Democracy beyond elections – Part II

In the second part of our series on democracy and governance, we’ve spoken to Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT). PCGT was formed to ensure enactment of laws and policies, and to promote honesty, transparency and accountability in governance. They routinely help citizens to fight against corruption by helping them file Right to Information (RTI) applications, and has started a cell to assist any member of the public forced to pay a bribe. Here are their views on governance and public accountability in India.

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KC: What is your view on the state of governance in India? How do you think the relationship between voters and elected representatives (whether as individuals, parties or coalitions) has changed?

PCGT: Current state in the country is total failure of governance ridden as it is with corruption, and loss of faith in rules of land.  Citizens as voters are victims of the system though cannot escape the blame for their apathy to politics until recently.

KC: Is information more accessible because of democracy and/or technology? Do you think technology has changed the way the system works?

PCGT: Absolutely.  Internet, e-governance wherever available, RTI has put the system on its toes and we welcome it.

KC: What’s your vision of good citizenship and good leadership? Can you give examples of good citizens or good leaders from India or abroad? If you have a model do share with us.

PCGT: Highest ethical practice in governance should be the norm rather than exception.  There are many examples of this both here and abroad.  Our model would be where citizens take the responsibility of asking questions to the government, complimenting its efforts when government does right and oppose strongly when it goes against public interest.

Mr. Ribeiro, Chairman of PCGT, is an apt example of good citizen and leadership.

KC: It’s been said that India is a democratic polity but not a democratic society. Do you believe this statement? What are its repercussions? 

PCGT: To some extent, we agree as most citizens think only for themselves and not for the society as a whole.  Sometimes we may have to sacrifice personal gains for larger public good.

KC: Any trends in the current elections you’d like to comment on? Would voting be driven by a particular factor like the youth vote, job creation or the state of the economy. Which factor do you think will drive voting this time around?

PCGT: This is a very important election and voting will be driven by a combination of many factors.  Yes, youth or first time voters will have a big say in electing their representatives and in what sort of government they want to elect in order to realize their dreams and aspirations.  Our advice to voters is to vote wisely keeping not just short time gains but long term future of India!

KC: How do you think the internet has changed the way we access information?

PCGT: Internet has definitely contributed to the transparency and openness in the administration to some extent as compared to the previous closed door policies of the government.

KC: What services do you provide for users or citizens?

PCGT: We entertain the people in distress with regard to the demands for bribes from government officials for doing the legitimate work or passing on the legitimate benefits that are due to the beneficiaries; we resolve their problems by helping them file RTI applications and getting their work done in government offices without paying any bribes.

KC: How do you want  people to use your website/services?

PCGT: By browsing our website we expect people to approach us for further resolution of their problems in a peaceful and democratic way.

Democracy beyond elections – Part I

It’s election season in India, and it’s impossible to ignore the election juggernaut and all its related paraphernalia. Political parties have stepped up their campaigns to attract voters, and media channels relentlessly beam coverage of politicians and their every movement. Pundits and opinion polls have their predictions of who will win or lose. This is as good a time as any to reflect on whether we can build a successful democracy if we only keep ourselves updated about governance when the elections are around the corner.

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An ideal democracy needs citizens who are informed about the workings of government throughout its tenure. Indian voters were perhaps best known for their anti-incumbency voting, signifying their lack of faith in ruling parties but also their lack of ability as voters to demand more from their leaders. These trends might be slowly changing with the evolution of features like NOTA, the Right to Information Act, and an increase in media coverage of candidates and parties. We’re trying to do our bit as well! The Knowledge Centre conducted a series of email interviews with NGOs that work to increase transparency in the sphere of governance and help people become active citizens. First up is MumbaiVotes, an initiative of the Informed Voter Project. The Informed Voter Project set up MumbaiVotes in 2011. They seek to usher in a new age informed participation in democracy and public life in Mumbai and the democratic universe beyond. MumbaiVotes is a comprehensive transparency and accountability related portal designed to help citizens of Mumbai continuously monitor the performance of their Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Corporators and their deliverance on promises. You can view their website here.

KC: What is your view on the state of governance in India? How do you think the relationship between voters and elected representatives (whether as individuals, parties or coalitions) has changed?

MV: It’s quite evident that the state of governance in India leaves a lot to be desired. Our feudal history implies that a large section of our people look at their MPs and MLAs as their ‘rulers’ as opposed to as their elected representatives.
What is positive, though, is that there is a steady improvement in the civic education levels – and in turn civic empowerment – of ordinary citizens over time and we believe that elected representatives and candidates are also learning to operate with these new circumstances.
As an example, at Mumbaivotes.com we regularly track MPLAD fund utilization for each of the elected MPs in Mumbai. This election, we had a few of our sitting MPs send us detailed records of the disbursement of these funds – which reflects their awareness of the new reality where voters actively seek relevant information to make a choice on who to vote for.

KC: Is information more accessible because of democracy and/or technology? Do you think technology has changed the way the system works?

