Home > Lounge > Features > How the ‘public’ betrays the people

After large portions of Mumbai’s GST Bhavan were destroyed in a fire on 17 February, the city’s chief fire officer, P.S. Rahangdale, told a municipal committee looking into the accident that he could not assess whether any of the construction was illegal because government buildings were not covered by the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006. His staff had no power to inspect and certify buildings like GST Bhavan. While citizens who want to make even minuscule alterations to their homes have to jump through a dozen procedural hoops, the government functions with minimal oversight. There is one law for the people, and another for public institutions.

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, is an excellent example of the double standard. The legislation, passed to stem the flow of artefacts and jewellery out of India, imposes a high compliance burden on citizens. Virtually all privately owned artefacts over 100 years old—including coins, paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles, manuscripts and ornaments—have to be registered with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Museums and other public collections, on the other hand, are under no such obligation. Very few, if any, have compiled comprehensive catalogues of items in their possession.

The late fashion designer Wendell Rodricks was angered by a registration drive launched by the ASI in September, which gave citizens 15 days to list antiquities they owned. In an open letter to the Goa state wing of the ASI, he asked why Goans living in centuries-old homes in which virtually every object was antique should be expected to tally dozens or hundreds of possessions while the government did nothing of the kind on its own turf. “Are government offices above the law?" he asked, while alleging, “The Cabo/Raj Bhavan has been looted by successive governors of its antique furniture, porcelain and silver." In the end, not a single artefact was registered with Goa’s ASI in those two weeks. The very existence of the antiquities law, however, provides governments an additional lever to go after people they deem a threat.

At the Think India Dialogue in April 2013, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, broached the idea of expanding public-private partnerships to “P4", or “people private public partnerships". In order to implement P4, he said: “People should get a chance to speak before a government decision is taken. This will make people feel like they have had a role to play." At first glance, his addition of “people" to “public" seemed redundant, for the definition of public is “the people as a whole". However, “public" also means “of or relating to a government", and Modi had put his finger on the fact that India’s public institutions did not represent people as they ought to have done.

When he became prime minister, my hope was that he would lighten the heavy hand of the state, increasing accountability and transparency of government while reducing its intrusiveness into private lives. Had he kept that promise, my distaste for his social policies would have been tempered by admiration for his elimination of red tape.

Sadly, Modi has sought to make government more opaque to citizens while making private lives more transparent to government. In a variety of ways, his administration has hobbled the Right to Information Act (RTI)—by far the most significant augmentation of government transparency in decades—something the UPA government also attempted. The government dragged its feet in filling vacancies in the Central Information Commission until forced by court orders. At one point near the end of 2018, eight of the 11 posts of information commissioner were unfilled, and the number of pending queries had risen to unmanageable levels. On issues such as demonetization, the deal to purchase Rafale jets from France, and the university records of ministers, the administration exempted itself from providing details requested under RTI rules. Soon after Modi was re-elected last year, his government amended the RTI law to take control over the tenures and salaries of information commissioners, diminishing the autonomy and stature of the Information Commission.

Meanwhile, in August 2017, the Supreme Court handed the people a victory by upholding privacy as a fundamental right. That same month, the government constituted a committee headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna to identify issues related to data protection and draft a Bill regarding the processing and access of data. The committee’s recommendations, produced the following year, left the ruling party unsatisfied, despite giving the government powers of surveillance wide enough to worry civil rights activists.

The final draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill, tabled in Parliament in December, dismayed Justice Srikrishna, who said it contravened the Supreme Court’s verdict on the right to privacy and had the potential to “turn India into an Orwellian state". The very title of the Bill evoked Orwell’s concept of doublespeak, since the law, while ostensibly about protecting private information, was mainly concerned with enhancing the state’s access to such data.

The latest conflict between “public" and “people" concerns a physical space, the symbolic heart of India’s democracy, an area of Delhi called the Central Vista which the government is seeking to remodel. No consultations were conducted before HCP Design, Planning & Management was nominated the winner from among a mere six bidders for the Central Vista contract. The urban development ministry rejected the demand made by several architecture firms to establish an open competition for the iconic precinct’s redesign. It refused to release details of the bids, or of the composition of the jury that made the final choice. Despite ambitious timelines being set for the project’s completion, there is no clarity yet on the fate of a number of heritage structures that lie along Rajpath, or on the future of institutions like the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts—though Bimal Patel of HCP has given interviews on his vision for the redesign. So much for making people feel they have a role to play in governance.

To facilitate the Central Vista’s makeover, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) changed regulations in its master plan, a manual meant to guide “the sustainable, planned development of the city". According to the Indian Institute of Architects, modifications to the DDA’s land use regulations will mean that at least 80 acres currently marked for use by ordinary citizens will now be corralled by the government. Delhi residents and many tourists to the city have a deep emotional connection to the area around India Gate. How likely is it that the people of India will continue to have the same access to these spots once the government’s land grab is complete?

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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