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From vote to voice

Across India, civil society has been mobilising and empowering India’s aam-aadmi to question their government. This new accountability agenda marks the beginning of a process to deepen democracy in India, says Yamini Aiyar

It is a hot summer’s day in April 2009. Palaspani, a sleepy village tucked in the far corner of Sehore district, Madhya Pradesh, has been brought to life by a motley crew of activists and researchers. They have spent the last three days making report cards on the learning levels of children at the government-run primary school. The crew spoke to parents, teachers and others. They gathered information on school expenditures, the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA), and other school-related activities. The exercise is about to come to an end with a village meeting to share the findings.

Less than 50% of the children can identify letters, words and numbers correctly. Most PTA members rarely meet or interact with the school. People seem to know little about where and how money has been spent. A discussion ensues. For the first time, people in the village begin to ask questions: Why don’t our children learn? What does the school spend its money on? As the sun sets and the meeting comes to an end, the PTA resolves to monitor the school and hold it accountable for teaching the children.

Palaspani’s story is not unusual. Across the country, India’s civil society has been actively mobilising and empowering India’s aam-aadmi to question their government and hold it to account. Through these efforts, it has gone beyond its traditional watchdog or vigilance function to involve itself directly in the everyday functions of the state. These initiatives have empowered citizens to engage directly in budget-making, planning, auditing and monitoring the performance of public sector officials. Citizens are now asking questions and demanding answers directly from their governments. In the words of political scientist Anne Marie Goetz, this hints at the emergence of a “new accountability agenda”, one that will fundamentally redefine how accountability is sought. 

Civil society’s accountability efforts are premised on the recognition that information is power. People have a right to know what their government does and how government funds are being spent. Information allows people to question government and to participate in government. Most importantly, it allows people to hold government to account for its promises.

But public access to information has never been easy. In the early-1990s, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the now-famous people’s organisation in Rajasthan, led what is undoubtedly civil society’s greatest victory in the struggle for accountability: the movement for the right to information. It took over ten long years of mobilisation, agitation and activism before the Government of India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005. The Act is now being used regularly by civil society organisations across the country to encourage a culture of transparency and expose wrongdoing in government functioning.

Civil society organisations have drawn upon a number of innovative tools to pursue the new accountability agenda. One innovation is budget analysis and advocacy. Budget analysis aims to demystify the budget and present it in a comprehensible manner for the general public. It also involves finding out how much has been allocated to the social sector and holding the government to its commitments to the poor. The Delhi-based Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) is one example. CBGA organises an annual consultation where civil society organisations come together to place their demands for the budget, in order to involve them in the budget process. Another innovative strategy adopted by CBGA is the annual people’s debate on the budget. This debate takes place the day after the budget is presented to Parliament and is an effort to strengthen the aam-aadmi’s voice in budgetary debates. 

Social audit is another powerful tool. Pioneered by the MKSS, a social audit is a process whereby citizens compare state-reported expenditures with actual monies spent. Evidence is gathered through interactions with participants in development projects, physical verification of schemes, and interviews with local-level panchayat members and line department officials. Findings from the audit are then shared with government officials in a public forum. The public hearing is the most powerful aspect of the social audit. By bringing people together to directly engage and question government officials, it immediately challenges entrenched power relations and empowers the poorest and most marginalised sections of society. Social audits are now mandatory, by law, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Since its launch, civil society organisations have been conducting social audits all across the country often in partnership with local administrative officials.

The government of Andhra Pradesh has gone a step further by institutionalising social audits. To do this, it has collaborated with CSOs to build up a 35-member team that facilitates and manages the audit process. The team trains educated village youth who conduct the actual audit. Andhra Pradesh now holds an average of 64 audits a month.

Apart from tracking expenditures, CSOs are also involved in efforts to engage citizens in evaluating outcomes of public expenditures. One innovative effort is the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER), facilitated by Pratham, a Delhi-based CSO working to strengthen education in India. ASER is a countrywide survey that collects data on learning levels among schoolchildren. They have developed a simple tool that tests the learning levels of schoolchildren in reading, comprehension, and arithmetic. Started in 2005, ASER involves over 15,000 CSOs and volunteers. As a result, it is now possible to measure the yearly progress of learning levels across states, draw inter-state comparisons and, most importantly, make policymakers answerable for the funds being spent on primary education.

Civil society has also begun to engage with the electoral process to push for greater political accountability. This involves monitoring elected representatives, publicising information on their performance, and pushing for public disclosure of a candidate’s assets, as well as criminal and financial records. The run-up to the recent Lok Sabha elections saw the emergence of a number of new efforts to improve the standard of candidates contesting the elections and to keep criminals out of the electoral fray. This work is still in a nascent phase. However, it marks an important transition in civil society activism, which had stayed away from engaging directly with political parties.

These are just a few examples of the new accountability agenda. Its greatest strength is that it empowers citizens and deepens democratic action. These initiatives have challenged the deeply entrenched power relations in which much of India lives, by opening up spaces for the poorest and most disempowered to participate in governance and by supporting them in demanding their rights. The new accountability agenda marks the beginnings of a change in mindset towards the state. It shows a recognition of the right to participate and the right to have one’s voice heard. Most importantly, it marks the beginning of a process to deepen democracy in India where people participate in government not just through their vote but also through their voice.

(Yamini Aiyar is currently a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the accountability initiative (http://www.accountabilityindia.org) being set up at the Centre for Policy Research)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009