The Democracy Deficit

Illustration: Anand Naorem
Illustration: Anand Naorem

The recently released 2012 Democracy Index ranks India as a “flawed democracy” — a performance consistent since the index was first published in 2006. The key reason we are not rated as a “full democracy” is because we score poorly in two categories: political participation and political culture. Both of these are broad concepts, open to different interpretations, but a closer look at India’s cities reveals the truth behind what is wrong with Indian democracy.

One doesn’t need to look far to find what’s not working in Indian cities. Roads, mass transit, housing, water, sanitation — throw a stone in any direction and you will hit an issue. Yet, we lack the institutions and information systems that can help us systematically understand what exactly the problem is and what needs to be done to fix it. It’s time we start putting this architecture together to support our vision for the cities of tomorrow.

First, we need to get a true measure of the current situation. At the most basic level, we need timely and systematic auditing of all Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), and audit findings to be made widely public. These audits should check not only for financial irregularities, but also performance against budgetary promises. Currently, the Comptoller and Auditor General is the only auditing institution for the entire country and it does not (or rather cannot) audit individual ULBs. Delhi, being a city-state, is an exception. In comparison, the city of New York has its own comptroller’s office, headed by an independently elected official, and employing more than 700 professional staff members.

Annual audits, however, aren’t sufficient. We also need suo moto reporting by cities on standardised performance measures during the course of the year that can allow for mid-course corrections. Recognising this, the Government of India provided for quarterly reporting of Standardised Service Level Benchmarks by all cities participating in the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Close to 30 cities have, for the first time, set up the backend systems to report such information, yet very little of this information is easily accessible in the public domain.

Even when a majority of our cities start reporting regularly and reliably, there needs to be a watchdog that corroborates the information and captures public perception of gaps in quality of life. This might seem like asking for the moon, but a Bengaluru-based non-profit, Janaagraha, is doing exactly this. Starting 2010, Janaagraha publishes a Ward Quality Score for each of the 198 wards of Bengaluru based on extensive ground surveys to report on several quality of life indicators on a 10-point scale. The best ward in 2010 scored 7.16 and the worst 3.39. We need institutions that can generate such granular report cards for each city, and can help focus public attention and public spending on the most deserving issues or locations.

While all the above information systems can help us get a comprehensive picture of status quo, it is not always obvious what solutions or legislative changes can best address the issues. Here again, a couple of initiatives hold promise. In early April, Janaagraha released its first Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems that ranks 11 cities in terms of their progress in establishing the building blocks necessary for creating the cities of tomorrow. No Indian city scored beyond 4.5 on 10 in any of the categories as compared to New York and London, which scored between 8.1 and 9.9. Not all solutions though need to come from experts. Cities across the world are leveraging the creativity of their citizens by releasing open datasets and encouraging online or mobile applications that can improve the efficiency of city systems. Indian cities still need to wake up to this movement.

The failings that we see in our urban governance systems, and more generally our democracy, are real but surmountable. The solutions might be different for different parts of the country, but they all need to be based on the foundation of comprehensive information systems and a movement towards open data. Without them, our democracy will end up being more noise and little signal.

The views expressed here are personal

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