A commitment to good governance

Swapni Shah

We want a society and a government in which human rights and individual dignity are respected, rule of law is observed, people fulfill their responsibilities, and common good is everyone’s concern. The most conducive environment for this is provided by a constitutional democracy. Democracy also provides the most fertile ground for fostering social change. The ideals of democracy are realized when all citizens participate in governance in an informed manner and with the understanding of their rights and responsibilities. Engaging citizens in local governance improves the ability of local authorities to solve problems and create more inclusive communities who take more initiative.

Citizens with the requisite knowledge, skills, attitudes and values help sustain democracy. However, these qualities cannot be assumed to be inborn, and must be developed. Thus, civic education is an important task for educators, policymakers, and members of civil society.

The content of citizen education
Civic education promotes an understanding of democratic ideals and forges a commitment to democratic values and principles. It must impact the knowledge, skill, attitude and values of citizens for positive behaviour change.

Citizen education should include understanding of the democratic system and the justification for limited, dispersed, and shared power. This will enable citizens to hold governments accountable and to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected. It should include appreciation of law. Citizens also need to recognize the opportunities available in the system for participation and exercise of choice beyond electoral politics.

Skills of evaluating and taking positions are essential to enable citizens to assess issues on the public agenda, to make judgments and to discuss their assessment with others. This requires critical thinking, explaining and analyzing. The ability to describe functions and processes will enable citizens to detect and help correct malfunctions. Discerning and describing trends in public program access, nutrition status, migration, or employment helps to fit current events into a longer term pattern. The ability to analyze enables one to distinguish between fact and opinion and clarify responsibilities.

Skills that enable participation, monitoring and influencing are necessary for effective and responsible participation – question, deliberate with civility, build coalitions and manage conflict in a fair, peaceful manner. ‘Monitoring’ refers to the skills citizens need to track program delivery or the handling of issues by the government. It also means the exercising of oversight or watchdog functions. ‘Influencing’ refers to the capacity to affect the formal and the informal processes of governance – using petitioning, speaking, or testifying before public bodies, joining advocacy groups, and forming coalitions.

Attitudes and values like moral responsibility, self-discipline, respect for human dignity, civility, respect for the rule of law, critical mindedness, willingness to listen, negotiate, and compromise are essential to the maintenance of democracy. They develop slowly over time from experiences in the home, school, community, and organizations of civil society. The right attitudes and values will enable citizens to be attentive to public affairs. It inclines the citizen to work through peaceful, legal means to change unjust laws or demand new ones.

Making of citizen leaders – Unnati experience
Education and training are crucial in empowering citizens to effectively participate in local governance. The knowledge, skills, attitudes and values of citizens are shaped by family, religious institutions, media, community groups and many others. However, civil society organizations serve as public laboratories in which citizens learn democracy by doing it.

Unnati – Organization for Development Education is a civil society organization or a capacity building development organization. Strengthening of local governance institutions has been a focus area of the organization since the early 90s. Towards the end of this decade, Unnati started an experiment of developing citizen leaders as a key component of strengthening local governance. Citizen leaders are not leaders by virtue of being elected or holding any office. They recognize their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democratic governance framework. They look for ways to make life better for others and contribute in nation building. Unnati perceives such citizen leaders as social capital and develops their capacities to be more impactful through perspective development on social justice, skill on community mobilization, interacting with government functionaries at different levels, writing applications, seeking information or registering grievances and information transfer in trainings.

Citizen leaders are usually identified from the marginalized communities, which more often than not don’t have a voice in the society. Special efforts are made to include women and persons with disabilities. Citizen leaders are identified in community meetings. Education is not a criterion. Preference is given to the young because they may have more mobility, enthusiasm and energy and they are usually more willing to learn and are desirous of change. For the initial six months, the identified leaders are given small tasks requiring, seeking and giving information to people. The community facilitators of the organization support the citizen leaders through continuous guidance and hand-holding.

