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Local Politics and the Dilemmas of Inclusive Development

PRIA with the support of Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), World Bank conducted a mobile based survey in five cities to gauge citizen feedback on water supply and sanitation services. Varanasi is one among these cities. On 11 January 2016 a meeting was organised by PRIA with support of Varanasi Municipal Corporation at the corporation premises to share the findings of the survey and to discuss the possibilities of how these findings and digital technology can be used by the Corporation to further enhance citizen engagement and bring transparency in improvement of basic services like drinking water and sanitation in the city.

Innovations in citizen engagement initiatives for social development in the country is the call of the day. National leadership is promoting it with full vigour and vision. But how such innovations can be implemented at the local level is a matter of debate, or politics.

Varanasi is not only important as one of the oldest cities but is also the parliamentary constituency of our prime minister, who is playing a large part in pushing new age digital solutions for development. Locally, Varanasi is governed by the municipal corporation headed by BJP. No doubt this helps the prime minister’s national vision percolate into local vision with the same vigour. Varanasi is among the top contenders for SMART city competition in which technology and citizen engagement go hand-in-hand. What happens in Varanasi could well show the way for other cities hoping to become ‘smart’.

The 11 January sharing meeting was attended by nearly 70 participants including the mayor, commissioner, deputy commissioner, councillors, officials of Varanasi Municipal Corporation, Jal Kal department, consultants, and local media. The meeting began with the usual welcome and objective sharing followed by a presentation on the survey findings. But soon the meeting became a contestation of divergent political views.  A few opposition councillors were not ready to accept the findings of the survey. They showed their displeasure by leaving the room. A few minutes later, a few of them returned and took up positions in different corners of the hall and tried to scuttle the discussions on how the survey findings can improve the functioning of the corporation and Jal Kal Department. The role of commissioner and mayor of municipalities, who are supposed to act as facilitators between corporators of different political parties and the citizens, was negated. By the end of the meeting, the opposition councillors were successful in creating enough noise that sent out the message that the survey findings were incorrect. They were not willing to hear the voice of the people of Varanasi. The willing participation and effort of 9300+ respondents who gave their precious time in answering the survey questions with the hope that it may improve the water supply and sanitation services they receive was in vain. Even the local media appears to be politicised; many media reports the next day headlined that  the survey had been discarded by the councillors in the meeting. A few days before the meeting, the same media had raised questions regarding the functioning and efficiency of the  Jal Kal Department based on the survey results. What an irony!

This experience of the politics of citizen engagement raises some questions in my mind. If citizens are willing to use technology to generate citizen feedback for better services, then why are corporators not open to using the same to create a transparent system? Why are city managers (in the language of Mr Modi) surrendering the agenda of efficient service delivery, of social and inclusive development to local politics? And, above all, why does being a (political) opposition (whether in parliament or state assemblies or in local bodies) always mean opposing change?

By Anshuman Karol, PRIA New Delhi

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