Every citizen can be a policymaker - Hindustan Times
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Every citizen can be a policymaker

ByHindustan Times
Jan 24, 2024 12:07 PM IST

This article is authored by Antaraa Vasudev, founder, Civis, Mumbai.

After the elections in Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Mizoram, the results and what they could possibly mean for 2024’s general elections have captured the public imagination with great fervour.

Policy (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Policy (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

One often heard refrain is the structural relevance of India’s first-past-the-post (FPP) voting system where voters cast a vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins - irrespective of the proportion of the population that has voted for them. Is this system, in a country of India’s diversity, adequate to represent us? Would it be better off voting through proportional representation or another form of voting?

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Each voting system has merits and practical limitations in a country of India’s size and demography. The intent of this piece is not to rule on whether or not one voting system is delivering on India’s aspirations-- but instead to reflect deeply on whether voting, in and of itself, is adequate as a means of representation--one which reflects the aspirations of an active citizenry.

An active citizenry is one that has consistent and open channels for communication or feedback loops built between the citizen and the State. These channels for communication thrive between elections--and both the citizens and the State view them as spaces for productive conversation on issues of mutual interest.

While some of these tools give citizens the ability to solve issues, broadening their perspective on the challenges of governance in India, others give citizens a platform to voice their thoughts and dialogue with governments. One such example is the MyGov platform of the Government of India, another is the work done by Civis, a Mumbai-based non-profit.

Civis leverages India’s pre-legislative consultation policy, which gives citizens the ability to comment on draft laws and policies before they are passed, to ensure that the voices of those impacted by the law can be heard in a timely and helpful way by lawmakers.

In Rajasthan, for example, a consortium of organisations came together to deliberate Rajasthan’s Draft Guaranteed Delivery of Public Services and Accountability Bill. Around 1,992 citizens across the state shared their feedback over a WhatsApp chatbot and an IVR phone call with the government. The entire process was digitally enabled, making summaries of the draft accessible to citizens in Hindi and English. The tools used for engaging stakeholders in rural Rajasthan also allowed them to share feedback with the government on the draft law, with the organisations taking on the onus of ensuring their voices are heard by the government.

Another example is of Bengaluru-based non-profit Reap Benefit which through its SolveNinja programme allows young citizens to solve local challenges, either by themselves or with the support of elected representatives in their localities.

Such examples show how civic engagement can be equitable, like voting. Yet, while news reports suggest that voter turnout in states like Mizoram was as high as 80.66%, similar levels of engagement are not visible for initiatives driving everyday democracy in India. Data aggregated by Civis shows that the number of laws seeking public input since 2014 has increased by over 1,000%. However, awareness about the ability for citizens to participate in the lawmaking process, is still low.

When citizens feel this impetus to respond and take action to public consultation calls--anywhere between 52% and 70% of their feedback is incorporated, the organisation’s work has shown. From regulators like TRAI to ULBs or even the mnistry of social justice, governments are keen for constructive input from their stakeholders.

In 2020, a set of rules to provide easy access for the transgender community to avail of transgender identity cards and associated benefits was put forward. Members of the community came forward to share practical, nuanced feedback which simplified the application process for the ID cards; 52% of the feedback submitted was incorporated, with the government making amendments to many contentious provisions like the need for physical verifications and mental health certificates to determine transgender status.

In a report published by Carnegie India on measuring regulatory responsiveness, the average time taken to publish the final version of a draft on which feedback has been gathered was 453 days. The timeframe is somewhat similar for laws and policies that Civis has observed, while the lawmaking process takes time and feedback loops are sometimes unfulfilled, one voice can influence positive outcomes for lakhs, as seen in the example of the transgender rules.

In its 2020 report on digital civic engagement, UNICEF noted that young citizens increasingly prefer personalised engagement with the State through digital networking, protests and volunteerism, using social media to voice their opinions. An argument can be made that social and traditional media present an accurate picture of citizens’ sentiment in the intervening periods between elections. But it is social media itself that has changed the playing field of citizenship. Making citizenship susceptible to the shocks of the news cycle and the discontentment of being heard in different forums but not heard by the government.

Now more than ever before, we need to build and strengthen other channels for engagement with the State (alongside voting) to ensure that dialogue is constructive and mutually beneficial. As the examples mentioned have shown, every voice (and vote) counts. The question now remains, how often will you make yours heard?

This article is authored by Antaraa Vasudev, founder, Civis, Mumbai.

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