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'Civil society is only geared to the needs of the elite'

By Rashme Sehgal

Democratic processes in our country are being dismantled, feels Dunu Roy, who has been working with the issues of displacement, urban habitat, and pollution for the last four decades. Citizens are being replaced by coteries of bureaucrats and the technocrats who run CSOs

Anubrotto Kumar Anubrotto Kumar Roy, popularly known as Dunu Roy, has been in the field of rural development for over four decades. A chemical engineer, he has provided technical expertise to rural communities, carried out prolonged experiments in environmental planning, and now works with issues related to toxic hazards in Delhi. Even while at IIT, Roy and a group of fellow students were trying to assess how their knowledge could help solve the problems of the poor.

Roy runs an institution called the Hazards Centre which provides free services to citizens in the fields of public health, environment impact, pollution control and urban architecture. The Centre works particularly with the poor who settled in Delhi after 1990 and who are being displaced in an increasing number of legal verdicts. According to a study done by the Hazards Centre, there are about 300,000 families in Delhi that have no place to live. The Centre is trying to provide them shelter and has given a plan to the Metropolitan Council of Delhi (MCD) suggesting how they too can share the same space with the city’s more well-heeled inhabitants.

How would you define the term ‘civil society’? 

There is a transition taking place in the term itself. The Constitution of India starts with the Preamble “We, the people”, and it was these words that helped create a feeling of national resurgence in the hearts of our people.

A distinct change has however taken place in the way people are being projected today. The classic example is that of the bhagidari system which was put in place by the Delhi administration. The bhagidari has been extended to those who live in built-up colonies, which means that two-thirds of the people who do not, have been excluded from such participation. The word ‘citizen’ has disappeared from our present lexicon. The point I am trying to make is that our Constitution confers only political equality on its citizens. There is no clause in it which speaks of social or economic equality, as has been laid out in the Constitutions of South Africa and Venezuela. Our citizens are entitled to vote, but that is all. They have been displaced by all the so-called “stakeholders” who come from the corporate world or government.

Civil society organisations are gradually replacing the voting citizen. CSOs claim they represent the people, but since these are unelected bodies how can they claim to be representative bodies? These organisations have never fought an election. The 73rd and 74th amendments which brought in panchayati raj have been sidelined completely because when it comes to making economic and environmental assessments which will impact the lives of villagers on the ground, the panchayats have not been given the right to vote. Their votes no longer count.

The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, has set aside their voice on matters that concern them. For example, the Supreme Court set aside panchayats’ concerns over the depletion of groundwater when it ordered that Coca-Cola was entitled to access groundwater around its factories. The democratic process has been replaced by a self-appointed group of people who now claim they are stakeholders for society at large.

Are you then saying that civil society has failed to create a more transparent and accountable form of governance? 

Democratic processes in our country are being dismantled. Take the example of our National Urban Renewal Mission being run by a small coterie of central- and state-level bureaucrats. Their findings on how our cities will be run are now binding on all municipal corporations in the country.

The terms and conditions under which money is being distributed have been set down by this coterie of bureaucrats. They have done so without engaging in any debate on any issue of vital importance in any of our corporations. The money being given by these urban missions amounts to Rs 95,000 crore. This money will be disbursed in the form of a loan, but it is the bureaucrat and the consultant who is deciding how the urban renewal plan will be formulated as also how the money will be spent. No public hearings are taking place on issues that will touch the lives of millions. As a result, the government refuses to listen to a public protest being organised regarding these city development plans.

The reason for such apathy is simple. The public is no longer considered part of civil society. Only those who agree to the diktats of this small coterie are invited to attend their meets. A charade is being conducted in the name of civil society.

Does civil society in the larger sense of the term have no clout whatsoever? 

We have succeeded in carving out a space for a small minority which is largely upper middle class in character. Look at the example of the Citizenship Act which Nandan Nilekani, former CEO, Infosys Technologies, is trying to introduce. He is saying that only those who are born in the country are entitled to get this card, and that such a rule would be applied rigorously. Only 30% of our population have birth certificates, the remaining do not. Under such a criterion, I fear that only those who have money in the bank will be entitled to become citizens.

I may sound like a doomsday prophet but to carry this anomaly further, the Bandra-Worli sea link can be used only by car drivers whereas providing proper drainage to the entire city of Mumbai could have been accomplished at one-twentieth of this cost. But it was not.

In the same way, the metro is the most expensive option to provide transport to our cities. We have chosen to devastate our cities in order to get a metro.  And since we are buying such incredibly expensive machinery to build this metro, we then need to build more metros in more cities in order to recover the cost.

Are you saying there is no equitable development taking place in the country? 

In which state is the third tier of governance, where adults of a village can gather and discuss issues, actually taking place? The 74th amendment pertaining to our cities is not in place in Delhi. In that sense we are violating the Constitution every day, and this failure is not highlighted in the media.

The prejudice against the poor is amazing. The Delhi Municipal Corporation has set a cap of 50,000 rickshaw licences in Delhi. But 500,000 rickshaw-pullers are servicing the needs of the people. By virtue of this fiat, 450,000 rickshaw-pullers have become illegal. In the same way, the poor will not be able to access the biometric identification cards because, in order to get one, they have to name a place of residence. Now, 50% of the population in our urban areas consists of migrant labour that has no fixed place of residence. What address will they give on their cards? The government admits that we need 24 million homes to accommodate all the poor people in the cities, but it is in a position to build only 2 million homes. This means 22 million families will not be able to meet the criterion that has been set for these cards.

Surely civil society has had some success? Was it not instrumental in introducing progressive legislation, including the RTI Act? 

As I said earlier, civil society is geared to serving the needs of an elitist section of society. Are our judges prepared to declare their assets? Of course not. I have been informed by several activists that the RTI Act is being amended and file notings, which form the heart of this Act, need not be shown in future. The bureaucracy and politicians have joined hands and this amendment (of the RTI Act) is expected to be introduced in the present session of Parliament. Some civil society organisations, whose names I will not disclose, are pushing to rush the amendment through.

The National Advisory Council has been dismantled and the government is showing no enthusiasm for putting it back in place. Earlier, people could protest in several places including India Gate. Today, the only place left for them to protest is Jantar Mantar. How can a country follow any democratic traditions if the public is given no place to protest?

Infochange News & Features, November 2009