Reclaiming the neighbourhood, redefining national service.

It will not suffice to be democratic in theory, predatory and self-serving otherwise, inclusive in public affairs and feudal in private, global in concerns and ignorant of, and untouched by the local.

Participation in a democracy is about many things… the ritualistic trip to the ballot, joining in the grand decision making processes through raising and shaping public opinion, having one’s say where there is opportunity, creating opportunity when one has something to say (and do). It is so easy to be carried away by an ennobling vision of inclusivity where voice and vote carry weight in notions of democracy. However, citizens’ access and delivery of public goods and services so critical to an experience of inclusivity that democracy engenders is given short shrift. This is made worse by all round indifference and apathy. A nation like India, tall on ideals, steeped in history and impervious (or indifferent) to imminent misery, has spawned a maze of laws, policies, schemes, and programs…. an administrative / bureaucratic framework that is often impenetrable by the common man, and an implementation workforce that needs ‘forcing’ to work, generally speaking.

The proposition here is that democracy starts with individual responsibility for one’s neighborhood, in the first place, a commitment to ensure that one participates actively in its affairs and builds a record of service that goes beyond service of self. It will not suffice to be democratic in theory, predatory and self-serving otherwise, inclusive in public affairs and feudal in private, global in concerns and ignorant of, and untouched by the local. However high and mighty, and whatever be the scale and significance of one’s stage and play, it requires first and foremost that one fulfills a certain minimum set of duties in a spirit of service and community for the larger good of the neighborhood.

The government of the day pursues legislation to translate its intent and mandate into an implementation and governance framework. For most part, governance as an experience comes from the quality of service delivery, how accessible and dependable, how prompt and responsive, and how transparent and fair it is. It would appear that given the size of the population, the lag in enabling infrastructure development and technology absorption, the quest for high quality service delivery is a lost cause and most people are resigned to deficient service delivery processes. Among the rest, the impatient have found ways to circumvent the system. Given the experience of the decades gone by, the government – administrative edifice actually offers little hope that it can create a viable mechanism. It makes no claims. It offers no plans. It has very few publicly spelt out service standards that it holds itself accountable to for any range of services. Promise nothing. Deliver whatever. In such a beleaguered state, there is talk from to time of reduction in the size of government, which is another way of saying that hiring is frozen, and unabashed embrace of technology without preparedness.

Arguably, the government machinery as it stands is insufficient, and incapable of any significant enhancement in service quality delivery unless it works hand in hand with the beneficiary -community / the neighborhood. A strong platform, local, and voluntary, collaborative and information-enabled at the neighborhood level that works hand in hand with the government machinery is an essential requirement to augment the shortfall in deployable resources, deal with peak demand, enforce provisions of law and service quality commitments, promote accountability, audit performance, and build wider ownership for the community, including common resources. Evidently, it again points to the requirement that each one extends beyond what is sufficient for his own personal need / greed.

One of the key difficulties in demanding service quality and enforcing the provisions of laws, rules, and the ubiquitous schemes is that they are cloaked in obfuscation, legalese, procedural labyrinths, provisos and exceptions that make it hard for anyone to be sure that the trip to a government agency will not be wasted. One might argue that given the complex demographics, illiteracy and under-developed infrastructure, rule making is tough and rule breaking relatively easier, and hence the need for safeguards, which get mistaken for tortuous routines. The experience invariably is of selective enforcement of rules, delay, rework, frustration, and frayed tempers. The recourse is to touts, agents and other expediters who feed on the ignorance and casual negligence of the public and rely on their own superior understanding of the rules, exceptions and workarounds, Processing or renewing a passport application till recently, or getting a ration card (issued, renewed or transferred) is often illustrative of this experience.

Service delivery could improve if more knowledgeable people – those familiar with the law, the process, procedures and documentation requirements – were easily accessible for consultation. One doesn’t have to recruit a large army on government payroll. Instead what one proposes is to make it possible for Departmental ex-colleagues who have superannuated to offer their time and expertise, to help and guide, to interpret and advise and to intercede on behalf of those who do not have the capacity to make their case.

Volunteers can be enlisted to man help-desks, fill out documents for the unlettered, etc. Presumably some prior training will be necessary – to be beneficiary-centric and rigorous – so that such mobilization of resources complements the effort of various Departments to deliver prompt and time bound service. Spikes in demand for services can be addressed by a corresponding augmentation of volunteer resources.

In the case of the volunteering public. one has in mind the multitude of unemployed and college going who could benefit from training and imbuing a spirit of service. A stipendiary fund can perhaps be considered. Something on the lines of the MNREGA for the city’s unemployed who sign up for this endeavor may serve the dual purpose of engaging the youth and unemployed, and help a sharp focus on service delivery. Or, could there be a social business model here?

One would go so far as to suggest that what our nation needs for some years to come is not an army of clerks keeping the first world comfortable and leisure seeking, but a very large volunteer force that is committed to improving the quality of life in its immediate environment. As outrageous as it may sound, maybe it is time we made it mandatory for all to render a certain number of hours / days of National service over a 3-5 year period – service that is directed to improve the quality of public services, and herald this contribution with celebration and pride. Historically, national security and jingoism have been strong drivers for recruitment in the armed forces, and highlighted as a shining example of service to the nation. A persuasive yet powerful case can be made out for tenure in national service to improve our lot, our context, and the conditions of everyday life.

Is this armchair musing? Maybe. And as one is used to saying, it depends. What is there to feel optimistic?

