Thursday, November 15, 2007

On How To Stand With The People: Lessons for the Regional Plan

Subsequent to the announcement of Mr. Sardinha’s election as the MP for South Goa, the Chief Minister saw it fit to declare that “On SEZs I am with the people. Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa.” Where else would he be though, if not with the people? And how will he gauge what the people want? The media and the Congress also agreed that the election victory was a vote in favour of their government. It never ceases to amaze me how the national media is able to state with conviction what the results of our frequently held elections mean. With conviction they are able to affirm that yes indeed, X or Y is what the election result means. Their pronouncement is upheld as truth, the final answer to what the people think and want. Political parties and leaders have for long been claiming the same, but it is perhaps only with the explosion of the private media that these claims have now come to be treated as gospel truths.

As much as these pronouncements may be treated as sacred truths though, the fact remains that these are only possible interpretations. There is a need to emphasize this tentative nature of these pronouncements for a variety of reasons. The first is the practical, there is no possible way that one can state with certainty that this particular election result was a vote in favour of the Congress. This is true especially in the Goan scenario where there is really no choice between who is going to rob you senseless and sell out your interests, and where one might as well play tic-tac-toe and determine who you will vote for. The second is the more crucial in that these interpretations of election results are used in fact to deprive the people of a say in decision-making that will have a crucial impact on their future. Thus for example, Sardinha’s victory could be taken to be the approval of the people in favour of SEZs and the opposition to it the voice of a minority. The mere fact of an election, and a pronouncement by the - invariably status-quoist – media ensures to deprive the operation of the State of democratic content. If these interpretations cannot be considered the voice of the people, how then are we to determine this voice?

The answer lies partially in reevaluating CM Kamat’s statement, “Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa”. Who and what is this Goa? Does Goa reside at some abstract central (pun entirely intended) level or at the local level at which even the slightest changes – impoverishment as a result of a grandiose developmental schemes for example- are more dramatically felt and are best responded to? Very clearly if we are sincere about the “interest of Goa” then we need to identify this interest at the point it is most vulnerable at; the village and the city ward.

Unfortunately despite a Constitutional mandate to continuously consult the local, vested political interests in most parts of India have ensured that this truly democratic vision is not realized. Take for example the classic case of the Regional Plan where the Goan articulated her interest but is now being frustrated from realizing it. They wished their voice to be heard in the planning process and this is being ‘considered’ under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. And this is where the fraud lies. The Town and Country Planning Act (TCP) is quite clearly unconstitutional given that it flies in the face of the democratic requirements of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. The TCP has no provision for a positive role for the citizen participation the way it stands now. It conceptualizes the citizen in vague terms such as “the public”. Furthermore, this “public” can only bring objections to the plan, thus casting the citizen as essentially a negative player in the process that can be effectively realized only through ‘experts’. Further, the Act places no burden on these experts to go and understand the local scenarios that crucially impact on plans by talking with the citizen and learning from them. On the contrary, the citizen is expected to trek to a governmental office to examine a Plan that is written in a language understood only by experts. Where then is the capacity to hear the voice of the people when it is not allowed an opportunity to coherently articulate itself?

If this Government is serious about being with the people then its first act, following this election, would be to halt the deeply flawed and duplicitous process of framing the new Regional Plan. It needs to scrap the existing TCP and formulate a planning Act that takes into consideration Constitutional mandates and allows for the voice of the people to be coherently articulated, not merely interpreted by unaccountable minions of the status quo.
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 15 November 2007)

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