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We need to think about state's accountability between polls: Varshney

Study finds citizens don't engage with state much beyond polls

Indulekha Aravind  |  Bengaluru 

“Voting remains the most effective way to change the behaviour of the state in India but if the voter did not vote for Hindu nationalism or for conversions or for changing textbooks, we need to think seriously about accountability between elections,” said Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman professor of international studies at Brown University, articulating a view that might not be far from the minds of many citizens, given the latest controversies the Narendra Modi-led government finds itself embroiled in. Voting, said the director of the Brown-India Initiative, was necessary but not sufficient.

Varshney was speaking on the sidelines of the release of the Janaagraha-Brown Citizenship Index which found, in a survey of over 4,000 citizens of Bengaluru that citizens do not engage much with the state beyond participating in elections, which does not bode well for the quality of democracy.

According to the report, while over 70 per cent of the respondents felt voting and respecting the law were important responsibilities of citizens, only 5.8 per cent felt that civic engagement was important. An overwhelming 93 per cent of respondents did not know if there was a ward committee in their committee. “A more decentralised form of government would encourage more participation,” said Patrick Heller, professor of sociology at Brown University

The study is the first exercise of its kind in the country and seeks to measure the quality of citizenship in cities by looking at the delivery of basic services like power and water, and the level and quality of engagement of citizens with the state, among others. The exercise will be extended to eight of the largest cities in the country next year with the aim to creating a comparative framework.

Janaagraha founder Ramesh Ramanathan remarked that they had collected the data in the hope of pushing policymakers to take a hard look at the challenges Bengaluru is facing and “recognise the importance of an informed and engaged citizenship”.

Some of the survey findings were not entirely surprising such as the fact that the urban poor, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and Muslims have less-effective citizenship, and that the rich have more or less defected from the public sphere. But the survey also found that while delivery of services was unequally distributed across class and caste, religion was not a significant factor in Bengaluru.

The study also found that citizenship matters more for the poor i.e. if it were not for citizenship (participation and engagement), they would have even less access to basic services and infrastructure. As the study points out, “Citizenship, in this sense, is an ally of the poor.”

It found that as a person’s class increases, the citizenship score on the index also increased with the exception of the upper class, which had a lower level of participation and engagement than the middle class. The average level of citizenship for Bengaluru, which includes knowledge and participation, as measured on the index was 0.32 out of 1.

In the section examining the quality of engagement with citizens, the study found that nearly a quarter of respondents reported no engagement at all with state agencies (either for services or for cards) which is surprising, considering how much citizens depend on the state for services. Among those who reported engaging with state agencies, 73 per cent said they had not been asked for a bribe.

Janaagraha hopes to use the findings of the survey to create formal and informal platforms for better engagement of citizens in cities and to put a collective pressure on institutionalising citizenship (through having nagar sabhas, for instance), said Srikanth Viswanathan, co-ordinator at the non-profit that focuses on improving the quality of life in urban areas.

First Published: Tue, December 16 2014. 20:40 IST