The outbreak of dengue and chikungunya in the national capital has sent its entire cast of actors — the municipal bodies, the Delhi government, the LG, the Union health ministry, and even the court — scurrying to action. Short-staffed municipal bodies, primarily responsible for sanitation and preventive health measures in the city, are struggling to carry out fogging and door-to-door awareness drives, even as citizen complaints of garbage pile-ups pour in from across the city. While much of the official response has been characterised by a shrill blame game between different authorities, and endless rebukes from courts, a conversation on how leveraging Delhi’s greatest resource — it’s 16 million citizens — can address this crisis is completely missing.
Citizens are deemed fit to be only an audience to the endless stream of paternalistic messages of government media campaigns or urged to call upon helplines, when in despair. They are never seen as stakeholders who can play a critical role in coordinating last-mile action. This reveals a fundamental faultline in the practice of democracy in urban India, where people’s participation is limited to voting in elections, but excludes participation in day-to-day administration. Such participation is a definitive feature of vibrant democracies globally.
Starting with the 74th Constitutional Amendment in 1992, the Union government has never tired itself of invoking the mantra of urban citizen participation. The UPA government’s flagship urban scheme, JNNURM, provided for a landmark community participation law that required all states to set up area sabhas — bodies of voters to coordinate with municipal bodies on local civic matters. A decade later, no state or city government has operationalised such bodies.
One would have hoped that the smart cities mission would try to reverse this trend. Unfortunately, the mission pays little attention to the democratic deficit that ails India’s cities while focusing almost exclusively, and myopically, on infrastructure and technological solutions. Citizen participation is welcome, but only through the internet and mobile applications, and not through interventions that provide them real powers and resources to act for themselves. This is where Delhi’s mohalla sabhas, a key reform promised by the AAP government, stands out.
The AAP government envisions mohalla sabhas as bodies of 4,000-6,000 voters meeting every month in close to 3,000 mohallas across Delhi to debate, decide (not merely suggest) and monitor the local works to be carried out within the budget allocated to each mohalla. The policy plans to devolve even the selection of contractors for small works to these sabhas, and empowers them to coordinate with local authorities on resolution of grievances.
Reports suggest that the initiative is one of the casualties of the ongoing power tussle between the LG and the AAP government. Delhi’s mohalla sabhas — had they been active — could have formed the city’s first line of defence in the current health crisis by organising door-to-door awareness drives (neighbours, not municipal officials knocking on doors) or using their mohalla funds to hire contractors to conduct timely fogging.
But are the communities of Delhi ready for such intensive engagement? All indications, so far, suggest they are. Reports from last year suggest that the Delhi government’s pilot participatory budgeting exercise in about 400 mohalla sabhas received an enthusiastic response from communities. More recently, a J-PAL survey — led by Aprajit Mahajan of the University of California, Berkeley — of 600 voters across Delhi found that 85 per cent of them were in favour of participating in the mohalla sabhas to resolve local issues. The desire was strongest among the poorest quartile of the voters surveyed, a reminder that it’s the poorest who are most affected by the quality of local public services. When asked how frequently would they like their mohalla sabhas to meet, a staggering 92 per cent preferred these meetings be held every month or more frequently.
Initiatives such as the mohalla sabhas won’t be successful overnight. Experiences from the panchayati raj system and several community-driven development initiatives globally show that it takes a lot of careful planning and local experimentation before these institutions start functioning effectively. A rapidly urbanising India will only face more complex challenges over time, and it will be anything but smart if our policymakers ignore citizen participation as a prominent force to address these challenges.
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