As 2013 bid us goodbye, one standout trend that has emerged and is going to be debated strongly in 2014 pertains to proactive citizenship or citizen activism.
What started out in the most vocal and visible manner on the streets of Delhi, first, with the anti-graft protests by Anna Hazare and then followed by the anti-rape protests in Delhi, culminated in the most unexpected electoral results for the Aaam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the recently concluded elections for Delhi Assembly.
Citizen activism has in fact started from the middle-east, where the visuals of the citizens protesting against their governments went viral. In fact, several such governments were overthrown due to the citizens’ outburst. The social media ensured that such stories and pictures reached all and got their support for the ongoing agitation. The deep-seated discontent against their government and the tremendous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled probably added to the intensity of the citizen activism.
Back in India, one major statutory initiative to empower the citizens was the Right to Information Act (RTI). This Act empowered the citizens to seek answers from the authorities and gave them a right to demand to know the reasons behind many actions of the government and know the factual status on any issue. Ever since its enactment, this has become a very powerful tool in the hands of the citizen activists and every year, thousands of such queries are posed before the government officials at all levels.
Citizen activism is still largely an urban phenomenon in India. Considering that less than 35 per cent of India’s population stay in the urban areas, how wide-spread and effective is the new trend of citizen vigilantism?
The internet penetration is more in the urban areas along with increased educational and income levels. The mushrooming of the TV news channels and the increasing use of the social media and smart phones has suddenly given a lot of exposure to such issues and such social actions. TV channels vie with each other to beam these social movements alive. The surreal world of the net through facebook, BBM, Whatsapp and LinkedIn allows them to connect and communicate with each other in a manner that the conventional communication channels could not match.
The enactment of the central Lokpal Act was in fact, largely due to such flurry of citizen activism at several levels in such a manner that no political party could oppose the demand any longer. Citizen activism is definitely a very healthy development for the functioning of the government. In the developed western democracies, citizen activism is an accepted fact. This ensures that those in authority are always aware of the citizens’ sensitivities about any step they contemplate.
In their decision-making process, there are many formal channels of interacting with the citizens and various interest groups and advocacy groups representing various shades of public opinion. Such interactions make the government aware of the prevailing public perceptions and feelings towards various governmental initiatives.
While there are many advantages in such citizen activism, one has to draw a line somewhere and set certain guidelines. For example, a consultative process does not mean that the authority has to go to every mohalla in a city to decide vital issues in foreign policy or economic policy. Similarly, one cannot go to a mohalla committee to decide whether to impose a curfew to control a major law and order problem. There is also the risk of minority opinions being crushed under the garb of activism by a dominant group. Otherwise, citizen activism, if not carried out in certain legally acceptable manner, would bring anarchy and subversion.
The author is municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad