Roots of Indian rot

India’s biggest problem is that we have too little democracy & civic participation.

Anarchy and absence of civil participation

Let me give an example. Yesterday, I had to take a bus to Chennai and went to one of the infamous private bus boarding points [Madiwala] in Bengaluru. Like any other major bus stand in India, it was pure chaos. And there was only a single toilet and that too locked & after I got the key found it nearly unusable.

There were probably 10,000 people at that time and my guess is that about 50,000 people use that private bus stand every day. It is not for lack of money — most of them are tech workers and I guesstimate that Rs. 1 crore+ ticket booking happen there everyday. It is not lack of technology — the Volvo/Mercedes buses are often much higher grade than found in US and Europe.

If each one visiting there puts Rs. 1, we could build a new toilet every day. That would be an ideal democracy — of the people, for the people and by the people. However, none of us do that.

Or we could all visit the municipality and use our power of coercion to get clean toilets. However, most of us don’t even know who the local councilors are.

In short, it is a complete anarchy and we don’t build government where none exists. This is not a republic — the public takes no responsibility in either getting into action to create new organizations or representing themselves in existing bodies.

Government = Right to Free Shit

If you ask many Indians what a government it should do, it will be some freebie. Free education, free water, free power, free healthcare, free kerosene, free rice, free laptops… We have reduced our freedom to freeshit.

We often treat the government as some independent organization that has an infinite pool to give it “to the poor”. The government is us. It takes money from us and help us coordinate our activities. When 99% of the people don’t pay any direct taxes, they also have very little skin in the game. As long as we believe somebody else [maybe the “rich guy”] will pay for these, we don’t really live in a republic. [The government would anyway take your money — but through indirect taxes — adding you all sorts of hidden costs and skewing the economy]

A real democracy will existing only when sufficient number of people are in the tax net and take the responsibility.

Civic action outside temples

I will give you another example. Two generations ago, our family temple was in shambles. Then somebody took action and built an organization. He enrolled everyone as life members, got dues and got people to take part in civic action. They hired priests to do daily rituals, built lodging for pilgrims, built walls and gates. Painted and tiled. Now, the temple in the middle of nowhere looks magnificent especially during major festivals.

That is a great civic action. With no “government” help, the infrastructure there has got a significant lift. It is because, people felt that the temple is theirs.

This works in many temples — especially with “family deities” and people feel a bond. However, when it comes to public resources that you share with an heterogeneous group of people — of different religions, castes and ethnicities, our civic sense vaporizes. We no longer feel the bond and responsibility. Just like we rebuild our family temples, we could also clean up beaches, and streets and forests. But, we don’t.

We don’t pay much attention to lower level governments

Politics is not about contesting elections. It is about participating in building policies, debating them and helping coordination. After all, a government is but a mere coordinator. The power lies in coordination, not in some document.

How many of us truly search for government policies, budgets and actions?

And whatever little we do, we do it with the central government. We debate a lot about what Modi does, did and will do. But, the central government has very little impact over your daily lives — unless it is some drastic thing like war or demonetization.

Central government deals with subjects like defense, foreign policy etc that don’t impact you as much daily, in the short term.

However, your state government deals with more important subjects like food [agriculture], shelter [real estate], safety [police] etc. How often do you talk about state governments?

And your municipalities take even more important subjects — water, sanitation, health, education etc. Do you even know about your municipalities?

In a healthy democracy, people would debate more about what is happening in their municipalities, somewhat debate about their state governments and much less about their central governments. While you cannot change a nation easily, you can truly change at the municipality and council levels and can truly change India, ward by ward, block by block, council by council.

Democracy & responsibility

In any society, there will be corrupted members. If the government tries to put a sidewalk, there will be a contractor who will try to give as low quality as possible and unscrupulous traders who will then set up shop there. These can happen in any society.

However, in an healthy society there will be a fightback from those whose rights are taken away — in this case the pedestrians. Thus, the pedestrians would form a fighting body that will closely watch the contractor building the work and then have guards who will take off these traders as they come. If it comes to muscles in a fist fight who will win — 10,000 pedestrians or 10 traders? If the contractor brings his own goondas, the pedestrians can use their collective muscles or hire hitmen. But, in a healthy democracy we don’t even need to use our biceps — just the index fingers and eyes. When people show the will to fight back, these elements will vanish.

We can make it so expensive to cheat [if the contractor has to have hundreds of goondas everyday to ward off 1000s of pedestrians, it will become very costly] that will make a true economic sense to not cheat. We have to tip the mathematics of corruption.

Uncleanliness will always exist. But, we brush our teeth and shower our body everyday. The day we stop our fight, we stink. Same for the society — we have to fight everyday and corruption will vanish for those days we fight.

Healthy democracies = developed societies

In healthy democracies, such as those in northern Europe, Japan, Israel and USA, people take part in local governments. They have neighborhood watches to ensure security and work with the police. They form local organizations to clean up their beaches and lobby for boardwalks near lakes. They take safety drills to get prepared in emergencies. They could have fucked up Presidents, but still lead a decent society as the democracy is strong at the base — at the local level.

In India, our democracy is extremely weak at the foundation. Thus, even if we have great Prime Ministers [majority of them have been quite good], we could not progress.

India achieved great things in its freedom movement, not just because it had great Presidents of the Congress party, but because the democracy went all the way to the roots. People organized at local levels and truly participated in civic governance.

Over the last few decades, our roots have gone rotten. We no longer participate in local bodies, local action. The acts of groups like The Ugly Indian and Exnora are more of an exception than the rule. Only when we participate there, can we actually fix our municipalities and then our state governments.

Only when we fix our municipalities and state governments, can we really address our key problems — sanitation, safety, education, healthcare etc. You can have great central governments, amazing Prime Ministers and stupendous budgets. None of these would matter much, until we have democracy at the bottom.

When the roots are weak, there is no point in strengthening the branches. India will become developed when our local governments are truly healthy.

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