Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Opening up or Ushering in?: The Panchayati Raj amendments, Activists, and Public participation

Over the 25th and the 26th of July I was in Pondicherry, to participate in a workshop around the theme of public consultation and citizen participation in urban governance. ‘Opening Up or Ushering In’ was the rather enigmatic name for the workshop that mystified most of the participants. It was only later that we got an inkling into this framing of the workshop. Given that public consultation and citizen participation that have become rather fashionable catchwords; are these processes being used to open up spaces for citizens to participate in the articulation of plans and projects in their cities and neighbourhoods, or usher in technocrats and their consultancies under the guise of public consultation and participation? You have to admit with me that the organizers were more than clever in their framing of the workshop title, as well as placing on the agenda, an interesting issue for debate.

I would like to reflect on this idea within the Goan context, returning in the process, to a theme that I have not taken up for some time, that of the frustrated moment of the Goan revolution. What has not ceased to amaze is the manner in which, despite constantly brandishing the issue of public participation and decentralization, most of the groups in the fray have been singularly unable to actually realize the objective. All of this despite the fact that the GBA, at that time the more powerful among these groups, held the trumps at a crucial moment in the struggle.

Trying to understand why they failed to seize the moment, two options emerged. One, because of the conviction by some of the more prominent Margao activists that decentralization was a bad thing, the average citizen would make a mess of the powers they were given. The second, because for the architects and urban planners involved in the movement, participation and consultation began and ended when they were ushered into the planning process. In their well-intentioned estimation, this was also participation and consultation, so at least they were taking the process somewhere. As the recent ‘stepping down’ of Edgar Rebeiro has shown us, this assumption was not just terribly na├»ve, but eventually impotent as well. Participation is not achieved until the entire body of citizenry is enabled to participate in planning. The question that needs to be seriously posed is if this association with the State executive, right from the time the GBA joined the Task Force, an association entirely outside of a legal process, was useful or not.

The reason for distinguishing between the two reasons stated above, is because I would like to distinguish between a conscious option to prevent genuine and large-scale participation (in the first case), and a misunderstanding as to what participation and consultation actually means. In the second case, the error is possibly unconscious, the result of a blinkered vision engendered by one’s professional training. It is a different matter that this professional training is rooted in the same fear of the ‘ignorant masses’ held by our Margao activists. When imbibed through education however, it gets internalized unconsciously. That these professionals belong to a class that in any case has a tendency against mass participation and towards a surprisingly firm belief in its own capacities does not help them in thinking out these biases that are educated into them.

To be sure, these biases have a longer history, as displayed in the history of the anti-colonial struggle in British-India. The early forms of the ‘national struggle’, in particular the demands of the liberals and Swarajists, was not for ‘freedom’. Whenever this potentially explosive term was used, it was in fact rather ambivalently articulated. Their aspiration was in fact for a greater ‘share’ in the governance of the country, as reflected in the demands for greater opportunities in participation in central and provincial legislatures and executive councils. There was no contemplation of universal participation for all Indians, the attempt was to only share the pie of governance with the white man. It was only later, in the event of the failed expectations of the Indian National Congress on most offers of constitutional ‘reforms’ that the discourse and practice got radicalized to lead to the situation of a robust non-cooperation against the British Raj. Popular support was garnered through the eventually unrealized promise to the unwashed masses of their having a say in the future, in matters of governance.

What we must not forget is that there existed right from the very beginning a tension between the freedom struggle led by Gandhi, to whom we can trace this liberative notion of local self governance, and the representative ‘consultative’ democracy that eventually triumphed. This latter form took for its inspiration the structures of the colonial State, and this is why today, we experience nothing less than a colonial violence, as demonstrated by the recent changes effected to the Goa Panchayati Raj Act by the representatives in the legislative house. The fight in Goa, for greater transparency and more participation in governance is in fact a continuation of this unresolved fight against colonialism, and one can see uncanny resemblances. The State apparatus in Goa is that inherited from the Raj, the GBA-mobilization was led by elites for whom sharing of power is sufficient.

It now looks as if this earlier history from British-India is repeating itself. The failed expectations of the leadership of the GBA are prompting queries if we should not now push forward into more radical measures against the Government. As suggested on numerous occasions, that may not be such a bad idea. However, this radical action CANNOT be the goal of the movement. Any action (radical or otherwise) has to necessarily acknowledge that the goal of the movement is nothing less than a legally recognized system of meaningful consultation with the citizens in their wards, and an effective system of participation in village-level and city-level meetings. It is because of our longer history, where colonial institutions and logics have prevailed over the genuinely participatory logics that we have to make sure that in the next mobilization that seems to be imminent, we ensure that the lessons from the history of both the Indian anti-colonial struggle (popularly called the freedom struggle) and the ‘Save Goa’ campaign are not forgotten.

What we need is an opening up, not an ushering in.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 12 Aug 2009)

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