MV: Definitely – Technology is a great driver for transparency and change. Mumbaivotes.com, for us, exemplifies the use of technology to make critical information on candidates & elected representatives more accessible. And technology does not solely imply the internet; for those of us in Mumbai without regular internet access we have created a set of IVR numbers where anyone can call up and listen to audio interviews of the candidates.

KC: What’s your vision of good citizenship and good leadership? Can you give examples of good citizens or good leaders from India or abroad? If you have a model do share with us.

MV: We believe that it is not sufficient to cast a vote, but the quality of that vote is equally (or perhaps more) important. In that sense, in a democracy, a good citizen is one who recognizes the personal responsibility of participating in the governance of his/her own community by voting – and further, keeps informed and updated on information relating to local candidates, to make an educated and objective decision on whom to elect.

KC: It’s been said that India is a democratic polity but not a democratic society. Do you believe this statement? What are its repercussions?

MV: One way to put it is that we are an evolving democracy, with many steps still to maturity. Transparency and open access to information is one positive driver. People taking responsibility to hold their government accountable and casting informed votes is another.

KC: Any trends in the current elections you’d like to comment on? Would voting be driven by a particular factor like the youth vote, job creation or the state of the economy. Which factor do you think will drive voting this time around?

MV: There has clearly been a massive increase in penetration of most communication forms – Media (Satellite TV), Mobile phones and the Internet. We now live in a country where 1 in 6 is an internet user, and 1 in 13 is a social media user. The number of Indians on these platforms has now reached a critical mass where political parties now pay significant attention to make their present felt on them.

The clear positive trend here is that there is more demand for accurate information on candidates and elected representatives – since this is now available to many more people – and accordingly we have witnessed that an the increase in usage of our website and other services.

KC: How do you think the internet has changed the way we access information?

MV: The internet provides us the luxury of being able to look for whatever information we need, whenever we need it. While the initial boom has been in commercial and social areas, we believe it is only a question of time before our civic and political domains are primarily online.

KC: What services do you provide for users or citizens?

MV: MumbaiVotes.com, is a unique portal that is a comprehensive library of Mumbai’s elected representatives and elections candidates. The portal features exclusive interviews, manifestos and analyses, details on questions asked and bills passed, comments made, promise kept/broken and updated information of all candidates contesting this year in Mumbai’s six constituencies.

KC: How do you want people to use your website/services?

MV: We would like voters to make an informed and educated choice on whom to vote for and we feel that we are providing an excellent tool to enable people to do so. We aim to be descriptive and not prescriptive and adhere to a strict code of political neutrality. Our information can be accesssed through any of these means:

– Website:
For Mumbai: www.mumbaivotes.com ; twitter: @mumbaivotes ; FB: /mumbaivotes
For Pune: www.punevotes.com
For the rest of India: www.myneta.info (run by our partner – ADR)

– Telephone:
For Mumbai: You can also dial the following IVR numbers to listen to audio clips of candidates from your area about their track record and agenda:
Mumbai North – 26 : +91 79309 18201
Mumbai North West – 27 : +91 79309 18202
Mumbai North East – 28 : +91 79309 18203
Mumbai North Central – 29 : +91 79309 18204
Mumbai South Central – 30 : +91 79309 18205
Mumbai South – 31 : +91 79309 18206

For the rest of India: DIAL *325*35#

Philanthropists’ Views – Mirai Chatterjee, Director – Social Security, SEWA

The Knowledge Centre recently conducted email interviews with leading philanthropists like Rohini Nilekani, Padmini Somani, Gururaj and Jaishree Deshpande, among others for our first annual NGO Yearbook. We also spoke with Mirai Chatterjee, Director, Social Security at Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). She spoke about her experiences in SEWA and the impact SEWA had on its members. Her insights were both inspiring and eye-opening. We are reproducing the interview in its entirety here. To see the rest of the interviews, go here.

Self Employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) is a national union of over 19 lakh women in 13 states. SEWA follows Gandhian values and organises women workers of the informal economy into their own self-reliant organisations in their quest for justice and equality.

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Please could you describe what inspired you to join SEWA, and what was the inspiration behind the name and the logo?

I was active in the social work club in my school, and as a result, by the age of 14 felt that poverty and inequality was unacceptable. This inclination continued through college in America, where I was active in the college’s social action organisations—Phillips Brooks House and Education for Action (E4A).I saw how inequality and injustice were widespread–even prevalent in rich countries. While at university in the late ’70’s, I heard about SEWA and Elaben Bhatt. I was drawn to SEWA’s organising of women into their own self-reliant organisations, and to the SEWA movement’s quest for justice and equality, based on Gandhian values. Elaben herself was inspirational. She advised me: “Finish your education and join our movement. We need young women who are ready to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with their sisters.” And so I joined in 1984 and never left!