Every month a meeting of the citizen leaders is held at the block level. These meetings provide space for peer review of actions done at the local level. Citizen leaders share their experiences and dilemmas and evolve a joint action plan for the coming month. It is also a forum for capacity building as new developments and information of public schemes are discussed. Individually and collectively, citizen leaders are guided and supported on strategies to address local issues for accountability in public programme provisioning and lead to governance reforms. In the meetings, citizen leaders are not only imparted updated information about the different public programmes but also provided with the skills to fill up forms, write clearly worded applications and grievances, gather information from digital sources, etc. Meetings also provide space for reflection on ethical considerations.

In the last four years, 506 citizen leaders have emerged from this programme and they have taken up 7000 actions disseminating information of public programmes, supporting the poor and marginalized to access the programs by helping them manoeuvre the complex application process and other bottlenecks and lodge grievances in case entitlements are denied. They also arrange interface meetings between citizens and local government functionaries with an aim to facilitate demand and negotiation. Around 75 per cent of the citizen leaders are women. Supporting citizencentric action helps strengthen organized demand for quality services. It creates a social capital for the poor and excluded communities.

Campaigns on ‘Civic Engagement for Improving Public Services’ have been specially designed as longitudinal monitoring tools to be led by citizen leaders. The campaigns are based on our understanding that enduring change can happen only if people are informed and empowered to demand their rights and entitlements. The participation of people is critical to understanding the issues related to access and status of the public services and initiating local actions including requests, dialogues, representations or registering grievances. The campaigns provide a platform to give information on public schemes and programs and engage citizens in strengthening village institutions and demanding accountability from service providers. It enables citizen action. Citizen leaders are exposed to the different grievance redressal strategies. The campaign mode facilitates reaching out to remote locations. It helps to identify long-standing or common issues that need representation at the block, district or state level. The exercises are not statistically representative in terms of sample size or coverage. Pictorial Public Schemes Information and Assessment Display Charts (designed and printed by Unnati with help from the citizen leaders) help citizen leaders and community facilitators to easily provide program related information and also capture data on the indicators after consultation with the community and review of the institution for aggregation and longitudinal comparison of status.

Citizen leaders are taken through six different kinds of trainings in a three year period:
i) Citizenship and governance – focus on the need for interactive engagement between citizens and the institutions of the state. It highlights that without an active citizens’ group, the state cannot be made effective and responsive. Beneficiary oriented program delivery will not be able to bring improvement in the equality of services.
ii) Citizens’ involvement in the various committees can reflect people’s aspirations, interest and needs in the planning and execution of public schemes and finally build people’s ownership.
iii) Poverty analysis and social inclusion – focuses on building a social perspective on vulnerability. Citizen leaders are oriented in the process of marginalization and issues of women, dalit and persons with disabilities. It helps citizen leaders identify and analyze issues of the poor in a fair manner.
iv) Government schemes and social justice laws – focus on various programs and schemes related to health, education and social security/protection. Citizen leaders are oriented in submitting application forms and administrative processes to avail the benefits and challenges in accessing the same. Citizen leaders are also oriented in various social justice laws like SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Anti Rape Act, Domestic Violence Act, etc. Apart from providing information, the training focuses on strengthening the skills of citizen leaders to access government schemes and social justice laws.
v) RTI and social accountability – focuses on the relevance of social accountability in the present context. Citizen leaders are oriented in the use of various tools and techniques used in facilitating social accountability process.
vi) Effective interface with the government – focus is on skill development for presentation of issues before the government in terms of application, dialogue, negotiation, group representation or jan sunvai (public hearing). When these tools are used effectively within constitutional boundaries, one can expect better results without necessarily confronting the government. Government officials are invited to the workshop so that citizen leaders can understand their perspective.
vii) Leadership development – focuses on leadership aspects like facilitation of gram sabha, conflict resolution, consensus building on village development, and promoting equity and social justice which are essential components for development and social change.

All citizen leaders are sensitized on gender. Citizen leaders are given opportunities to participate in national and state level networks and advocacy forums like Right to Education, Right to Food, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan and forge their own alliances. If a citizen leader has taken up a local issue that requires understanding on land rights or Common Property Resources, they are linked to other organizations with expertise for capacity building.

