of multiple stakeholders is ever increasing. Meaningful dialogue among the stakeholders – the state, citizenry, private sector, media, civil society and academia can sustain only when there is mutual trust. The relationship between and amidst these multiple stakeholders needs to be driven by mutual respect and with an appreciation of interdependence and reciprocity. However, this may involve redrawing boundaries of engagement and roles that stakeholders have traditionally assumed for themselves. Can civil society and people’s movements find ways of constructively engaging with champions of industrialization to find common ground that results in viable and sustainable development? Can corporations recognize peaceful protests against and criticism of their practices and accommodate them as valid democratic voices with which they should engage rather than seek ways of suppressing? Multi-stakeholder engagement would require adopting of the partnership approach by all parties involved, but would it be possible without shedding the biases about each other? Are there any traditional ethics of engagement that are likely to be compromised? These are questions that need collective reflection and sincere introspection. A development paradigm that involves multiple stakeholders is also about giving equal and dignified spaces in the process. What would it take for the powers that be, to accord equal space to ordinary citizens? It is rare that ordinary citizens or even citizens’ associations get the same status as industry bodies or extra-constitutional groups of the elite and the ‘eminent’. These are practices that need to be challenged and even if it requires that traditional structures of engagement and power hierarchy be overhauled to accommodate every last citizen, it might be well worth the effort.
We must further appreciate that citizenry or community is not necessarily a homogenous mass of people and must be conscious of elite capture that happens within citizen groups as well. Furthering democracy is all about constantly finding ways to negate the elite capture and respecting the last citizen’s voice. It may need according a new respect to the identity of citizen itself. For which, we need to stay not only engaged but be enlightened too.