Following is the transcript of my Presidential Address at the Prof D T Lakdavala Memorial Lecture recently. The Chief Guest was Dr Benjamin R.Barber, a US writer and thinker. He has been pleading for a new global order to be run by mayors or local leaders. Hearing him I decided to question his viewpoint. The Annual Lecture was organised by Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.
By H K Dua
Dr. Barber, Mrs. Barber, George Mathew, my friend Ash Narain Roy, Ladies and Gentlemen:
We just heard a stimulating and thought-provoking lecture by Dr. Benjamin Barber. I have a feeling that he likes to give a little bit of jolt to our unthinking minds and make you think of new possibilities, and depart from traditional ways of thinking anywhere in the world — in the US, India, China or in Europe. His is a global mind. But he wants global minds to emerge from the cities, from the bottom upwards.
The idea of his lecture is to ignite a debate on related issues on a subject has become his passion.
I am afraid, it will take a lot of time for an ideal global order to emerge. — And a lot of more time for the cities to be powerful enough to govern the emerging nation states as they have come up in Asia and Africa. The globalisation trend is also leading to a global set of institutions. The UN is not the only example. It has done some good work, globally and regionally. Good work has also been done by the European Union. But now even the European Union idea has come under serious threat lately. The Schengen visa, which has been an excellent development for the world, has now led to new situation because of the threat coming from outside European borders, the latest being immigration.
The Europeans are discovering that if they throw open the borders, people from West Asia —mostly refugees from the Syrian war — will easily find their way and this will have serious international ramifications. Those have roots in international power equations. Also some causes lie in the ideas like the clash of civilisations. I am not talking about the body of the child who was recently found dead on a Turkish beach whose picture iiiiis picture shocked the world.
Many European countries are blocking immigration and pressing for stiff measures to stop more millions. Angela Merkel, who started giving visas freely is now being criticised by other European nations. It is not possible for them to let more immigrants to come over. Even in Germany at this time, anti-democratic right-wing forces are rising, to question the very Idea of Europe itself.
It is a plural, secular, democratic and liberal ethos that is unifying Europe. It has kept war away. But immigration is threatening some of the values which are enshrined in Dr. Barber’s proposal — the values of democracy, liberalism and pluralism etc. Now these are under threats in the European Union.
Even the UN is being considered as undemocratic. India is one of the countries that has been pleading for democratisation of UN. It has been wanting a permanent seat in the Security Council, to sit on the high table. Indeed, we are campaigning for it. Germany, Japan, Brazil, India , the entire continent of Africa are demanding a better place in the United Nations. They want to assert. “Why should vital decisions affecting the world be taken by just a few nations. Why not the others?’ they ask. The trend is a UN where smaller countries, or a newly-free country, can have a better say, in running the emerging global order.
Mahatma Gandhi, during the course of the freedom struggle, had emphasized the importance of villages, which in a way, resembles Dr.Barber’s approach. Start from the village, not even the city, was Gandhi’s way. He was distrustful of the city and stressed on starting from the village. George Mathew has spent his lifetime to study how local bodies called panchayats in India, work. And he can give you a catalogue of panchayats that can do us proud. George Mathew is one of the best educationists on panchayati raj in the country.
A lot of participation is there in panchayats. How much influence do they have in national events. Small towns: they are short of funds. Who gives them the money? Money comes from the State Government as per the wishes of the dispensation in power at the State level. Who gives the money to the states? They are expected to raise their resources. But it is the national government at the Centre which raises a chunk of resources. And if the Centre has to give money to the States, which dispenses funds to cities and Panchayats, then the power comes back to the centre. Even on the current debate on GST (Goods and Services Tax) in India, is on whether the bill should be passed, or not passed. There is a lot of argumentation between the States and the Centre and for them to delegate power to the lowest unit of administration is unthinkable.
They do talk of cooperative federalism these days in India lately. Dr. Barber is talking of quasi-federalism at the mayor’s level. We wish him all the success. But are the mayors or the national leaders of a national party going to surrender a wee bit of their power? Or, the nation states, which are going to surrender their sovereignty, particularly those which became free only in 1950s and 1960s. They are all highly conscious of what makes it to be a nation state.
