Text of Key Note Address - BRICS Conference on Participatory Local Budgeting (PLB) at Kochi, Kerala Back

November 3, 2016

My Speech at BRICS Conference on ‘Participatory Local Budgeting’ at Kochi on 3rd November 2016

At the outset, let me wholeheartedly welcome the coming together of BRICS nations for discussing a very important and relevant idea of democratic governance at the grassroots. Apart from economic issues, issues of civilisational importance also bring nations together and this conclave underscores this fact very effectively. BRICS represents not just five countries and four continents but also five economies and five civilisations.

Democracy and Participation

We are all here discussing a particular operational aspect of democracy because we all believe in democracy  and our common goal is making democracy deliver. We have a shared vision of empowering people through good governance. And the relationship between empowerment of the people and good governance is that of chicken and egg. Good Governance is the mother of popular empowerment and Empowered People alone can bring about true Good Governance. For BRICS to be able to influence the democratic discourse world over, it is necessary that we deliberate upon ways and means of making democracy deliver and in that sense ensuring that people continue to repose their confidence in the idea of democracy.

Human beings are considered as social animals and hence collective activity is something inherent to the concept of society. Democracy also is a social process. Democracy is all about participation. If people refuse to come for voting, no matter how many candidates are contesting, true election cannot happen. Similarly, if candidates decline to stand for elections, thumping voting will be rendered meaningless. Hence, participation is inherent to the idea of democracy. Every democracy has to be participatory democracy. Democracy without participation is like a temple without worship, church without a prayer or a mosque without Namaz.

But over the years, the idea of representative democracy has been facing serious challenges. The toughest of all the challenges is the challenge of trust-deficit. People do have huge hopes from their own elected representatives but more often than not, elected representatives fail to meet the expectations of the electorate. This happens because of the two main reasons. Firstly, because of the abysmal performance of the elected representative who many a times performs poorly as their eyes are more set on perpetuating their positions mainly to overcome instability in politics. Overall, the behaviour of the elected representative  makes electors lose their confidence in him or her and the representational value of the representative erodes. Secondly, oblivious of the systemic limitations; electors continue to have unreasonable expectations from their representative. With almost complete lack of serious efforts to educate and inform electorate on the part of political parties as well as Govt.s, these unreasonable expectations add to the growing disconnect between the electors and the elected.

Direct  Democracy

In response to this situation, in regions like the State of California in USA and also at several other democracies what was experimented with was the idea of Direct Democracy. As against representative democracy, Direct Democracy is more attractive and perhaps more risky as well. It is attractive because unlike in Representative Democracy, every citizen or every voter has not only just some say, but also a pro-active role in decision making. Direct Democracy offers various opportunities to the electors, offers them more leverages and in that sense empowers them in multiple ways. But at the same time, Direct Democracy also presupposes an enlightened, conscious and responsible voter-community. Here, participating voters cannot wash off their hands by putting the blame at the door of the elected representative.

The idea of Participatory Local Budgeting (PLB) has its origin in the concept of Direct Democracy! Its undoubtedly very attractive but essentially very difficult especially when one has to deal with rural people. This is because of significant differences in social and community climates in cities and in villages. Effective engagement of citizens require awareness and public education. In a way, this is more plausible in cities than in villages due to greater access to information.

So far, as the currently available literature on Participatory Budgeting points out, Port Alegre in Brazil, few cities in Ghana, cities like Pune & states like Kerala in India have fairly successfully experimented the idea of people's participation in budgeting. It is obvious that participatory budgeting leaves elected representatives with less amount of political power and hence reduction in available leverages. Hence, without strong political will and huge resoluteness on the part of elected representatives, this idea cannot be taken further. And yet, it is very heartening to note that several Latin American countries, countries in Europe and also cities like New York are continuing with their experiments for Participatory Budgeting.