Considerations in school education Civic education is necessary for every child. Schools bear a special and historic responsibility for the development of civic competency and civic responsibility through both formal and informal education beginning in the earliest years and continuing through the entire educational process. Formal instruction in civics familiarizes students with the constitution, structure and responsibilities of the various institutions of governance and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Instruction about rights should make it clear that few rights can be considered absolute. Rights may conflict with one another or with other values and interests and therefore require reasonable limitations. The rights of liberty and equality, for example, or the rights of the individual and the common good are often in conflict with one another. It is very important, therefore, that children develop a framework for clarifying ideas about rights and the relationship among rights and other values and interests. This framework then can provide a basis for making reasoned decisions about the proper scope and limits of rights. Instruction about responsibilities should make it clear that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. Responsibilities are the other half of the democratic equation. A sense of personal responsibility and civic obligation are in fact the social foundations on which individual rights and freedoms ultimately rest.

Though primary responsibility for the cultivation of ethical behaviour and the development of character, including moral character, lies with families, schools can and should play a major role. Schools should provide students with opportunities for the development of desirable traits of public and private character relevant to citizenship. Cooperative learning activities such as class meetings, student councils, simulated public hearings, mock trials, mock elections, and student courts tend to promote character traits needed to participate effectively.

Special community service learning projects maybe designed such as tutoring younger students, caring for the school environment, participating in voter registration drives, gender safety audits or access audits. Recognition of shared values and a sense of community are encouraged through celebration of national and state holidays and celebration of the achievements of classmates and local citizens. Attentiveness to public affairs can be encouraged by regular discussions of significant current events. Students may be asked to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues that involve ethical considerations.

In today’s context, with increased access to technology and social media and widened space for debate and dialogue, school curricula may orient children on using technology responsibly for improving transparency.

Schools can pro-actively engage with civil society organizations, bring community leaders into the classroom to discuss issues with students and provide opportunities for students to observe and/or participate in their activities/programs.

The paper draws heavily from the project and other reports of Unnati – Organisation for Development Education generated during its decades of work on strengthening civic leadership.

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Citizen leaders in action

Making Public Distribution System (PDS) accountable
The PDS beneficiary list and entitlement according to family size has been a contentious issue in Rajasthan. The grievances increased multifold after a new list was issued under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Despite several attempts to understand the problem, the list was not getting corrected by the officials. Citizen leaders were oriented about the issue and started a campaign to provide information to people on their entitlements concerning PDS. Citizen leaders motivated people to always demand and get receipts generated from the point of sale (POS) machines that were introduced in 2017 across the state. As many as 116 cases of discrepancy between the entitlement and actual take-off were identified and appealed for correction. If the response was not received within 30 days, a second appeal was made with the office of the District Collector. At village level open meetings, citizen leaders verified the ration received by people and mentioned in their ration cards with the information listed online. These meetings became huge jan sunvais. The movement has compelled the district administration to ensure the delivery of the entitled amount of ration.

Daud Khan uses Rajasthan Sampark to make village school regular
Citizen leader Daud Khan from Patodi block has been constantly complaining about teachers coming late and irregularity in the mid-day meal to block authorities who turned a deaf ear every time. Ultimately, he lodged a complaint on the online integrated grievances portal, ‘Rajasthan Sampark’. The administration came to the village on the pretext of investigation to pressurize the people. Without wilting under pressure Daud Khan stood by his demands and action was initiated.

Residential land rights of nomadic people
Hasam Khan has single-handedly raised the case of land patta for 100 families of a traditionally nomadic community. He mobilized the people and helped them present their demand to the District Collector. In the face of opposition from the local panchayat and administration, he stood with the people for boundary demarcation and measure of common land required for re-allocation.

Identifying the vulnerable families and linking them to public programs
Puro devi, citizen leader from Sindhri, was once told that children of Ruparam are never brought for immunization. She asked the nurse to visit these homes with her. The family of Ruparam Bhil was living on the edge of the village in extreme poverty. They did not have access to any public program because they did not have supporting documents and bank accounts. The banking correspondent even asked for a bribe to open an account which they could not fulfill. Purodevi helped the family get appropriate documents and the family is accessing pension, PDS and MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).

The author is the Chief Operation Officer at Unnati Rajasthan, a nonprofit organization that works to promote social inclusion and democratic governance. She can be reached at swapni@unnati.org.

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