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9 August 2012, Gateway House

Democracy begins at home

Participatory governance, especially at the local level, can transform a locality into an ideal community. The experience of officials working with the municipal corporation for bringing about changes in Colaba, South Mumbai, demonstrates the potential of people’s involvement in democracy on the ground.

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Democracy is most effectively practiced when ordinary people stop relying on a single person or even a group of elected representatives to transform their aspirations and hopes into reality. When each person actively begins to participate in resolving the issues in her/ his immediate neighbourhood, it makes their locales better places for everyone to live in.

In effect this means that we all have to be the change that we want to see. This vision, combined with a dearth of effective and efficient elected representatives, prompted me, along with a group of like-minded residents from the South Mumbai locality of Colaba, to participate in local elections in February 2012. Most of us are working professionals and new to politics, but we were clear that we had to enter the system and try and change it from the inside out.

In many countries, political parties cannot participate in local governance. This was true in India too (at least officially, though on-the-ground party politics was closely intertwined with local elections), until the government of India introduced the Seventy- Fourth Amendment Act, 1992. This amendment to the Constitution permitted political parties to participate in elections to urban local bodies such as municipal corporations.

However, at the municipal—or urban administrative division—level of democracy, even if a candidate for election is associated with a powerful political party, citizens and civic issues have remained neglected. We in Colaba created a formula for winning the election: make no promises to the electorate; instead, awaken the spirit of participation in the community to ensure that development can take place by working together.

With this objective, we formed a group called ‘My Dream Colaba.’ We believe in participatory governance, especially at the local level, which can transform a locality into an ideal community where development is for the people and by the people.

Everyone who lives in Mumbai is closely connected—whether we realise this or not—with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, or the B.M.C. (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation). This interaction starts with registering births with the B.M.C.  and goes on till death, when one needs death certificates from the corporation. The B.M.C. is involved in a wide range of local issues such as maintenance of the roads and public transportation, supply of electricity, issues of public health and sanitation, the public education system, and maintenance of open spaces and public parks.

We realised that even though the B.M.C.—which in part or whole is mandated with all these and other portfolios—is so central and relevant to our everyday lives, many of us did not bother to engage with it except when absolutely necessary.  While campaigning in Colaba for the municipal elections, we found that many citizens had almost no knowledge of the elected local representatives of their area, or of the centrality of the B.M.C. to their lives. To address this gap, we gave citizens basic lessons in civic issues. These were based in part on the practical experiences of our own campaign’s daily engagement with the politics of local issues.

These realisations—that people often don’t adequately grasp the importance of the B.M.C., and that people have to start seeing civic issues as their responsibility too—led us to double our efforts in conveying the message of participative governance. As a result of our campaign, Colaba, or Ward 227, got its first-ever elected citizens’ representative in the B.M.C. I was the only independent candidate to win by a comfortable margin in elections in Mumbai’s 227 municipal wards (electoral or administrative divisions).

It is only a few months since this victory, but we have already taken steps towards realising our vision of ‘My Dream Colaba.’ We have opened new access roads, repaired broken pavements before the monsoon and revitalised malodorous streets. We accessed the layout of Colaba from the plans available at the B.M.C. This was a critical achievement, because it means that we will now know if precious land notified for a school or park is being used for running a bar, or is going to be allotted for some purpose not specified in the plans.

To do all this, we worked with the B.M.C, and not against the corporation. The B.M.C. may not always function efficiently, but with people’s involvement and vigilance, it was not too uphill a task for us to put in motion more effective systems for our ward. We assured the B.M.C that our intention is not to swim against the tide but to ensure that there is no compromise in putting basic infrastructure in place. With a citizens’ representative in the corporation, the residents of Colaba can now also keep an eye on the books and an ear open to discussions in the municipal corporation.

The change has been possible only because ordinary people came together as a group to participate in governance and development. This is the true spirit of democracy—and only this will ensure that people have decent housing, that pavements are free of encroachment and  citizen-friendly, roads are well-lit and without potholes, garbage disposal is well-organised, unlicensed hawkers are cleared, and patches of land reserved as green zones are made available to the community.

‘My Dream Colaba’ has a long road ahead. But if we succeed, we have another dream–to replicate this model of governance in other parts of Mumbai, and to eventually make Mumbai an ideal metro for everyone. The dream can be scaled up too—local governance is after all the kernel for participation in larger democratic and legislative processes at the state and national levels. This is the definition of a people’s democracy in action.

Makarand Narwekar is a lawyer and the only independent candidate who won the B.M.C. (Mumbai Municipal Corporation) elections in February 2012. 

This article is part of Gateway House’s Democracy in Motion report.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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