Citizenship Engagement

Although Participatory Budgeting is a process, but more than that, it is an approach, a psychological tenet, a mindset and also a philosophy. In today’s world, there cannot be any theoretical opposition to the idea of Participatory Budgeting. In fact, bureaucracy should be happy if people decide about the budget and later take responsibility of their own decisions as well. However, participatory governance in general and budgeting in particular is easier said than done. We have to remember that Participatory Citizenship Engagement is the prerequisite of Participatory Budgeting. For Participatory Citizenship Engagement to succeed, several issues will have to be taken into consideration. These issues are as follows :-

a.         Sense of Belonging and the phenomenon of NRVs

Unlike cities, villages have a more vibrant, close knit and open social life. In cities, people very easily become faceless and hence anonymous. This normally doesn't happen in villages. But due to a new and now established phenomenon of Non Resident Villagers, villages are in to face same kind of challenge that cities have been facing all along. If a school teacher teaching in village school, Govt record keeper, a physician attached to the Primary Health Centre or for that matter even elected Head of Village Body decide to stay in a nearby town and be a visiting functionary of the village, his relationship with the villagers weakens seriously. That makes his sense of belonging to the village very superficial as to put it crudely, his stakes in the well being of the villagers become very superficial and only matter of factly. Sadly, the number of such non-resident villagers is increasing as cities are seen as more alluring in many ways. This kind of villagers may not take the task of Local Budgeting with due seriousness and yet wield a huge influence because of their pseudo status. Should this happen, the limitations of Representative Democracy will continue to impact on village governance.

b.        Sense of Ownership of the entire village

Villager Community, as pointed out by none other than Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is often a divided lot. Social Divisions in villages are very sharp and difficult to evaporate. Overcoming them and creating a more assimilative milieu is not at all easy. In addition to this, it is a fact that nuclear and disjointed families are no more confined to cities. Even in villages we have independent, separate families and hence the culture of collectivism, sharing and participation is on the decline here too. In a situation like this, making villagers think of the entire village with a holistic approach and collective ownership of the whole is extremely difficult. To that end, without massive public education and cultivation of minds, the idea of common good and an approach of give-and-take for a larger and loftier cause cannot be evolved.

c.          Sense of Continuity of Governance: Sense of Past and Future, Longer Term Vision and freedom from myopia

Governance is a continuing process. While budgeting, if majoritarian thinking allows a short-term and myopic thinking to have the last laugh, due to sheer burden of numbers, longer term vision will be at great loss. In areas like Natural Resource Management, one has to think in a futuristic manner. Today's budget also have to invest in tomorrow and plan for the day after. If collective decision making inhibits such futuristic thinking for an understandable burden of urgent and important, future of present generations will also be in peril.

d.        Holistic and social integrationist Approach. Rising above compartmentalism

Participatory Budgeting process has to address concerns, aspirations and agonies of even numerically smaller sections and geographically tiny areas. To that end, majority of participants will have to rise above sectarian and narrow considerations. If this doesn't happen, Governance will cause further fragmentation of our village communities instead of uniting them. Democratic Governance framework often ends up with continued political dominance of those who are socially well established. When decision making is via Elected Representatives, at least for the sake of appearing to be inclusive; representatives may ensure that concerns of marginal sections are duly taken care of. But now, in a direct democracy mechanism, when people themselves are out to shape the contents of the budget, one cannot rule out the possibility that marginal actions bring left unattended . This may invite the danger of further accentuating social division as marginal section may carry a deep sense of deprivation in a situation where the doors of participation are apparently wide open.

From Outsourcing to Insourcing

Before I close, there is yet another very serious challenge that I must flag here. It is the challenge of outsourcing mentality. With faster pace of life, urban people are outsourcing most of the things which normally they would do on their own. They often outsource parenting, old-age care and even relationship management.  In an era of greater outsourcing, expecting people to insource something they are not accustomed to is a tall order. Let's be aware of this.

Learnings so far from the experiments in Participatory Local Budgeting in urban areas are very encouraging. There is evidence to suggest that in Brazil, after Participatory Budgeting was adopted, municipal bodies have spent more on education, sanitation and that has also seen reduction in infant mortality by some 20% which is really very remarkable. But closer home, in cities like Pune it has also been pointed out that low participation of poor and marginalised sections often make the process lopsided and biased.

After all, one has to remember that Direct Democracy is a tool with double-edges. What is required is adroit handling, dextrous planning and pure, unadulterated commitment. All the three commodities are unfortunately in short supply and hence the challenge is manifold. But when Democracy itself is a challenge, and we all have to meet the same through Citizenship Training. Enlightened Citizens or villagers are more likely to make PLB a success. If PLB is to become a movement, building capacities of the participating individuals is a MUST.

Thank you !