The everyday business of being a citizen

Sonal Iyer and Neha Yadav

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”
– Ralph Nadar, American political activist

Our country functions according to the framework given in the Constitution of India. By birth we become citizens of the country, inheriting all the rights associated with it, even if we do not perform our responsibilities as citizens.

In our drawing room conversations, we talk about poor administration of government departments, corruption, deteriorating law and order situations, etc., but seldom do we ask ourselves, ‘What have I done to influence change in my neighbourhood? Do I feel responsible if garbage around my society is not being picked up? The road around my society is in a bad shape and has not been repaired for months? Why is it that the children belonging to economically weaker sections of the society are still not able to get admission under the Right to Education act?’

We see these situations around us, but we never feel that we are also responsible to do something about them. We blame officials and departments for not doing their duty. Yes, the concerned department has to do its duty and solve the problems that citizens face, but what is our responsibility as citizens? This question remains unanswered. We want someone else to perform their duty but choose not to perform our own.

In the present scenario, more than ever before, there is an urgent need for active citizenry. Apart from criticizing the government, we have ample rights and responsibilities towards our nation. No democracy can function without active participation of their citizens in daily life. There is need to take ownership and responsibility of our surroundings to make the government function, to raise our voices when needed and to work in collaboration with government departments whenever required. But again, the question is how to do it?

Insights from around the world have shown that democracies are deepened and sustained through an informed, active and responsible citizenry. This is a singular condition. This means that the development of responsible citizenship is a critical building block for our nation. It will enhance not only the capability of the citizens but also improve governance through people’s participation. The UN defines active citizenship as ‘a combination of knowledge, attitude, skills and actions that aim to contribute to building and maintaining a democratic society.’ It clearly states that we require certain knowledge, attitude and skill to perform our roles as citizens in a vibrant democracy. This is the focus of our work at We, The People. In partnership with institutions, we build the capacities of young
citizens in understanding and putting to action their role as citizens, constantly using the lens of the Constitution.

In India, despite directions from NCF 2005 and draft NEP 2016, this link between democracy and citizenship has not been invested and cultivated enough in schools1. Students and even teachers believe that the civics currently taught in schools is not only ‘boring’ but also ‘not relevant’ and ‘not practical’2. This signals a crisis. On the one hand, we have students coming out of schools uninspired and ill-equipped as far as values, knowledge and practical skills necessary to participate in a democracy are concerned. On the other, communities face governance and development issues that could be addressed through citizen engagement.

In our civic curriculum there are chapters on active citizenry but they fail to connect with the children on how to make the subject relevant in daily lives. We are expected to understand constitutional values, the history of constitution, know of the fundamental rights in our daily lives, the structure and function of our government at all levels, how laws are made, etc. We work on the knowledge aspect in the school curriculum but the skills and attitudes required to play the role of active citizens are conspicuous by their absence.

We, The People Abhiyan is working to bridge this gap. In addition to enhancing the civics curriculum, we focus on practical application to address social and development issues faced in day-to-day life.

Civic action approach
The process of working on any civic issue is as follows:

  1. Identifying and understanding the issue: This is the first step towards civic action. The issue can be anything that concerns students in a civic space. For e.g., they may choose to work on an issue of waste management, conditions in school, (infrastructure and quality education) conditions of roads, street lights, ground water levels, etc.
  2. Gathering information about the issue: After issue identification it is most important to gather information to understand the issue better. This is the part where learnings from the classroom can be applied by the student. There can be three types of research that can be done to understand all aspects related to a problem.

    a. Desk research: Information that has to be collected through referring to the Constitution, Acts, official documents using the Internet and/or going to the concerned authority’s office. Students should find out:
    i. Fundamental right (Article) related to the issue
    ii. Act related to the issue
    iii. Any rules/government orders related to the issue
    iv. Government department or authority related to the issue

    b. Field research: To understand the issue completely some information cannot be gathered through documents or the Internet but only by speaking with others in the community.
    Students should find out:
    i. How long the problem has been there
    ii. How many people are affected by this problem
    iii. Have there been any previous attempts to resolve the issue? If, yes gather information about that

    c. Media search: Students should also look at any news report or media article that has come out in the recent past on the same issue. This can give them an insight on the various aspects related to the problem.

  3. Taking action: After all the relavant information is gathered about the issue, students can take the following actions:

    a. Write a complaint to the related department mentioning – details of the issue, all the relavant information (violation of FR, section of Act, order or judgment, etc.), solution desired and the time within which action should be taken.

    b. File the complaint – keep one copy of the complaint and send another to the related department/s.

    c. Follow up on the complaint – keep following up through phone/email/ formal complaints.

The same process of the civic action project has been done in many schools where students have taken up issues and followed the above-mentioned process to resolve identified problems. One such case is discussed below:

Issue: Stray dogs in the city
School: Learning Home, Pune

This approach has been used with various schools and has been successful.

In a democracy, citizenship is an everyday job and like any other job, the training to play the role of a citizen should also be given in the schools. The way we lay the foundation of knowledge for our students to be doctors and engineers in school, it is only fitting that we equip them with the knowledge, skills and attitude to be active and informed citizens as well and no learning stays with you better than when you practice it in your own life. The civic action approach can serve as the right instrument to build these skills and make civics come alive in classrooms. This is the most important life skill for any citizen in a democracy!

Success Story from a government school in Haryana: For the students of the Government Senior Secondary School Ghamroj – Alipur district, Gurugram, going to school was a very painful experience as the road connecting the school with the village was broken and filthy with dirty water from a drain spilling out. The problem was noticed everyday by residents but nobody took any action. The teachers encouraged the students to take action as part of their civics curriculum. They contacted the Sarpanch with a formal application and various informal discussions. The Sarpanch cooperated with them; the BDO (Block Development Offi cer) and SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate) Sohna also took notice of this matter. The teacher along with the students were immensely joyous when the Sarpanch shared an undertaking that a grant of Rs. 20 lakh was being sanctioned for the maintenance of the road, now the road will soon be repaired.

Sonal Iyer is a development professional with over 15 years of experience in the area of legal aid and community empowerment. Currently she is associated with We, The People Abhiyan and heads the Content team. She can be reached at [email protected].

Neha Yadav is the Head of Secretariat, North at We, The People. She works closely with social science teachers of partner government and private schools in Delhi and NCR for efforts in transforming civics education. She can be reached at [email protected]. .

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