Are you a good citizen?

Are you a good citizen?

In the summer of 1993, I was in a student programme on architecture and planning in Denmark. One of our site visits was to what’s called a Cohousing development, a little outside Copenhagen. This was a concept that was taking strong root in Denmark and spreading to other parts of Europe, a deliberate fostering of community spirit through shared facilities and responsibilities—transport, child care and kitchens.

We had to write a report on our visit afterwards and I still remember what I wrote—for the reason that it was so far removed from the reality of what India is today. I wrote that in India we didn’t need community enclaves because the spirit of community exists in every one of our neighbourhoods, keeping our children safe and allowing us to lean on each other for any support. Since our return to India these last 10 years, I have seen little evidence of this romantic view of India’s community and can only attribute it to a hangover of childhood innocence.

The Mumbai strikes have resulted in the loss of innocence of millions among the urban middle class. Because this is the first time we feel vulnerable. It is the first time government inertia and bungling cannot be countered through private means. Our response is fear and anger. The question everybody is asking now is: “Will the intensity of emotion remain? Will it even carry into the New Year?" Or will it dissipate like the morning dew, allowing status quo to triumph once again? And if it does remain, can it be channelized to catalyse constructive change?

The new fervour for accountability, therefore, is important and needs to be relentless. It is bringing into sharp focus the quality of our political and bureaucratic leadership, and the delivery by our state apparatus. It has already put politicians on a rare back-foot, and galvanized intelligence and defence discussions on improving operational efficiency.

But while it is important to demand accountability from our leaders, it is paramount that we ask it of ourselves. I keep hearing the refrain, “we need somebody to come and take charge, like a Gandhi", and it puzzles me. I have come to the conclusion that we look for heroes to deliver us either because we lack faith in ourselves or because this conveniently allows us to focus on the priorities of our own lives. I am also struck by the “instant nirvana" impatience. There seems to be a lack of appetite to invest the time it takes to build a strong foundation for our democracy. This is not Maggie noodles— there is much work to be done all around.

Our anger must first be directed towards individual introspection. A paucity of public principles and civic virtue has seeped into the very bones of our society. We need nothing less than a civic renaissance. We need three resolute pillars to build the foundation for this renaissance—citizenship, volunteerism and community.

The spirit of volunteerism and of community has been an integral part of our society in the past but needs resurgence. Citizenship, however, is about developing our political identity, which we have never invested in.

Engaging in the politics of our city, state and country is engaging in nation building. Yet most Indians prefer to stay away from politics, viewing it as a vehicle of corrupt power and crime. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The virtues and vices of a government are not inherent in government but derived from those of its people". Like it or not, we are in a representative democracy, and yet we, the middle class, don’t vote for our political leaders, know them or demand delivery from them. If we must interact with government, we prefer to interact with the bureaucrat babu who seems more “people like us". Most of us have never met a politician in our lives. We disconnect from the political process with pride as if it deserves a badge of honour. In the absence of investment in our political identity or ideal, our lamentations have become stale—“they are all the same, all corrupt".

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And yet when credible candidates come along, we don’t support them. Jayaprakash Narayan in Andhra Pradesh is a case in point. He has cast his hat into the political arena on the plank of honest politics, but rather than rallying to his support we are cynical about his chances. Instead we stand by as movie stars and political scions are voted in, never mind that they have little experience in governance or development. We can’t change politics from the outside—as customers or commentators. So building the first pillar of citizenship requires individual commitment to be part of the political process from each and every one of us.

The second pillar of volunteerism is not a new concept in traditional India. Villages had common assets that the community took collective responsibility for—temples, tanks, and streams. But in modern India, government has taken over the ownership of all public assets without providing political structures for community volunteerism. Bereft of opportunities, the outlet for volunteer energies has been stymied or diverted to culture and religion, or into NGOs.

Many of the post-9/11 actions of the US government have been questionable, but the investment in nurturing social capital in their country is remarkable. When the US went through 9/11, the citizens rallied resoundingly. Elysa Batista wrote, “a wave of volunteerism swept through the country right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. From giving blood to becoming involved with community service groups, Americans turned out in droves to make a difference".

Even most recently, in rare bipartisanship, both Barack Obama and John McCain passionately supported a comprehensive volunteer system that creates new opportunities for citizens to serve each other and their country. Robert Putnam in his theory of social capital suggests that the level of volunteering is an index to measure the health of a democracy. Between 2006 and 2007, there were at least 60 million Americans who volunteered for civic service, which is about 26% of the population. Imagine that. An entire country with one volunteer per family. This concerted drive to encourage volunteerism is in stark contrast to the complete absence of formal systems for volunteering in India.

My guess is that a measure on urban Indians’ giving today—of either volunteer time or money—wouldn’t bathe us in much glory. We need to re-cultivate volunteerism values in our cities by creating formal structures for volunteerism. We could revive our tradition of shramdaan here in India. A formal shramdaan programme could open up opportunities for serving in a civilian reserve military programme, or in civic programmes for volunteering in hospitals, education, libraries, social service organizations, etc. Such promotion of volunteerism is an end in itself. But it links citizenship to public service while also addressing the demand for human resources.

Let me give an example. Consider our police count, a total of 10,32,960 or 1:1,000 for our population of one billion. We need to expand this by at least three times in our cities. In Mumbai, this would mean an addition of 25,000 personnel to our forces. One way to do this would be to beef up the police force at the state level. An alternative approach could be to initiate a joint community-policing programme covering every neighbourhood. Volunteers from within neighbourhoods would be recruited and trained. This second approach decentralizes the system of policing, inculcates values of citizenship and provides volunteering opportunities. Encouraging such decentralized initiatives will bring back relevance to community action and empower citizens.

The third pillar of community takes us closer to home, in our own neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, most of us these days are free riders, taking without giving. Most of us have never met our neighbours nor know anything about them. We have no idea who moves in or out of our small neighbourhoods—owners, paying guests, tenants, watchmen or house-help. We have no idea who our local policemen are. The truth is that today’s neighbourhoods have become socially fragmented.

Terror has a geography—it originates, breeds, organizes and strikes somewhere. All these terrorists had to be lying in wait somewhere in our cities, had to have local networks, often inserting themselves right within our neighbourhoods. How then do we not know about them? Sociologists use the term “anomie" for the feeling of not belonging, of isolation, of disconnectedness. The level of anomie is on the rise in our cities. The gaping hole in our security is our disconnectedness from what goes on in our neighbourhoods. We need a resurgence of community.

These are the three pillars upon which a civic renaissance is possible. It will require a dramatic change in our collective mindsets. But when this happens, we will find ourselves stopping to help the next time we see an accident, a fallen tree, a suspicious stranger in our neighbourhood, or an unusual object. When this happens, the next time a terrorist lands on our shores and we ask them what they are doing, we will not take “Mind your own business" as an answer. We will have the ownership to say, “It is my business." This transformation in our mindsets is not going to come easily. It will first of all require government to step back and make room for communities, and for citizens to step up and wholeheartedly embrace their role.

So while we express our angst with protests, petitions and candles, let us also invest in important long-term outcomes. Let us move beyond the romantic idea of democracy and put our shoulders to the hard work of building our democracy—through values of citizenship, volunteerism and community. A country is made strong by its citizens. They build a resilient society that rallies with courage and leadership during times of crisis. The best response to the Mumbai strikes would be an epochal civic renaissance in India.

Swati Ramanathan is the co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

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