In the wake of our freedom struggle, later a parallel thought had clearly come up that India should emerge as a major economic, political and nuclear power of the 21st century. And most Indians whether in villages, towns or in cities like Bombay, Delhi or Chennai, people get ecstatic when India is projected as an achiever at the international stage. Even the celebration of a victory in a cricket match is a pan-Indian phenomenon. It is not a local phenomenon of one city or the other. Their heroes are national film stars, National cricket stars. Essentially, their mind is National. When Sania Nehwal wins medals in Badminton abroad, people think of it as India’s success. There may be some celebrations in Hyderabad since she grew up there. But she causes national excitement. Similar is the case of Sania Mirza who also brings medals home. The Indian mind, although deeply divided by the consideration of caste, ethnicity, and religion or on the basis of language has over the centuries emerged as national mind.
There were fights involving these for panchayat elections, for state assembly elections,and for parliament elections, which are aberrations, but a sort of nationalism has indeed emerged, which nobody wants to see diluted. On the contrary, there is danger that, if some parties win, by invoking a kind of fierce assertive nationalism. Based on religion, this poses a danger to our democracy for the next few years, unless it is checked in time. Current debate on tolerance is essentially on those lines.
How to transfer more powers from villages to small towns to big cities governed by mayors? The mayors are to run local governments efficiently, to ensure safety of democracy and liberal values. Politicians like to exploit even divisive factors by exploiting local sentiments. For example, a party like the Shiv Sena evokes fierce regionalism questioning at times central and state authorities. Son-of-the-soil theory is still alive when jobs are involved.
India has other challenges to face that Dr. Barber must be studying them in detail. We work with one of the finest constitutions in the world, which had seen 100 years of freedom struggle behind it and great minds like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Dr B R Ambedkar and others shaped it. It was also influenced by the freedom struggle.
In a way this is a consensus document the constitution deriving inspiration from Indian tradition as well as from the western democracies. We did create a democratic nation despite travails of the Partition of the sub-continen. It began looking ahead. These stalwarts wanted to create that kind of new India, democratic, inclusive and plural in character.
Parliament is not functioning the way it should. The MPs often waste their time. I have been a Member of Parliament for six years. I do not belong to any party. I was nominated by the President. But the way they adjourn the House, it is making Parliament unpopular in the country. MPs are not conscious of what they are losing. The judiciary, the last hope for the common citizen, is flooded with over 30 million cases which will take a quarter of a century to resolve. The faith in the judicial system is diminishing wherein the rich and powerful or a celebrity from the film industry can kill someone, and get away after a so-called trial.
There is palpable malfunctioning of the system. Some historic judgement may come out from the Supreme Court, but there are people who are rich, powerful, bold; they get away from the scope of India’s criminal justice system.
Then there is the Executive, the bureaucracy, Mr. George Mathew knows more about it, how callous it is, how indifferent it is to common man, If the common citizen is poor and illiterate then he or she doesn’t have easy access to the courts. Political parties, on the other hand, become active at the time of elections. Irresponsibility towards the people begins after the election. There are other institutions which run Indian democracy and are on the decline.
Whatever the faults, they are unlikely to support giving more powers to the city, or the panchayats. The trend in India is to capturing power in the states and then at the centre. The underlying thought is to capture Centre.
Recently, Bihar Assembly election was held where local factors led to resistance to Narendra Modi’s government. A powerful government led by BJP with the powerful support of RSS, had come to power with majority, at the Centre in 2014 after many years. First challenge to it after gaining power came in the State elections in Delhi and Bihar. The BJP got a massive drubbing in both the States. The reason: Local factors played a major role. But what is the aim of the local factors? To come to power at Centre, not necessarily to make Bihar a strong state! To capture Delhi, was the objective of State leaders.
They said this openly. The Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, was being regarded as a future contender for Prime Ministership. That was what was in their mind, making panchayats or State government in Bihar more powerful in the national scheme. Bihar’s share of power at the Centre was the aim.
