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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!

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