Currently the Executive Director of the National Foundation for India (NFI), Amitabh Behar, is also the Global Co-chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and the National Convener of the Social Watch Coalition India. His deep involvement in advocacy, networking and coalition building, reflects in his campaigns aimed at enhancing accountability of public institutions, with special focus on issues of governance and civil society from the perspective of rights and justice. In a tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Pooja Malhotra, Amitabh shares his views on participation of youth in politics and gives insights on how mass participation can catalyze social and political transformation.
Do you think young people should participate in electoral politics?
Certainly! I think that young people should actively get involved in politics and when I say politics, it is not just restricted to electoral politics. I believe politics is everywhere; the real arena of politics starts from our homes and extends into streets, cities…and the broader framework. We should not shy away from mainstream politics because politics is not about power — it’s about our ability to influence power….our ability to make & influence changes.
Will the involvement of youth and their active participation make a difference to policy making. Is it possible for the common man to cause a change?
In a country like ours the only thing that can make a difference is mass participation. Active engagement of the masses, especially young people, in electoral politics, their involvement in selection of electoral candidates, being aware about party manifestos, canvassing for the ‘right’ candidate…are steps towards making a difference. The important aspect here is that in order to create an impact, these steps should be taken in an organized fashion. Young people need to be aware of what exactly is entailed in the manifesto of the ruling party; what are their promises. We need to question and seek answers — Are there any vested interests of the political allies? Are their promises designed to fulfil any personal agenda? Are the promises being twisted & turned for their own benefit?
The common man can make a difference by identifying the issues and mobilizing fellow citizens to pool in their energies to form a larger, well organized group which makes a systematic attempt to create a win-win situation for all. One should not have a separate, individual agenda; instead there has to be one homogenous agenda. The answer lies in plurality. We need to understand that we are not on the other side. After all, politicians hold a position in government offices; they are government servants, people’s servants. They are there to facilitate public interest and their own legitimate interests. A government officer needs to be a good citizen, while simultaneously being a good father, a good son, a good uncle. But accountability is important.
How do you think young people can make our governing bodies and our political leaders/parties accountable?
There is definitely an accountability deficit in our country. Though the process may be slow, we need to enhance accountability of public institutions and there are several ways of doing that. First and foremost, we need to focus on active people’s participation and that too, as I said earlier, mass participation! It’s not just the responsibility of a few people and I’m not elaborating, it’s the inherent responsibility of each citizen in a democracy. Active participation involves asking questions starting from intervention at the local level. How many of us would have gone to the local government school and asked how much money is being spent to provide good facilities to the students? How many times have you gone to your Local Corporator and asked what is being done to improve the conditions of your roads? And believe me, the Corporators will be only too glad to answer…to help. But the problem is how many of us take that initiative to go to them and ask. What we need is larger participation!
So there are two frames which are important — one is participation, the other is transparency. Public institutions need to be more transparent in sharing how and where public money is being spent. If a new school has built, how much money was spent? If a street or a road has been repaired, what was the cost incurred? If one has to go a government department for some work, there’s a preconceived notion — ‘teen chakkar toh lag hi jayenge, ek baar mein toh kaam hoga nahin’. We are not even aware of a citizen’s charter, wherein we have the right to know beforehand as to what all documents would be required for the work to be completed successfully in just a single visit to the department. For transparency to flow within the system, it’s important to be aware of all that’s happening around me. If there is a village meeting, I need to go and attend it, be a part of the system, be a part of politics.
Please share details about “Wada Na Todo Abhiyaan”.
The idea of Wada Na Todo Abhiyaan is to monitor the performance of the ruling party at three levels. Firstly, at the level of the Manifesto – The manifesto entails the promises that the political party makes before being elected and being brought to power. Suppose they had promised jobs for the unemployed, but once they are elected, they simply forget what they had promised. Now we need to monitor and take corrective action on that front. Secondly, what are the developmental goals that should have been accomplished (as per their promises)? These are the goals that have been documented for everyone. Our big goal is to monitor the performance around specific short-term goals. Thirdly, we need to monitor the international goals at let’s say, the UN level. Monitoring goals would require mobilization, pressure and advocacy of community processes and government processes.
With elections round the corner and the arrival of the ‘political season’, what would be your message to young people in India.
Very often we start looking at the world as ‘Binary’ — our government is seen as an entity outside of us. As citizens we don’t take responsibility of our own actions. We are the ones who violate laws. For instance, it may be something as simple as parking your car. We park irresponsibly, block traffic, cause inconvenience to others and remain unperturbed unless we are brought to the book. I even joke with my friends who own big cars and tell them that two/three families could be provided shelter in the space that your car occupies when parked outside your house…As a matter of fact we don’t realize but it’s actually government land that we are encroaching for parking our vehicles. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are violating rules.
So my message to young people is to take responsibility. Be responsible for your actions/inaction, right/wrong, good/bad, justice/injustice… Wake up, get out of your comfort zone and get actively involved in reclaiming spaces — public spaces, streets…spaces where your voices are heard; reclaiming agenda…rights; reclaiming their place in the parliament. Young people need to leap forward and facilitate action on real issues. Public pressure and mass participation are an answer to creating accountability and making a difference!