To expect an Indian government to surrender a part of its power at the Centre, in the name of cooperative federalism, for example, is a wild aim. I will give the ruling dispensation, some marks for having national aims. To make India emerge as a major power of the 21st century is the subject of the debate of most thinking Indians, irrespective of political persuasion.
Dr. Barber has to work very hard to make them think in local terms. The trend here is leading in totally different direction. But to give power to Mayors at the local level and say they should think nationally or internationally, will be a difficult proposition to conceive. May be it is a futuristic thought.
Another power centre that has come which is not going to surrender its authority easily to a city’s mayor, is the corporate sector. When companies get powerful, corporate sector becomes global. They are not going to think of just London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Delhi or Bombay. They are thinking of global markets. Global markets, with local democracy are in conflict, which one needs to resolve. I don’t know how it will work. Even national governments all over the world are getting little worried about the control, the globalised corporate Sector is having on countries, governments and public policies.
Think of the kind of power companies like Google and Microsoft, are going to wield on the mind across the world in the digital world. Will it lead to more centralisation or will it lead to more local governments. I will put it like this: The trend is more towards globalisation controlled by powerful companies and countries.
It’s not that people don’t want good governance in the city. Delhi itself is having conflict of interest causing problems. If you read the last 2-3 days of newspapers about the decision taken by Delhi government which thinks like a state but is dealing mostly with local problems, meant for local citizens or a mayor. Your references to climate change are definitely valid in Delhi itself.
Delhi has acquired a dubious reputation as the most polluted city of the world. Unfortunately we are breathing that air which is being criticised and I hope you, Dr Barber have brought a mask with you to wear when you go round to do some sight-seeing.
Lately, they have come out with a kind of an odd-and-even rule in Delhi, where one drives car alternatively on different days depending on whether it is odd or even plated. The exemption is being given for the cars coming driven by women etc. Who is to implement the scheme? Police has to come and give tickets to the erring drivers. It is under the Central Government and the Centre is not going to surrender its control to the local administration.
The Chief Minister of Delhi is a sort of a local Mayor. Although there are three corporations — actually there is a three-in-one set up. These are run by the party in-power at the Centre while the State Government is with Mr. Kejriwal. Mr Mathew can arrange a meeting between Kejriwal and Dr Barber to exchange views on running a multi-authority set up.
Urbanisation in India is going to take about 20 to 25 more years. Most cities in India are over-crowded and more and people are migrating from rural areas to urban areas. There are no jobs for them in the city.. There is an aspiring also class certainly, in the cities and this is expanding. Urban India is expanding economically as well as geographically. But the people who are coming from villages to the cities are mostly semi-educated, semi-trained and jobless. And if jobs are not given, they are going to be a major upsetting influence on India’s democratic system. The unemployed are dangerous for any democracy, including India.
It is a serious threat which politicians often are unable to face. If we are not able to create jobs, if the cities are not able to give jobs, good education, health facilities for next generation and shelter, then there are going to be serious problems in every city.
If the situation is not tackled properly, creative energy of every city is going to be consumed by law and order problems. Every city led by a Mayor needs to look to the centre of the solution of the problem. I have not come across any municipality which has come up with a creative scheme except for one or two that have raised funds. May be a couple of municipalities have dared to tax the people to the level they should. Most look to the the States and the Centre for money.
Many criminals who have got into politics, state assembly and even in Parliament because of the malfunctioning of the system. The law-breakers are becoming law-makers. Local rulers can be exploited by the local mafia moré effectively. That danger is there. To persuade them to think globally or nationally is a bit distant. Much more needs to be done to strengthen liberal rural democracy in India.
The seed of global governance where people should matter is the central idea of Mahatma Gandhi. But Gandhi is forgotten in India except on October 2nd. I remember a pocket cartoon, Dr. Barber. It appeared in a Delhi paper.
A father and son were going for a morning walk on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, and apparently father is giving an idea to the son who Mahatma Gandhi was.
No, Papa. Tell me when is Ben Kinsley’s birthday?
The new generation apparently knows Ben Kinsley’s birthday, and not Mahatma Gandhi’s.
Thank you, Dr Barber, Prof Mathew and everyone for listening to me with patience.