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The mystery of Citizen Engagement

April 4, 2013

We have recently launched a program titled ‘Making Democracy Work’ in the district of Mysore. As a part of this month-long campaign, a team of around 20 of us intend visiting the homes of people residing in all the 11 assembly constituencies in the district. The campaign will focus on getting people to constructively and actively engage in the process of electoral democracy. We are asking people to get registered as a voter, go out on election day and actually cast their vote, to identify suitable candidates and vote ‘smartly’ and finally to engage with their elected representatives even after the elections. We hope to drive home the message of not selling the vote under any pretext. Money, caste, religion, gifts – neither of these should influence them to vote for a candidate. This indeed calls for a shift in the attitudes of people and I am beginning to experience first-hand the challenges of getting citizens to engage.

A couple of days ago, I was traveling with the team in the Saraswathipuram area of Mysore city. We had just finished staging a street play communicating our key message and were winding up. I was speaking to around 20 by-standers who had just witnessed our show. I was urging them to actively engage and involve themselves in the forthcoming elections. I was wondering how we could mobilize these urban communities and goad them to act collectively in their own and in the nation’s interest. While a few at least engaged in conversing with us, many showed their indifference and apathy quite openly. Getting them to talk to us or watch the street plays itself was challenging. We soon started moving to our next location outside a popular cinema theater. Just as I reached the spot, I found a few people looking down a building into the cellar below. They were all excited and talking animatedly. I too walked over to see what was happening and realized that a man lay sprawling on the floor. The dormant physician in me was awakened and I rushed to where his body lay motionless. As I started to reach out to him, a person watching from a floor above shouted out to me not to touch him. His logic was that he could have fallen from above and the police may have to arrive before anyone did anything. Ignoring him, I reached for his pulse and checked his pockets to see if he had a phone or an address that I could locate. As I was trying to figure out what to do, I realized that a crowd larger than 500 people had already gathered within 5 minutes. Each one was theorizing over what could have happened, but none of them moved a finger to help. All I heard was comments on what I should be doing. Angry, frustrated and upset, I called out to one of our team members to call 108 for an ambulance and to another to call the local police station. Once I was reasonably assured that the ambulance was on its way, I rushed on my scooter to the local police station. On reaching there, I was relieved to learn that the police had acted promptly and were on their way to the accident site. Later I learnt that the man was shifted to a nearby hospital.

I was struck by the turn of events and the inherent contradiction. On one side, we were trying to get people to engage and participate in a process where they could not see any immediate results. All that they could hope for was change in a murky and dirty political environment. I could relate to their apathy as it indeed looked monumental and difficult to participate in something where the returns was neither immediate nor assured nor visible. But then how does one explain how 500 people could gather in a few minutes and engage only as mere spectators. I am unable to understand how there could be such severe collective inertia. Not one person wanted to do anything about something that we could see the results of at once. We could clearly verify the person’s identity, inform his immediate family, shift the accident victim to a hospital, and call an ambulance or the local police. There is something that each one of us can do and get a response to our action too. But then how does one explain this kind of non-engagement? How does one reconcile the attitude of our citizenry and their apathy to anything beyond the personal? Will the collective consciousness of the Indian masses ever awaken? Will we ever get a leader or ideology or a cause which can get us all together? How can we explain the movement against corruption and the mass mobilization that did occur? Was it a mere aberration or a sign of the change waiting to happen? Well, only time can tell.


Categories: Musings
  1. Ashish
    April 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Balu, very poignant. I think reaction would have been different if it was a village or a slum. There is something about urbanization and affluence that makes Indians less concerned about society outside their own family. I had witnessed accident victims lying unattended on a NH where only people who stopped to help were truck drivers or rickshaw wallahs who eventually decided to block the traffic, so as to get police and ambulance moving from administration. That was of course in Uttar Pradesh. And in one instance, I understood the other side of traffic blockages that we normally abhor when reading in newspapers.

  2. Arun
    April 5, 2013 at 7:57 am

    I feel Balu what you saw on the streets is actual citizenry’s world view and blaming bad politics is just another facade covering this lack of engagement. For too long people have enjoyed freedom only to realize that it costs them in form of scams and corruption. I hope that such non-engagement does not go rewarded as individual virtue for long. We need some soul to live and only then we will feel our lives. It is indeed difficult to understand why?

  3. vinod kp
    April 4, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Dear Dr Balu,

    … an interesting and searching essay … that highlights a ‘seemingly’ paradoxical non-engagement … the qualitative and substantial difference between mass engagement ( civic democracy / elections ) … and individual aversion to engaging with the state – not apathy but antipathy is more like it … or as I like to put it, as perceptions go …state vs people – people win … state vs individual – individuals lose… may explain the acute tendency to avoid interaction with the ‘state’ represented by its institutions.

    Regards, KP

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