Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Republic and Us

Standing on my balcony, musing over the farce of the Padma awards -- people like NRI businessman Sant Singh Chatwal, who has faced charges of defrauding Indian banks, are on the list, as if awarding Saif Ali Khan, Barkha Dutt (in an earlier year) weren't bad enough -- I saw something that left me even more depressed. The residents' welfare association (RWA) of my block was hosting Republic Day celebrations in the park that my house overlooks. The little park appeared full of people. Almost 70 per cent of the residents were gathered there, socialising and gorging on free snacks. The heavy mist that blanketed Delhi till well past 11 am was no dampener.

Why is that depressing? Because whenever there is a general body meeting (GBM) of the RWA, attendance drops to just about 30 per cent, give or take 0.5 per cent of 1 per cent. GBMs are called to discuss affairs relating to the block and to review the functioning of the office-bearers of the RWA. But barring the 30-odd regulars nobody bothers to attend them.

To me the RWAs and GBMs represent democracy at a microcosmic level and the way people behave here only gets projected at the state or national level in the state assembly and Parliament. The GBM is like a full session of Parliament and the executive committee of the RWA is like the executive arm of the state – the government, which is charged with implementing policies and programmes sanctioned by Parliament (or GBM).

The RWA charges a certain amount every month from the residents. Most pay up and there are a few defaulters. This corresponds to paying taxes and that should prompt a demand for some accountability. It’s not easy to demand and ensure that accountability at the state or national level, but surely it should be easier at the level of the locality you are living in?

And yet what do I find?

That people believe they should get their money’s worth in terms of services, but apart from ranting against the RWA or fighting with its office-bearers if they suffer some personal inconvenience – no water, theft, service lanes not clean – they are not willing to take the next step forward to be more involved.

One potent way they can get more involved is in attending the GBMs. That is like a Parliament session where the executive is grilled on its performance, larger issues are debated and decided on. Once a GBM has decided on something, it is applicable to all members of the RWA.

But people find all kinds of excuses for not attending the GBM. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, errands to run, relatives dropping in. None of these excuses are trotted out when there’s free food available. Even thick fog won’t keep them away. Ask them why they don’t attend GBMs and the pat answer is – kuch hota to nahin hai. So why don’t you come, make yourself heard and ensure kuch hota hai? Kya fayda, what’s the point?

If a GBM does decide on a particular course of action and it inconveniences someone that person just decided to ignore it. When it is pointed out that the GBM has decided this, the immediate reply is – what GBM, how many people attend the GBM, I wasn’t there, so how was it decided? So why don’t you attend? Kya fayda? There seems to be no winning this argument.

What happens as a result? The office-bearers behave pretty much like our politicians do once they are elected. There are rules about the number of GBMs to be called in a year (much like laws about Parliament sitting) but the required number of GBMs is never convened. No one questions them about it.

RWAs are run pretty much like fiefdoms – contracts being awarded for a cut or for personal favours, guards running personal errands for office-bearers, the houses near those of the office-bearers benefiting more than others. And people will just grumble but never demand accountability.

The annual election of the executive committee is also an interesting replica of state or national elections. Two groups gang up and decide to contest elections. Each go around with a kind of manifesto promising the moon. The challengers accuse the incumbents of corruption and ineffectiveness.

Most committee members have their own agendas and the temptation to use the one year in office to make money is strong and often not resisted.

Which brings one to the question that dogs national politics – why don’t good, honest, effective people become office-bearers? The answers, unfortunately, are the same. The honest people are often mild-mannered and don’t have the kind of aggression that is required to deal with rogue elements – and there are many. The honest, effective people are the ones who hold regular jobs and are not able to devote the kind of time that an RWA needs. Above all, RWA politics can be as dirty as state and national politics and these people just don’t have the stomach for that kind of politicking and worse.

Is it any wonder then that our state legislatures and Parliament are in the state they are? If we cannot ensure democracy and responsibility at our individual levels, can we do so at larger levels?


seetha said...

there is someone who leaves a comment on various posts but that comes in an undecipherable script. so i can't read or post his/her comment.

tasflowrance said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Seetha,

Do understand your point of view. By the way taxation and representation is not linked in any kind of political system, and is contradictory to the priciples of Democracy. I am surprised you can't see that NRI "permanent residents" and 70% of India's population would not be eligible to vote if your linkage of taxation and representation were to be implemnted. Good luck with your blog though. Most of it is good reading.

seetha said...

actually,i wasn't really linking taxation and representation in this post. but if people are paying the monthly fee, i feel they have a right to and should demand more accountability.
i wouldn't equate NRIs with the poor in India who don't pay direct taxes (i suppose you are referring to my previous post about the NRI vote). the poor live in and suffer India. actually they also pay taxes (the indirect taxes).