Elaben began organising women workers of the informal economy in the early ’70’s. Till then she had been Head of the Women’s Wing of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a union of mill workers. One day, a group of women head-loaders from the main cloth market approached her for some help. They were self-employed, carrying loads of cloth on their heads for a pittance. They were paid per round by the cloth merchants. They could not earn enough to feed their children. Elaben was moved by their plight and her eyes were opened to the world of such self-employed, informal workers. Then she learned that there were millions of others like the head-loaders who were poor, vulnerable, unprotected by labour laws and ekeing out a living, hand-to-mouth. It was then that she resolved to form a union of self-employed women workers—the Self-Employed Women’s Association–in 1972.That itself was a struggle. The labour authorities had never seen such a union! They registered SEWA with much reluctance. The logo is of a woman carrying a load on her head—basket with goods, reminding us of our earliest members, the head-loaders and soon after, street vendors.

Today SEWA is a national union of over 19 lakh women in 13 states.

Describe an event which created a sense of pride for you and made you feel you were on the right track.

The Young President’s Organisation (YPO) invited Chanchiben Chauhan, from Vichhiya village, Ahmedabad district, to attend their international conference in Mumbai. I accompanied her. Chanchiben is one of our oldest health workers, former board member of our health cooperative and a small farmer. She had never been on an aeroplane nor attended a conference with CEOs from all over the world. She was a picture of dignity and grace. The most moving moment and one that made me proud, and that assured me that we at SEWA were on the right track, was when she spoke of her hard life, her struggles and how she had no hope from life till she joined SEWA. And then, as a health worker, she was transformed, served her village and was asked to be the village sarpanch! And that too, even as she is disabled and from the Dalit community. Earlier, the upper castes in her village refused to accept medicines from her, and did not allow her to cross their threshold. Now she not only provides them medicines, but also blesses their newborns and drinks tea with them! When the CEOs from around the world heard her story, she got a standing ovation. Not an eye was dry, with rapt attention to her inspiring and moving journey.

What are some of the challenges SEWA has faced during its growth phase?

We are in a phase of rapid growth. As Elaben says, in 40 plus years, we have grown way beyond her dreams—from the first 200 members to a national union of almost 20 lakhs, across 13 states and growing. The biggest challenge is capacity-building and education of our grassroots leaders to manage this growing and large organisation. It takes time to build up their confidence and skills—and then there is no stopping them! Also, we need women and men to run the quite large organisations promoted by SEWA like SEWA Bank, VimoSEWA (SEWA Insurance), SEWA Cooperative Federation and others.

The other challenge is of sustainability—both financial and also in terms of women running their own organisations and making their own decisions. As a movement inspired by Gandhiji, we believe deeply in self-reliance. Hence, all projects and programmes must work for sustainability from day one. Of course, this is not easy. It is hard for our cooperatives to remain competitive in the market, to adapt to changing situations, to obtain raw materials and at affordable prices, to obtain working capital and to continue to find markets. Middlemen and others who exploit and under-pay women are often formidable barriers.

A further challenge is the rapidly changing world outside—both full of opportunities but also of threats, including work loss due to mechanisation, policies and thinking that do not value women’s work and that of informal workers in general.

Finally, ensuring that all sisters of the SEWA movement remain connected and feel part of a large family is a challenge.

What kind of performance metrics can best measure progress/impact in your focus area?

Over the years we have developed the 11 points of SEWA as a measure of our progress. These are:

Have we increased our members’ employment?
Have we increased our members’ income?
Do our members now have enough to eat?
Do our members have access to health care?
Do our members have access to child care?
Has there been any increase in housing and basic amenities for our members?
Has there been any increase in the members’ ownership (property, work tools etc)?
Has there been any increase in women’s leadership?
Has there been any increase in members’ self-reliance?
Has there been any increase in our organised strength?
Do our members have access to education (in the broad sense: capacity-building etc, in addition to literacy)?

In addition, each of the main teams of SEWA have more detailed performance indicators for their projects and programmes.

Which are some of the changes which you would like to observe in the philanthropy space?

I think we need to have more dialogue on the Indian way of giving or philanthropy. Personally, I feel drawn to Gandhiji’s idea of trusteeship. He was of the view that wealth should not be seen as an entitlement by the wealthy. Rather it should be seen as something to be held in trust for the well-being of society. Further, he suggested that wealthy people exercise restraint in their needs, and after using what they need, they should give the rest of their wealth away or else a big chunk of it, to others or for use for the well-being of all. This view of giving and sharing is more than just giving money. It involves being in solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed, supporting and helping through ideas, though skills like management and other ways. I think it would be good to discuss the trusteeship idea in the current context and engage with wealthy Indians so as to begin closing the gap.

What is your view of CSR?

I think the idea of sharing profits with those in need in our country is a good one, in principle. But just legislating for this without the change of heart that Gandhiji suggested will not be enough. All of us need to ensure that no Indian is without “roti, kapda, makaan”, basic education and health, and financial services. CSR can contribute to this vision of a more just and equal India. However, CSR should be part of a larger attempt to close gaps, as per the trusteeship idea that Gandhiji outlined decades ago, and that remains a challenge to all of us, as mentioned above.