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Change is a challenge, in every age

History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.

I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.

What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.

What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!

These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….

So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…

The future’s in our hands: Informal referendums as means to channelize public opinion, influence governments- July 23, 2012

Saturday’s editorial in The Hindu by Prashant Bhushan and Atishi Marlena has been playing on my mind. It talks about how citizens in a democracy can participate in the nation’s decision making processes other than by voting once in five years! The authors describe established instruments like the Referendum (in which “citizens, by a direct vote, can decide whether a legislation passed by Parliament should be rejected”) and the Inititative (in which “citizens initiate a new legislation or constitutional amendment, by putting their own proposal on the political agenda that Parliament is ignoring”). The possibility of making ongoing changes is exciting and I can imagine feeling a lot more motivated as a citizen to be politically active if I knew the fruits of my efforts were not in the oh-so distant past!

Last year, we were in Barcelona in June. A referendum (informal and activist-led, not legal) had been recently held (April, 2011) to decide whether Catalonia would be a separate state from Spain. In the provincial capital Barcelona, one in five people voted for a separate state and there was tangible excitement about this. Rahul and me had inadvertently wandered into the heart of the campaign located in a city park late one night. Sloganeering, brainwashing and lively discussions, music and guitar strumming, pitched tents, quite a mela it was! There were barricades and some police presence yes, but it was all in good spirit.

Perhaps we should also hold informal referendums in cities (or in smaller units like wards) to push decisions on governance issues that affect our lives here and now. I can think of a zillion things right away. Making rainwater harvesting compulsory for all new constructions and offering hefty discounts on property tax if old constructions implemented it would be a good place to begin. Aamir Khan’s piece today in the HT talks about this forcefully (whoever did this one for him was good). If citizens are to be motivated to think about their own good instead of waiting for the government to come around to doing things that are so essential it’s scary, planning a series of referendums could be a good idea.

Of course, as Bhushan’s piece highlights, you need the technology to be in place. Social media cannot really be considered an inclusive medium for a referendum. We need to expand the reach to get a cross section of citizens involved. Second, are citizens in the position to take an informed decision? Who informs them? How do we ensure this information is unbiased? What sort of weight will informal referendums carry?

Lots of questions, fewer answers. But a glimmer of light, nevertheless!

Moving ahead without the government: Bangalore’s Russell Market march 13, 2012

In the last week of February, I read about how a heritage market in Bangalore had been gutted in a fire. I remember thinking how tragic that was and wondering if an ugly mall would come up to replace it.
Imagine my surprise then to read in today’s local newspaper in Bangalore that the traders who had shops in the historic Russell Market had, on their own initiative gone ahead and rebuilt it! Not only did they spend a crore to hire a private firm to rebuild the market, they brought in city architect Anitha Suseelan who teaches in RV School of Architecture to provide inputs to the project based on documentation that the college had done earlier. There has been a reasonable attempt to salvage and restore original components and rebus the structure in its original style.
For traders, the decision to bypass BBMP (local government) and build privately was a no brainer! They were focused on restarting work. A delayed project would mean several months of livelihood lost. This way they are back in business in a month or less!
A great example of community led action and perhaps a trend setter of a new kind of urbanism. I wonder how to reconcile the excitement of this with conventional wisdom that asks every project to be approved by the government. An uncontrolled spate of anarchic building, however community centric, could create chaos! But then our present system is chaos nevertheless. So I will go ahead and take courage from Russell Markets story and wish for many more such initiatives!

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