In the 2014 general elections, 2.31 per cent voters were first time voters. In the 2019 elections, it is expected that the share will grow. About 13.3 per cent first time voters will be eligible to cast their vote in the 2019 general election.
Given this context, the need to reform and change our approach to civic education gains prominence. Civic education in schools is foundational to citizenship training. It is at the core of building a nation of engaged and well-informed citizens.
The current curriculum in schools is focused on a theoretical understanding of the institutions of our democracy — the Parliament, Executive and Judiciary. For instance, the chapter on Parliament details its composition, the difference between Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, the functions of the Speaker, among other such things. While this gives students a dry, theoretical understanding of the institutions, aspects such as the role and significance of these institutions and public offices in the larger scheme of our democracy are missing.
It is important to bear in mind that governance institutions are constantly evolving. An understanding of them as taught in the curriculum must ensure this dynamism. A ‘beyond the classroom’ method of civic education goes a long way to make students curious and question developments unfolding around them. With increased exposure to news and current affairs today, a strong underpinning of good civic education equips students to weigh in on issues, shape better nuanced opinion, frame reasoned arguments and make better choices.
At PRS Legislative Research it is our aim to make the Parliament and state legislatures more open to the people they represent. It is through free and transparent access to information that a citizen is empowered to play an active role in the democratic process. Our work is based on the simple premise that elected representatives are mandated to fulfill a constitutional duty, and as citizens it is also our duty to hold them rightfully accountable to it.
The Parliament, as the highest law making body, bears significant influence on every realm of the society. Laws framed in the Parliament are on a range of issues. Whether it is access to education or data protection, legislation once passed by the Parliament regulates diverse aspects of our lives. As responsible citizens it is imperative that we be aware of them. This interest towards understanding laws must be inculcated in schools. Taking a step further, to appreciate a piece of legislation, a foundational knowledge of the background process is also useful. Currently, the curriculum includes a bookish understanding of a standardized procedure of ‘first reading’, ‘second reading’ and ‘third reading’ to trace the journey of a bill becoming an Act. In practice, however, procedure departs from this. It includes detailed scrutiny, consultation, cross party consensus building and at length deliberation on the floor of the House. An excellent example of the legislative process playing out in its entirety was the passage of the constitutional amendment enabling the new Goods and Services Tax (GST). Walking students through such live examples gives a beyond the classroom perspective of theory translating into real world application. It also adds to their understanding of how they as active citizens in the future can contribute and engage with the process.
Our efforts are directed at breaking down these complexities in a way that they can be effectively adapted for teaching purposes. A summary of every bill in Parliament is made available on our website. It captures the essentials of every proposed law and is aimed at giving the citizen an idea of what the bill proposes to do. In addition, PRS produces short engaging videos, suitable for a young audience who engage better with video rather than textual content. Our videos simplify complex procedural intricacies. Videos on how a bill becomes a law, how the budget is passed are some such examples that can supplement textbook teaching.
Moving away from the curriculum, it is important that the civic education class provides an opportunity for the youth to think about their future role of being active citizens. One of the key challenges that the Indian political system struggles with is our perception of politicians and their role. A clear understanding of the duties of their elected representative across levels of governance like the centre, state and municipalities or panchayats enables students to make better sense of every day politics. Whether a member of parliament is responsible for construction of good roads or whether he should be making good laws is a question that often confuses most voters. It is in this regard that the curriculum should evolve to train students with knowledge, skills and understanding which prepare them to be informed citizens. It is important to inculcate a sense among the students about the political process. This would allow them to engage with and hold their leaders accountable.
An effective tool that allows citizens to easily get information about the work done by their parliamentarians is the MP track application available on our website. It provides details about parliamentary interventions of MPs including their attendance, participation in debates, bills piloted and questions asked. It gives an insight into the work done by MPs in the Parliament — what are the issues they raise? What do they question the government on? Which debates did they participate in? What are the laws they want to change or push for in their individual capacity? The information aims to give citizens a better idea of the participation of their representatives.
Introducing students to the tool and encouraging them to regularly track their MPs through this tool increases their interest in what’s shaping the country. They become direct stakeholders of the democratic process which is not only restricted to voting. The tool also includes video clippings of parliamentary speeches which are a great resource for understanding varying opinions on a particular issue. Departing from the sensationalist coverage of the Parliament by news agencies that can be disenchanting for young citizens, videos of parliamentarians transacting legislative business can be effective to reinstate faith in democratic institutions. Finally, by organizing initiatives such as mock parliaments, visits to legislatures or the Parliament, interactions with elected MPs and MLAs makes learning more experiential and fun.
Internationally civic education through such experiential experiences has been popular. The UK Parliament, for instance, has a specific education service that focuses on this aspect. Modules and teacher resources are made available to support teachers to help them engage their students across the curriculum in learning about democracy. Interactive tools, videos, online workshops are easily accessible. Some of these initiatives can be adopted and adapted to our Indian context to strengthen our curriculum.
The author is Program Officer at PRS Legislative Research. She handles media outreach and civil society engagement. She can be reached at [email protected].