Creating Active Citizenry

The Indian Express - January 2006

I am a great fan of Pavan K Varma. In a recent interview about his book "Being Indian: The Truth about why the 21st Century will be India's", he says that we Indians are a bundle of contradictions. "We are focused and will work towards a goal despite formidable obstacles. So we are resilient , ingenuous, ever hopeful". If you have trouble believing this, just look at the epic proportions to which we take the saga of standard 10, 12 and college admissions. Rich or modest in income, the drama is the same.

It's a discourse which we all are a part of, that says "just do it, never say 'can't', at this time of life, 'chalta hai' is not an option". And guess what? Very few of our children rebel against it. Otherwise the coaching class and entrance test industry would be out of business. In fact Verma agrees that we are resilient like the cockroach, which is the only creature likely to survive a nuclear holocaust! Is this the picture of a people who are 'chalta hai' ?

In the course of my consumer insight work I see a humongous number of aspirers and strivers, and very few people resigned to their fate, even amongst the lower middle income. They borrow and struggle to earn and re pay, for their own houses, their 2 wheeler and TV sets - motorcycle not moped, colour not black and white - their children's English medium private education and still, most don't give up on their social responsibilities. After liberalization, our businesses, small and large alike, have struggled and got lean, mean and fit and fought competition with innovation, aggression and subversion. There has been no 'chalta hai' here. When governments don't perform, there is no chalta hai. They turn up to vote and teach the powers that be a lesson. "Nahin chalega" is the message behind all the anti incumbency voting.

But of course we are a 'chalta hai' oriented lot. We accept our dug up roads, mounds of un cleared garbage, eternal traffic jams, and abysmal services from our public utilities to whom we pay good money. Even the richest neighbourhoods with the most clout and education do. The poor will borrow to go to a rural private practitioner for their child's illness but not demand better from a government clinic. Ditto for schools. Is this "chalta hai"? Or is it "chalaana hai" jugaad? But we are chalta hai in the way we throw garbage, in the way we spit in public spaces. But again, is it chalta hai or is it malfunctioning public utilities? Would more dustbins and spittoons help us be less chalta hai about shared spaces? I thik yes.

The only way to make us make our public services and public servants work better is to either privatize them (think pre liberalisation airlines and the telephone services where all from the managing director to the linesman said "chalta hai" ?) Or to promote active citizenry. Because there is no magic like customer pull. If voters - in the group where the voting volumes lie - demanded better public amenities and services, then the supply side would change. And when there is no hope, then sab chalta hai, as in "chalana he padega". When we see better, and there is hope, then patience and tolerance levels decline. That's what the consumer goods experience has been.

Creating active citizenry has been a problem so far. That's because there are many pieces of the effort that have to link together, and most efforts that are being made but not working too well, are because only one link in the chain is being changed. Creating active citizenry needs very sophisticated and ubiquitous communication that energises and awakens people with the absolutely right message. Not badly thought out sloganeering or sanctimonious appeals to our higher instincts, without recognizing that most of us are still defeated by the sheer logistics of living. It needs a media with a sense of mission, which sees that carrying the messages into peoples homes and brains, is its business. It needs ex bureaucrats to help everyone understand how to prick the system where it can feel the discomfort and how to actually craft win - win solutions. It needs citizen groups and forums to actually put processes and actions and interfaces on the ground. Lets leave the politicians out of this - he will come on board when he has votes at stake. I think the weakest link we have is the attitude of media owners today, and I think the strongest force for change will come when people are told what their true and power and entitlement is, in that interim period between elections.

I do believe that there is a lot that is right with our " kaise bhi chalaana hai' attitude, because that's what gives us the disruptive innovation capability that the world now recognizes. But we need to say "nahin chalega" to our elected representatives and the vast government machinery that controls all our public services, and thinks "chalta hai".

Pavan Verma says "A Japanese or a German will seek solutions within certain parameters - Indians will go further , outside conventional methods. This I call jugaad or creative improvisation.... That's why we are survivors. As they say in Kannada "solpa adjust maadi" - please adjust a bit".