The State and us

Ashwini Kulkarni

We have often seen people approach their elected representatives, a corporator or MLA, with requests to get some work done. Invariably these will be works involving some government department or the other. It could be personal work, like getting a license or a loan approved or public work like getting roads or street lights repaired. While it is good to meet with our elected representatives, is this the best way to get our work with government offices done?

Why do people feel the need to approach elected representatives? Is it that they find them more accessible than visiting government offices? Or it is simply that they don’t really know where to go to solve a particular problem? Or do they believe that their work will get done sooner and without any hassles if they meet the MLA? So, does this mean that people feel powerless when interacting with government offices?

We as citizens are neither just spectators nor only voters. We are the makers of this nation. We not only vote and form governments but the way we interact with the institutions of the State builds those institutions.

State is an abstract concept that comes alive through its institutions. The forms and functions of these institutions, the way they interact with each other and with people at large defines the State’s contours.

Our Constitution has laid down the basic values that the government and citizens must follow. It clearly states the principles of governing the nation. As citizens we can form associations and freely critique the functioning of the government and engage with it to improve its functioning.

In recent times, it was the efforts of various citizens’ groups that made the Right to Information Act possible. Because of this law, now any of us can access most government documents. This transparency has given people a tool to interact with the government, and the government is now more accountable to its citizens. Such efforts are significant steps in strengthening our democracy.

A graduate student studying in a town, casually looked through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act website. He looked at the works going on in his village and the list of labourers working in his village. He was surprised to see some names he knew did not work in his village. Intrigued, he sought documents under the Right to Information Act. With these documents he lodged a complaint and requested for an enquiry. Even though the student was not a beneficiary, the Act allowed him access all relevant documents and also to file a complaint. This was possible because the government is accountable to ALL its citizens. The relationship of the citizens with the government is not confined to that of a beneficiary or a tax payer alone. The most significant aspect of this example is that a student claimed his power of being a citizen and questioned the ‘mighty’ apparatus of the government.

It is through its institutions that the government and its citizens interact. Of course, there is also the fourth estate. Media is meant to be the voice of the citizens in a democracy. Using the media is another means to reach the decision-makers in the government.

But when we think about our days in school, were we aware of our roles as citizens? Can this be taught or do we learn what we can do as citizens only through experience? When students get scholarships, are they aware why and how they are entitled to it? When they get their textbooks at subsidized prices, are they aware why and how this came about? If students do not have adequate resources in their neighborhood for recreational activities, do they know that it is part of the government’s mandate to provide such facilities? Have they heard of Right to Education? With such questions the teacher can help her students start thinking about themselves as citizens and their role in the society.

As they talk and discuss, students will come across problems in their community, neighbouhood. For instance, lack of adequate drinking water. Why is this so? Who is responsible for providing drinking water? Is it the company that provides bottled water or the same source that provides water to their homes? From here the teacher can move to talking about municipal corporations (for the urban areas) and how we can approach them to solve such civic problems. Exploring a problem for solutions and finding the authority to tackle the problem is an exercise in active citizenship. Taking up such real life examples with students is probably the only way to evolve as active citizens.

We are privileged to have a Constitution that gives us democracy, universal franchise, institutions with proper checks and balances, which makes social security possible for the marginalized and disadvantaged sections of the society. Hence, it is our prime duty to uphold the values and vision of the Constitution to strengthen the idea of India.

The author has more than 20 years of experience in the development sector. She is currently director at Pragati Abhiyan, an NGO that works in the terrain of advocacy, transparency and governance with reference to implementation of MNREGA Act. She is also one of the founding members of We, The People Abhiyan. She can be reached at [email protected].

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