In 2019, a survey found that 77% of youth would not vote for a popular candidate with a criminal record. Yet, only 19% actually knew how and where to access this information. Studies have highlighted evidence of low civic knowledge and participation among urban citizens, even as voter turnout in elections continues to rise. The Democracy Index by The Economist consistently ranks India low on political culture and political participation. In this blog, I explore the phenomenon of low engagement and look at the different efforts being made across the government and civil society to change this.
The question of civic participation in youth is particularly important today. Even for those of us who, by virtue of privilege had managed to steer clear of the influence of the state in our everyday lives, have witnessed the impinging nature of the state on our lives in the last couple of months. A dangerously polluted city, a series of citizen protests across the country, and the pandemic have all brought the focus back on the relationship between citizens and state.
Firstly, it might be useful to attempt to define what is meant by civic knowledge and participation. Knowledge here refers to a citizen’s basic understanding of political and civic affairs as well as the fundamental citizenship values they embrace, such as being aware of when the next election is or of grievance redressal mechanisms like the RTI. Civic participation refers to civic involvement, which can range from solving neighbourhood problems such as attendance in local area meetings to participating in other forms of citizen activities like rallies or petitions.
There are many possible reasons for low participation. How civics and political science is taught in Indian schools might be one. It has long been argued that teaching-learning must move from rote-learning to a more critical thinking-based, and practical approach. Even though there is increasing recognition of this gap, change is slow. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has found that close to half of Indian youth (46%) sampled have no interest in politics.
Some studies suggest that another reason for low civic participation might be that citizens actually have a negative perception of the state. Engaging with it is not expected to be fruitful. In other cases, it is argued that the cost of civic awareness and participation is too high. This could mean that information about civic processes is complicated and hard to find, or the fact that navigating through government systems may require bribes or intermediaries.
It also may be the case that opportunities for urban citizens to participate in local area issues are hard to find, given that no city in India has functioning ward committees or area sabhas city-wide. All of these means putting in time, money and resources for the urban citizenry, who are in turn, dis-incentivised to participate.
Across the country, efforts are being made to fix the problem of India’s low civic participation. Different approaches to encourage civic knowledge and participation are being experimented with. These include leveraging technology, youth engagement, and knowledge generation.
According to a report published by the Omidyar Network and Village Capital in 2019, India is home to over 450 civic tech startups. Civic tech seeks to create impact at the intersection of governance and technology. Many seek to bridge the gap between the government and citizens. Haqdarshak runs an app with ready details of different government benefit programmes that a citizen is eligible for. Civis helps citizens understand laws and submit feedback to government officials.
Even the government has made attempts to encourage civic participation using technology such as the Swachhata App for citizens to connect with their urban local bodies on issues of cleanliness and sanitation. India’s smartphone penetration is estimated to hit 83 crores by 2022. With the push towards Digital India, this is a ripe opportunity for such initiatives.
Other initiatives believe in harnessing the transformational power of the youth. Janaagraha’s IChangeMyCity programme delivers practical lessons on urban civic life and challenges. It has reached 2 lakh students in 50 cities. Recently, the Delhi Government launched a special module on constitutional values across its schools. The idea stemmed from a desire to change the prevalent, uninspiring way of how social science is taught.
These are unprecedented and unpredictable times. It is of paramount importance now, more than ever, that citizens become aware of the institutions and systems that shape their everyday lives and how to navigate these. Innovations to augment citizen participation (among many other efforts) offer hope. However, they are still at a nascent stage, and widespread acceptance and institutionalisation remain.
About the author: Aamna is a Learning and Development Associate at the Accountability Initiative.