One is counting on the increasing anger with the yawning gap between the promise of a better life and the stubborn culture of ‘anything goes’. The cynics are not the enemy. They are a lot who have buried their hopes and have come to believe in the futility of hope. They are a lot who, scorched by their angst have distanced themselves from it, and not known how to use the heat to transform. They have suffered, not frozen. And now, the anger has welled up one more time. It is not private, this time.

The other that one is counting on is information technology – it can offer a platform for enlisting, assigning, training, … so much is possible. With online petitions becoming popular and things going ‘viral’ reaching people one has not known or met, the hope that the essence of this call to join in, volunteer, and act can reach out to millions and create a surge in interested volunteers.

Something like what is envisaged here can start small: in pockets, pilots and mohallas, It does not need some mega – scheme for starters. In essence, what is one rooting for: reclaiming ownership of one’s neighborhood and shrugging of passive recepienthood, an extension of the idea of self-help to include the community through participation and collaboration, and use of experienced resources to ensure services reach beneficiaries.

What is one up against? What would it take?

This is a daunting one. It is a long list: they are structural, social, economic, political, psychological, …one just has to mentally wade into this space to feel weighed down…

Collaboration in technical and economic spheres is often seen as a necessity, and individuals and organizations are willing to struggle with the arithmetic of trust and comparative gain. In the case of national service,  people are required to step out of their narrow confines of home and occupation as citizens, join hands with others who may have little in common except their commitment to each other and the community at large. It may well turn out to be humbling when our trappings of status and power, comforts and privileges jostle and join with the pedestrian and the human.  One is asking of people to revive a sense of community that has shrunk and come to be restricted to the ‘like minded’, ‘kith and kin’ or some imaginary grouping that is conjured in conversation to make a point.

Any call to active involvement in service delivery and a upsurge in response would inevitably call to question the staple responses of officialdom, the alibis of resource crunch – human and material, the recourse to hierarchy as refuge, and confidentiality as fence. It could generate a counter force  under the garb of regulation to keep the public out. Since collaboration as is envisaged will require co-habiting of the public servant with the public that he / she is duty bound to serve, a redrawing of the boundaries and the safeguards that regulate the service delivery machinery of the State will be necessary. Who will ultimately be accountable for service delivery? Who will answer for accuracy, timeliness and compliance with regulations? What will the superintendence structure be? These need thinking through, a dialogue process to begin with. Such dialogue will need to include the role of citizens in shaping priorities, and delivery processes on the ground.

Public participation as envisaged would mean a responsibility to reach out and create the forums (on the ground and online) and processes necessary to elicit others’ active engagement. It will require mechanisms for the deployment of volunteer resources in ways that balance individual ability and choice, with need and urgency as relevant to the neighborhood / public utility / services. Since we have lost the ability as communities to dialogue, converge and engage with conflict in a way that is beneficial for the community, there is much that we will have to struggle and learn along the way on how precisely to do all this. One can only hope that our commitment to the collective and its wisdom is stronger than our avowed belief in the supremacy of our point of view.

As any volunteer who enlists for a cause discovers sooner than later, there are always vested interests one is up against. In this instance one can expect – to borrow a phrase from across the border – state and non-state actors who have thrived, and enriched themselves in pecuniary and non-pecuniary terms over the years who are unlikely to give it all up without queering the pitch, and even possibly bloodying the process. Public involvement as envisaged here is likely to raise questions and awareness, challenge the nexus between politician – official – contractors – industry, the cronies and the mafia who keep alive a perpetual state of sub-standard efficiency in service delivery and feed off public apathy.  Even if we get past the technical – structural issues that create the framework of collaboration and partnership between the people and the State Institutions, one is not free of the threats from the local hoodlum, the lumpen and the hirelings of the political class and the powerful, whose menace one has to contend with through the instruments of law enforcement. The threat of violence as a way to derail public efforts and deny orderly participation is a possibility. The need for the political class to rethink their role as representatives is one of the inevitable consequences, and one may well see stiff resistance initially.

In conclusion:

There is much discontent in the public sphere, particularly with respect to delivery of public services. It is not for the want of institutions but their commitment to responsive and quality delivery that has left the public at large, resigned apparently, but seething within. As a result, it has appeared that we have been too tolerant to the point of indifference and apathy, or too self-focused to care enough for the public interest. While the Government can create the legal and institutional framework for service delivery, in light of the size, scale and spread, and not to forget immense ‘on the ground’ socio-economic – cultural – demographic …complexity, it is incapable of delivering on its best intents with the people it can marshal.  A framework for public participation is needed to supplant the government machinery if any movement towards defining and delivering service standards in public services is to be achieved. This is the New Deal. The panacea does not lie in privatization where the fundamental premise is not on nation but book building, or in empowered watchdog institutions who will come calling after the event (much like the final climactic scene in an Indian action thriller when the cop is the last to arrive on the scene). The idea of National service, starting with being an active participant in the affairs of one’s neighborhood is a good place to start, a sound place to start building one’s democratic credentials, redefine one’s understanding and relationship with community, and reshape the context.


1 thought on “Reclaiming the neighbourhood, redefining national service.

  1. Dear Naren

    I really like your blog and will share it.. It has broadened the meaning of public participation in particular for people from middle and upper class.

    I think public participation is required to strengthen demand side barriers, while strengthening public accountability systems is required to address supply side ones. For example, patient welfare societies, school education societies, village health, water and sanitation committees hardly function. I think public participation is required to strengthen accountability structures and systems so that every time public does not have to do what the government is supposed to do.

    I am glad that you do not see a role for private sector.




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