For the People,By the People

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Government in a democracy is propelled by the two factors: delegation and accountability. Citizens choose their representatives(MPs or MLA’s ) delegate constituency responsibilities to them, and hold the accountable in the next election. In turn, legislators delegate authority to ministers, who are accountable to Parliament( or state assembly).

In practice, the system does not work perfectly. The process of accountability is not always adequate. Public impatience with the quality of governance is often high, as with the UPA administration in the past year. Nevertheless, this template of delegation and accountability is non-negotiable. The alternative would be for every policy action to be referred to the people. This is not practicable.

How does this ‘delegation and accountability’ equation playout in the context of recent civil society activism? There are those, such as the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who have suggested that technology now allows us to access public opinion in real time. It is appropriate therefore, to use this feedback ehile framing laws and policies.

What does this mean? Does it suggest opinion polls and use of text-messages or internet based surveys? Does it involves referendums? As a device, the referendums is much in Switzerland. Even laws passed by Parliament  can be challenged and nullified. In the Swiss system, an individual citizen can force a plebiscite if he collects 50,000 signatures. Switzerland has a population of eight millions. If its standard are applied to India, one is looking at collecting signatures of 7.5 million people.

Clearly the ‘go to the people’ method is not feasible. How then can policy making and legislation be made more consultative? Civil society groups claim one route is to involve them in the process. They argue that they work among grassroots communities and represent popular opinion. As such, they bring to policy shaping a humane heart, while civil servants  and political administrators only to contribute a clinical mind. Broadly, this has been the contention of both the Anna Hazare camp as well as members of the National Advisory Council(NAC).

It is apparent a certain populism and emotiveness is built into this civil society argument. Whichever way one considers it, it ends up undermining technocratic specialization, not to speak  of elected government. To be fair, the Congress-led UPA administration has been guilty of encouraging this.

If the UPA wanted civil society activists to be part of its regime, why did it take recourse  to an unaccountable body, such as NAC? Why  couldn’t for instance, nominate Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander to the Rajya Sabha- using the 12 seats set side for eminent persons perhaps – make the ministers and have them defend or answer questions on,say, the Communal Violence Bill or Food Security Bill in Parliament?

Another case is of civil society litigants, supported by members of the Planning Commission, challenging the national vaccination programme. They say recommendations of the INDIAN COUNCIL OF MEDICAL RESEARCH and the govt’s TECHINICAL ADVISORY GROUP on immunization are incorrect. This may or may not be true- but are civil society groups, with the same set of lawyers jumping  from the Lokpal Bill to vaccine delivery, perennial and all-purpose arbiters of the public good?

There is one other point to consider. What happens when civil society groups have opposite views? Are they both right? It is sobering  to consider that at the end of the day, such groups are accountable not to an undifferentiated society but to specific stakeholders and- dare one say it- ideologies.

An analogy would help here. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCC) has over 500 NGOs accredited to it. There are so many of them that they are now classified as BINGOs(Business and industry NGOs), ENGOs(Environmental), RINGOs ( research and independent), TUNGOs( trade union), YENGOs(youth) and IPOs (indigenous people).

Is it climate change treaty that satisfies such categories and all these NGOs ever possible? Is it easier for 500 civil society groups to agree or for 200 nations states or, better still, for the 25-odd countries critical to the carbon emissions issue? The answer goes beyond accountability and delegation. It is about governance, whether global or domestic, and who can deliver it and who cannot.

Source: TOI


Written by THE LAWFILE

June 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Democratic System

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