- Participatory governance in development-related transitions, which brings the policy makers and the common people together, is inadequate in India and there is a need to move beyond the status quo.
- While policy makers want to use participatory governance only at the barest, the general public want to engage only when there is a pressing concern, write the authors of this commentary.
- If participatory governance is systematised then the public would be able to speak truth to power without intermediaries and thus ensure that development transitions are just environmentally and socially.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
As a nation, India is at the cusp of various developments and transitions. These include the sustainability transition which emanates from the adverse impacts of climate change, the inclusivity transition which aspires to make our economy and society fairer and more equitable, and the race to resilience which imbibes the virtues of inclusivity and sustainability in building back a better society, economy and ecology in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-pandemic.
However, there is an evidently widening fault line between the decision-makers and people which are potentially affected by these transitions. The state, at all levels and ranks, seems to be unaware or disengaged with the ground realities as it plans, implements, governs, monitors and reaps the benefits of these developments and transitions. This is evident from the wide unrests, uproar and demonstrations against developments that aim to further the aforementioned transitions.
In other words, the quality of participatory governance – a tool through which people engage and shape the policy discourse – is arguably sub-optimal.
The need to move beyond status quo
In this context, a dangerous paradigm that seems to be appearing amongst most stakeholders is of status-quo. This alludes to the fact that the current perceptions around participatory governance, the form in which it is currently being pursued and the role of various stakeholders in them is optimally designed and should remain so. This is problematic for several critical reasons.
First, the need of public participation and the objective of hearing the voices from the ground seems to be misconceived by the policymakers, decision-makers and even the general public. The objective of conducting operations in a participatory manner for the authorities is mostly either a mandated obligation or an optical exercise to project oneself as pro-people, both of these being in their own self-interests of political or financial gains, evident from the frequent news of compromised quality of public infrastructure despite steady levy of taxes and other sources of revenues. Similarly, the general public also seems to be raising their concerns with respect to any development only when it becomes a problem that impacts them directly. As a society, dilution of virtues of brotherhood, fraternity and compassion has ramifications beyond just social disruptions but affecting the health of economy, politics and governance as well.
Secondly, the prevailing approach to public’s participation in policy discourse around transitions is of a minimalistic requirement for compliance. Consider public consultations and public hearings in various sectors. There is a lack of accountability and transparency in deciding the form, shape and fate of the proposed development. In most of these cases, the authorities can get away without even providing justification of either considering or dismissing the concerns of the people.
Failure of the top-down approach
This flags towards a failure of a top-down imposed format of public participation. On the other hand, the alternative model of civil society organisations filling in this gap has also come to a problematic inflection point.
This relates to the modus-operandi of organisations/individuals which are working to fill the void of actual public not being informed, capacitated or motivated enough to participate in public consultations, and the state’s capacity to reach out to the public being financially and otherwise constrained, in matters that directly affects the general public. The term ‘public’ includes citizens (political entity), consumers (economic entity) and individuals (social entity).
While several such think-tanks, civil society groups and people-centric advocates and representatives portray themselves as doing public service by giving voice to the voiceless, they seem to be operating for commercial and business interests rather than selfless service to the cause. This is evident from the various dominant metrics that are used to judge the success of such organisations. Instead of sustainable impact and true empowerment of people to raise their own concerns, the metrics revolve around the monetary size, density of networks, closeness with governments and people in power, amongst others.
Painting every organisation/individual in this space as the same is not the objective here. Exceptions are and will be there. But the worrying development is the hijacking of the public policy and participatory governance space by a few behemoths with the intent to remain relevant forever. This is because this implies that the organisations are banking on the problem existing forever, in some form or shape or magnitude.
There is a very interesting parallel with the developments in the Indian economy. In the economic setting, the larger players dictate the rules of the game and mindlessly pursue ways to cut costs and increase their profits, even if it comes at a cost of comprising the well-being of their own workers (low wages), or consumers (poor quality, high price products) or the environment (flouting pollution norms). Similarly, the civil society space seems to be daunted by profit mongers operating with a commercial frame of mind in a sector that is about social welfare at its core.
This also impacts the new generation of budding policy professionals and new start-ups in the civil society space which are forced to compromise on selfless social service values as profit-making is institutionalised as the only way of survival. Especially in the public policy setting, there are several other goals which almost everyone seems to be chasing – creating a brand and image, being called by government panels and committees, publishing numerous outputs and reports, among others.
Participatory governance a tool for ensuring justice
All of this adversely impacts the quality of public participation in which there is always a business case in keeping the problems alive so that new projects and funds can be sought for addressing the same.
In this vicious cycle, empowerment or capacity building as an objective is wrongly construed as education without realising that the people’s problems are best voiced in the dialect, manner and words of the people who will be affected by it. Principles of justice dictates that any intermediary trying to give voice to the unheard should provide a platform where the decision-makers and people can have a dialogue together, instead of furthering the mindless race striving for success in the public policy space as we know it.
As Noam Chomsky said with respect to intellectuals’ role in speaking truth to power, “power knows the truth already; it’s just busy concealing it”. Similarly, public policy and participatory governance is also not a race to achieve monetary success and fame, as it is being pursued currently. Instead, it is a tool to ensure justice in the developmental transitions that we face today.
Sarthak Shukla is an independent public policy professional working on issues around sustainability, inclusive economy and resilience. Amit Kumar is former Senior Director, Social Transformation at The Energy Research Institute (TERI).
Banner image: Thousands of workers across India are involved in coal mining. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.