Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Right to Public Comment?

How to have an effective say in the draft Regional Plan

The announcement of the period of public comment on the Draft Regional Plan 2021 gives us the space to raise a number of rather interesting questions about the whole process of public comment. What exactly do we mean by public comment? What should constitute public notice? And does the state have any obligations in aiding the articulation of public comment?

The Task Force apparently prevailed on the Government to allow for not the usual 60 days period for public comment, but a period of 90 days, three months for the public to comment. The Task Force no doubt had good intentions, but it is my contention that this extension of time alone will not serve the purpose of greater public participation. At the most, without being tied to a genuine rethinking of the whole process, it will remain a mere token gesture while the game continues to be played as always.

The Draft Regional Plan was apparently notified on the 8th of October 2008 via the government gazette. Some amount of the population got to know of it a few weeks later via newspaper reports. When these good citizens got to know about it, they rushed to the relevant offices and asked for their copy of the draft plan and the maps pertaining to their village (prohibitively priced for an average citizen by the way). The answers they received was in the ‘they are not ready yet, come back next week’ range. Close to a month after notification, a good number of Panchayats have not yet received copies of the plan and the maps pertaining to their jurisdiction. If such is the case, can we seriously argue that the period of public comment has begun? Or is this just another perfunctory exercise, where we move through a ritual and say “hurray, we did it!” and move along with out any genuine public debate?

To understand the ridiculousness of this practice of publishing prospective legal change in a gazette and presuming that the period of public comment has begun we need to look into the beginnings of modern democracy; where the checks on the powers that be, came from a powerful bourgeois (commercial and business) class that demanded it have a say and stake in the running of the state. For this class, unfettered with daily menial chores of the working class, discovering the joys of the print media, and encountering a world with familiar limited issues, obtaining information via a newspaper, or the odd governmental gazette was perfectly convenient. Democracy in the old republican model comprised a club of a small group of gentlemen who debated issues over tea. Information from the newspaper you had all day to pour over, and the club to discuss issues over, allowed for a fair amount of participation in governance. Goa under the Portuguese Republican regime provides us an appropriate example. It gave to a small class of Goans this taste of democracy, and for this little club, it was a very satisfying experience indeed.

Democracy has since moved on though. It has itself been subjected to democratic urges, and democracy today is also the space for the working class and the rural peasant. These groups are finally demanding not merely technical compliance, but effective communication, to allow for genuine participatory governance. If the Government (and indeed the well-meaning Task Force) is serious, it will ensure that the period of public comment begins not from publication in the gazette, but from the moment the Regional Plan in entirety descends to every Panchayat in the state of Goa. If not, lets take it as fact that the Government is not really serious about this participatory exercise.

There is another question that emerges though, when we recognize that the forms of the law are geared toward a privileged class that inaugurated the first phase of democracy. When we say open for public comment, who exactly is this public? Theorists of popular culture inform us that there is no such thing as a ready-made and existing public. A public has to be created. And definite kinds of public are created through definite kinds of contexts. What is the kind of public that these public comment provisions create therefore?

The sad truth is that the Regional Plan does not really bother with identifying the public that needs to comment, or indeed enable it to be in a position where it can effectively comment. In the case of the Regional Plan, the public resides in the gram sabhas and municipalities of the state. Creating the public therefore would require the State to actively convene special assemblies where the technical details of the Plan are explained to this public. Only subsequent to this process, can we effectively say that a period of public comment has in fact begun.

This proposed process may seem ridiculous to those who accept the current procedures as sufficient. But if we agree that the current procedures are insufficient and incapable of enabling genuine participation, then clearly there is a need to move towards more effective procedures. Such renewed forms of participation alone will allow us to move back from the precipice of populism that the Indian democracy has moved to.

To carry forward the idea that form determines content, have reference to the phrasing of the law that invites the public objections to a government proposal. The phrasing ensures that the ‘public’ is eternally trapped in the role of the objector. There is nothing positive that this public has to say, since they are objecting. Even if it is a positive assertion that this public makes, the phrasing ensures that the bureaucracy looks at the public comment as an objection to all the blood, sweat and tears that they may have poured into the proposal. In asking for objections, what we have effectively done is to minimize the space for dialogue (which marks a democracy) and set up two sparring partners.

There are good many aspects of the law that are based on a liberal and bourgeois understanding of the world. A law rooted in these notions is no good for a democracy composed largely of labouring classes. The ongoing upheaval in Goa is a perfect route for us to examine these notions, change them and work towards effective democracy and social stability. Towards this larger end, challenging the period of public comment on the draft Regional Plan, would be an effective first step. The period of public comment can logically and ethically begin only when every panchayat and municipality in the State has received the relevant documents, and only after an initial explanation of the features and the proposals of the Regional Plan have been explained in all these bodies. If this is not done, then we would have had no effective realization of our right to Public comment.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 5th November 2008)

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