Saturday, 5 March 2005

The foundation of civic and responsible society

I am part of a mailing list discussing the possibilities and scope for liberal politics in India. Since the recent state assembly elections, and especially in the context of the formation of the Gurgaon Residents’ Party and its participation in the Haryana elections, the group has discussed the poor turnout of Gurgaon’s upper middle class voters, which was especially glaring since many of them supported the formation of the party.

An observation by one member of the group, Dev Chopra, was particularly insightful and posed an extremely relevant question about the responsibility of citizens. Is it something that will – or should – surface once in five years or however frequently elections may be held?

Here’s what Mr Chopra had to say:

`Would any of the leading lights of the GRP consider assessing, what percentage of the public owning their newly constructed homes, in the last 18-20 years show their Completion or Occupation Certificates BEFORE living in or renting out their property? One will not be surprised to find that 50-60 percent just ignore that statutory requirement. In Phase II of DLF . . . alone, one may discover at least 300 properties being used for commercial ventures, so as to make a quick buck, thereby contravening the residential "ambience" of the area. The typical Delhi city problem of: a) over construction, b) commercialising the residential areas, c) ignoring local laws and installing booster pumps for water--hurting the neighbours, d)installing big transformers and pollute the neighborhood/s, and so on. Self interest and not civic sense rules the roost here.’

`Their focus is more on "encroaching on public land, outside their boundary walls to make green patches, with flowerpots, iron railings on both sides of the road, thus further narrowing the road for vehicles to cross by" unconcerned with community needs.’

Indeed, can one be a responsible voter if one is not a responsible neighbour or citizen?

There are many I know who will argue that completion/occupancy certificates, zoning laws, encroachments etc are all appurtenances and consequences of a statist economy and that they actually lead to the kind of politics we have. That’s something that could be the subject of a passionate debate but the larger point is the complete lack of a civic sense that gets extrapolated on to political participation, even if it is just going and voting in an election. If I don’t care enough about my neighbourhood, will I care about the country?

I had touched upon the issue of low voter turnout in a previous post – Why the urban middle class doesn’t vote – and while that’s one part of the story, the other part is what Mr Chopra has pointed out.

If we see nothing wrong in installing booster pumps to draw out water, thus depriving someone else, we won’t find anything wrong in what politicians are doing all the time, hijacking public money/resources/facilities for their own use. It’s so much easier to fulminate over the quality of people in public life in our drawing rooms, but voting for a party or candidate that stands for clean, value-based, principled politics is difficult. Because we are afraid that if we do get a more principled politics, we will stand to lose our cosy little worlds which we have created through bribes, use of influence, blatant misuse of the law etc. And I, for one, don’t think a liberal politics can be built on a foundation of complete lack of civic sense.

What does the liberal credo say about civic duties and responsibilities? I think this issue needs to be studied and debated by all those who want a more liberal, value-based politics. It’ll be a long haul, but who said building something, especially something absolutely new, was easy?

No comments: