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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  India’s discordant democrats

India’s discordant democrats

Stronger powers to the govt to shut out people's views and impose decisions on them is a retrograde habit

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The breakdown of the glue within the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the strong opposition to the Union government’s amendments to the land bill are making news. Both highlight weaknesses in India’s democratic institutions.

Consent of all stakeholders affected by a decision is a democratic ideal. The AAP, in its first stint as Delhi’s government, tried to take governance decisions in mass assemblies of citizens and failed. It could not manage the process and the meetings broke down. In its second stint, it is unable to take participative decisions even within the inner circle of the party, which sadly seems to be breaking apart.

That land is required to establish industries, and that industries create jobs, is well known to all citizens. What some citizens object to is the manner in which the land is acquired and the unfair compensation to displaced people. The new Act (which is sought to be amended) required that consent be obtained from affected people, and also an analysis done of impact on the environment and community before the state acquired the land. The processes laid down for obtaining consent and for undertaking the impact analysis have been decried as impractical and therefore the government has proposed that they be diluted.

In both cases—AAP and land for industry—the aspiration was to involve many people transparently. However, the messiness of doing this without good processes can make the situation go out of control. Then we slip back into the safety of time-tested ways, viz., strong authority to impose decisions.

The world in 2015 is very different to the world in 1894, when the original land acquisition Act was introduced by the British in India. The recognition that all citizens have democratic rights has increased enormously over the last 100 years. Concern with the fragility of the natural environment has also increased greatly. Twenty-first century governance requires processes that 19th century governance did not need. On one hand, we have new needs: on the other, we have not yet developed effective processes to fulfil those needs. The new needs are aspirational no doubt—the old ways are the “practical" ways to which we return when we are unable to do what we want to. Thus, we fall short of our own aspirations.

Innovations fill the gaps between our aspirations and our current abilities. “Innovation" has become the most used word in management. Companies are urged to become innovative or they will perish. Even the sustainability of nations is being measured by how much they stimulate innovation. However, the measures of innovativeness of companies and even nations have become too narrowly focused on the numbers of patents registered and the use of information technology. Innovations in the designs of work processes and in the forms of enterprises, which produce the greatest benefits, are not patented. Nor often do they require new technology. On the contrary, the benefits of technology and patents are invariably obtained only when new work processes or new models of enterprises are developed.

The long history of the development of institutions with which human societies govern their affairs, from tribal councils through monarchies and to elected parliaments, has come to the point when further innovations are required. At this time, the innovations required are not in the ways in which leaders and governments are chosen, but in the ways in which effective decisions can be taken democratically, with the participation of all stakeholders even when they are large in number and also very diverse in their perceptions. India has mastered the processes for conducting democratic elections, whereby hundreds of millions of people can elect their representatives to assemblies. India has used technology effectively in the conduct of these democratic processes for representation.

What is required now for the growth of India as a democratic nation is the development of effective processes for democratic deliberation within Indian institutions (such as its political parties), and also for democratic deliberation among citizens on issues that matter to them—such as what is the best use of the land (and fair treatment of all) and the form of infrastructure and priorities of the development for the cities in which they live. The intelligence of the citizens must be used in participative processes to make rural communities and cities “smart"—technology can only be an enabler.

If there is one thing that is certain in an increasingly unpredictable world, it is that the voices of citizens will become harder for governments to shut out. Not only are concepts of democracy and human rights becoming stronger universally, innovations in communication technologies will also make it much harder to shut them out. Even in China, which is often described as non-democratic, processes are being introduced for the participation of citizens in plans for the development of their cities. Land readjustment among stakeholders, rather than its acquisition by government, is an established process in Germany and many other countries. Global mining companies are voluntarily adopting Free Prior and Informed Consent methods for obtaining local communities’ consent.

Stronger powers to the government (and leaders) to shut out people’s views and impose tough decisions on them is a retrograde habit. Human aspirations require innovations in processes of democratic governance. Let India lead in these. When we look for what we must seek, which is effective processes for systematic participation in collective decisions, we will find many good practices around the world, and in India too. Indeed, the new NITI Aayog’s charter charges it with establishing such processes. One hopes it can.

Arun Maira is a former member of the Planning Commission.

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Published: 05 Apr 2015, 09:49 PM IST
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