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The role of civil society in good governance

P.K. DORAISWAMY

Democracy is not a spectator sport (though politicians make a spectacle of themselves!)

We have representative parliamentary democracy leaving the decision-making to a small group of elected representatives. This could result in government ‘of ’ the people becoming a government ‘off ’ the people. Progressive marketisation of traditional government functions has widened this gap. There is a gap between the not-so-efficient state and the profit-alone-matters private sector which needs a third sector to bridge it. This is how civil societ y is seen today.

Core ingredients

Governance is the process by which a society manages itself through the mechanism of the state. The core ingredients of good governance are:

People’s effective participation, transparency, responsiveness, consensus orientation, equity and inclusiveness, the rule of law, effectiveness and efficiency, accountability, and strategic vision.

These are crucially value-laden and constitute the bedrock of democracy.

Innumerable administrative reform commissions have produced no appreciable impact on the quality of governance. The emphasis now is on facilitating external pressure from citizens on the system to improve through the Right to Information Act, Consumer Protection Act, Citizens Charters, Whistleblower protection, e-governance, Report Cards, Democratic Decentralisation, Public Interest Litigation, etc.

Governance has three levels — internal systems and procedures; cutting edge systems and procedures; and check-and-balance systems

At level (a), civil society can influence policy and project formulation through membership of committees, submission of memoranda directly or through elected representatives, and interactive rule-making in the implementation of policies, projects and schemes affecting citizens. The maximum day-to-day interaction between the government and the citizens takes place and the popular image of governance is formed at level (b).

Interactions of civil society with level (c), infrequent but important, will be more of an exposure of irregularities rather than steps for improvement in the quality of governance.

Functional contribution

Civil society’s functional contribution to good governance could be:

* Watchdog — against violation of human rights and governing deficiencies.

* Advocate — of the weaker sections’ point of view.

* Agitator — on behalf of aggrieved citizens.

* Educator — of citizens on their rights, entitlements and responsibilities and the government about the pulse of the people.

* Service provider — to areas and people not reached by official efforts or as government’s agent.

* Mobiliser — of public opinion for or against a programme or policy.

Civil society acts through ‘social capital’— the capacity of people to act together willingly in their common long-term interest. Social capital is strong in a homogeneous, egalitarian society.

Civil society as a whole is, therefore, unable to play its full potential role in enforcing good governance in India except when extraordinary leadership overcomes narrow loyalties, or when an issue is of common, major concern to all sections (like natural calamities). Smaller units of governance and decentralisation of governance are, therefore, indispensable in India.

Individuals cannot take on the huge political-bureaucratic machine that the government is, nor can the entire civil society act on behalf of every citizen. Civil society, therefore, has to operate through compact, focused organisations based on strong social capital.

The Government of India’s National Policy on the Voluntary Sector, 2006 envisages encouraging an independent, creative and effective voluntary sector. Support for NGOs, however, cannot be blindly sentimental. The government has to assess their suitability, capability and experience, and evaluate their performance continually.

Efforts to improve the quality of governance will fail if the quality and calibre of the political executive is unsatisfactory. Civil society needs to note the deterioration in the quality, integrity and commitment of the elected representatives and the criminalisation of politics. Voter education, electoral reforms and periodical highlighting of the performance (or non-performance ) of elected representatives are high priority items in civil society’s agenda.

Democracy is not a spectator sport (though politicians make a spectacle of themselves!) Parliamentary democracy becomes participative democracy only with civil society’s active role.

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