Sunday, April 4, 2010

Of The People and not just By the People, For the People.

In the on-going debate about providing legally enforceable rights to all citizens of India, one of the most common and recurring questions is that why these laws should work any better than the whole gamut of laws, policies and programs in the past encouraging education, food security, employment and well being of the people? This question has been the ultimate killer for any debate on a good legislation that things on the paper and on the ground remain very different.

What we must realize now is that we no longer live in a democracy with resources so scarce that it acted like a monarchy where it was considered a favor if an elected leader got a school constructed in the neighborhood. Today, the nation has the capability and resources to provide for all. It is our inalienable right to get good education, have enough food, get employment and good health services. We must strive for these rights as we did for our political freedom. It is good that the government has made it easier for us to fight for some of these rights by legislations granting legally enforceable right to information, right to education, employment guarantee and hopefully soon a right to food security and access to health. The onus now lies on 'we the people' to make sure that all of us get our birth rights.

The civil society in India has been a very vibrant one but even today many people look to the government for every problem. We must start looking at the government as an enabler for our better future rather than as a spoon feeder. Hence, if tomorrow we feel the pinching need of a school in our locality we should not wait for the government to take suo moto notice but move the courts and other relevant fora for our rights. The model of governance, we are shifting to, requires a lot of public participation. If we feel appalled at the state of corruption in various government schemes, the onus is now on us to take action and file RTI applications to expose the corruption.

As pointed out by Shekhar Singh in the article by Lina Khan that usually laws were made for the government to control the people, but now we have moved to another level where laws are made for the people to regulate the government. These laws give us a wonderful opportunity to plug the leaks in the flow of money and resources from the top to the grass roots. 'Well Done Abba' , a recent movie by Shyam Benegal, highlights precisely how we can do so. Many instances of corruption are pretty easy to spot. As rightly depicted in the movie, there are many wells, lakes, schools and roads in India that exist on paper but not in reality. All we need to do is to find out what all is there on paper. As in the movie, I guess we can file an FIR against some one stealing our wells, roads and other infrastructure.

I propose that we all launch a nation wide social audit. A team of individuals would take up a locale in a town or a small village and then use RTI to find out about all the public projects in the area that exist in the government records as well the payrolls of all the people employed under NREGA, lists of all the beneficiaries of various other government schemes in the area, etc. Then we visit the place and actually map the things on paper to reality. That would not only expose all the wrong doings of the corrupt officials but also make the locals aware that they can always audit the working of the government and make sure that they get their due. This nation wide campaign can be coordinated on the web with various teams selecting different locales and then uploading their reports online along with the other valuable information about the locality as how one can go there and what all is there in that area.

There are many many opportunities the new legislations have provided for both social activists and businessmen. Only thing that is needed is imagination. Shaffi Mather has come up with a wonderful idea to make money by fighting corruption. The new Right to Education Act throws an opportunity for us to make money while educating poor children. The window of opportunity looks like a curse, at present, to many. I am talking about the clause in the act which makes it mandatory for all private schools to take at least 25% pupils from the disadvantaged sections in all new admissions. What many forget to add is that the government will pay the school for educating these children. The amount paid by the government per child per year would be the cost the government bears to educate the child in a government school. My thesis is that if it costs Rupees 100 to , with all due respect, the inefficient, corrupt and wasteful government to give quality education to a child, a private school with an efficient and innovative management can provide better education in around 80 Rupees (read this). Thus, quite contrary to the assumption of our HRD minister Mr. Sibal, the private sector can play a very important role in educating the children of India and even make it into a profitable enterprise.

We are seeing a new democracy evolving in India which would make the governance more participatory and accountable. While the RTI has already made ripples in the society about the way the people now perceive the government (see this article), I am sure that soon enough we all would realize our roles in the governance of the nation that the government is of the people and not just by the people and for the people.

PS: Thanks to Anirudh for editing the post

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