voice for democracy

Funding our rights, finding our democracy – Deccan Herald

Democratise. This is a word being tossed about quite a bit of late. Fin-tech companies want to democratise access to credit and ease of transactions. Ed-tech companies want to democratise learning, and help students be all they can be. Health innovators want to democratise access to the vast benefits of genetics-driven interventions. There’s no shortage of entities wanting to build large inclusive tents to serve more and more people.
Which is all quite good, of course. But democracy itself is seven decades old in our country. So, why are we talking about these democratisations after all these years? And what does it say about what we’ve been doing in the name of democracy that so much remains undone?
There are three hurdles that we’ve stumbled at. One, we satisfied ourselves early that ‘self-rule’ and ‘independence’ were the same thing. Second, we equated democracy with elections, and in the process reduced the people’s part in it to pushing a few ballot buttons from time to time. And third, we’ve been taking it for granted that anything done by an elected government must be democratic, even if it contravenes the law or the Constitution itself.
Our attempts to correct course on development, however, don’t usually recognise these troubles. Instead, we see low literacy, poor nutrition, inadequate housing, meagre wages, etc., and set about trying to do something about those. That hasn’t worked, and chances are, it won’t work in the future as well. What is needed instead is a 1947 lens, for today.
Independence and the turn to elected self-government is such a large turn in the history of nations that it tends to acquire a kind of immutable status in the minds of many people. Even the founding fathers sometimes make it hard to change things. The American Constitution recognised the right of individual citizens to bear arms, at a time when it was necessary for locals to be able to ward off any potential attempt by the British to retake the colonies. Now, 250 years later, the country is awash in guns, with all the attendant consequences.
Such rigidity is a virtue on many counts. The rights of the people established in a cherished and powerful document provide a good foundation. But while that is necessary, it is not sufficient to get nations closer to the outcomes that people seek by declaring themselves independent and self-governing.
Beginnings are just that. There’s a lot of unfinished stuff, because one is only getting started. Seventy years ago, the Constitution did not explicitly provide for many rights that are recognised today. Sometimes, those were added. At other times, judges re-interpreted the existing words in the book to mean something else in today’s context, compared to how they may have been understood back then.
Not only rights. Even the structure of government has changed. Municipal councils in our towns and cities became the norm only in the 1990s, and are still not functioning effectively. Was it oversight to have not instituted these at the beginning itself? If our imagination of self-rule had flowed from the people to neighbourhoods, and then towns and states and the country rather than the other way, would we have chosen to create local bodies and area sabhas back then?
It’s hard to say. What is clear, however, is that every generation has both the opportunity and the obligation to re-examine the beginning and the journey so far, and ask if we could be doing anything different.
And what could we do differently now? The various proclamations from the innovators contain a clue. If there is one thing that the processes of our democracy have not produced, it is equity. There is a lot that is available in India — products and services, private and public goods — but a big part of the population cannot access them. That’s why there is so much talk of democratising this or that.
But it cannot be the responsibility of start-ups and innovators to deliver this. Our form of self-government itself should do that. Giving all children a proper education is not an innovation, it is a mandate. So are ensuring basic healthcare for everyone, access to capital without usury, non-discrimination in housing, and so many other things.
Our understanding of ‘democratise’ should begin with the obligation on the State to deliver these things to all citizens. A few states have shown that this is possible, in some sectors, but this is far too rare. The overwhelming experience of the majority is of deprivation on many development fronts. We’ll have to end that.
There is a simple step to do this. The delivery and protection of all Constitutional rights must be fully funded by governments, before the rest of the Budget is allocated. This is what it means to have rights. But this is not how governments have understood them. They’ve treated rights too as one more head of expenditure, with the option to decide themselves how much money to allocate to them.
If I had to pick one thing to change from 1947, this is the one I would choose — that the State has an obligation to adequately fund all rights. And that word ‘adequately’ is really the key; governments already claim to be spending money on various things, but the subtlety lost in that is the inadequacy of such funds. Once we set that bar right and spend public funds to meet this obligation, we’ll get a lot closer to the reasons why people fought to establish our republic.
We won’t need to democratise things any other way if we properly and fully fund the promises of our first democratic moment.
(The author is a social technologist and entrepreneur, founder of Mapunity and co-founder, Lithium. He wakes up with hope for the city and society, goes to bed with a sigh, repeats cycle.)
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