Dr. Balasubramaniam: Citizen engagement in development is essential for true democracy

The Alternative spoke to Dr. R Balasubramaniam, founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) on the present trends in Indian public policy, the responsibility of citizens in furthering democracy, and the role of social media in promoting citizen engagement.

What happens when a medical doctor with a world of opportunity before him leaves the big city behind and heads for the forests in search of wisdom and knowledge? What followed in Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam‘s (Balu) case is surely interesting.

Dr. Balu, besides being the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, is also the chairman of the Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement (GRAAM), a public policy and research initiative, and a Frank Rhodes professor at Cornell University.

His upcoming book, ‘I, the citizen‘ is a compilation of development perspectives based on his experiences as an academic, an development practitioner, and a public policy advocate. The book has a wide target audience, from politicians and bureaucrats to civil society organisations, students, and citizens.

The Alternative spoke to Dr. Balu about his thoughts on the present trends in Indian public policy, the responsibility of citizens in furthering democracy, and the role of social media in promoting citizen engagement.


Screenshot from Vimeo video titled "Dr. Ramaswami Balu Balasubramaniam discusses SVYM partnering with Cornell"

Screenshot from Vimeo video titled “Dr. Ramaswami “Balu” Balasubramaniam discusses SVYM partnering with Cornell”


On his foray into the development sector

I have always been interested in the social sector and as a young medical student, I began to think about how healthcare can be made ethical, rational, and cost-effective, as well as more accessible in rural areas. Swami Vivekananda’s message of national reconstruction is a great source of inspiration to me and healthcare seemed a good entry point to embody that message and live the value-based life that he proposed. The Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) emerged out of this quest to apply his vision to development.

On what influenced his current development philosophy and work

On graduating medical school, I moved to the tribal belts of Mysore where I lived for 25 years, interacting with people, providing them with medical care, and studying various social issues. What I learnt was interesting. I found that healthcare featured very low down in the list of priorities of the indigenous people. Their focus was more towards daily realities like livelihood, food and housing. I quickly realised that I was responding to what I thought people needed and was giving to them what I thought they should have. I saw that there existed a yawning gap between my idea of people’s needs and what they actually need. All the while, I was assessing the situation based on my own expertise and competence and I had not stopped to ask myself whether I was meeting an actual need. This really changed the way I thought about development and service. For the next 10-15 years, through SVYM, I targeted my efforts at determining what people really needed and focused on responding to those needs. This included working with displaced and dispossessed indigenous communities in the areas of education, healthcare, livelihoods, and human rights. With this, the size and scope of the organisation began to grow.

On what inspired him to write ‘I, the citizen’

While I was working with new insights and a more informed vision in the villages of Mysore, the real transition happened in late 2000 when I began challenging myself to explore what development really meant and how it was being interpreted by different groups. Why is it that politicians think of it differently from policy makers whose idea of development is different from that of social sector professionals? From years of working in close proximity with disadvantaged populations, I realised that the critical components missing from mainstream development discourse and processes were people’s voices and people’s participation. Though ‘community participation’ often makes its way into development sector documents, in reality, we have neither the tools to measure the extent of this participation nor do we have any indicators to show that they are actually participating.

Based on my experience of 30 years and my formal training at Harvard, I felt that what I had learnt about the meaning of true citizenship – that which goes beyond electoral participation must be shared with the world.

And the work that went into preparing for the book

I decided to walk. I began a walk called Jagruthi Yatre, during which I walked 420 kilometres, for 28 days, through 120 villages, and met 200,000 people. Throughout, I focused on understanding how local communities define development, what it means to them, how I was interpreting it, and where the differences lay. The most memorable part of the walk for me was the hospitality I received. I did not take a rupee with me, I ate when people offered me food and rested when they gave me a place to sleep. Those 28 days helped crystallise my thinking about what communities want and led me to transform the way I was thinking and rephrase the questions I was asking. I also realized that India needs to have its own vision for development and that it cannot borrow from Western development models.

Thoughts on the current state of citizen engagement in India

In the urban mainstream middle class, one sees two groups of people – those who are overcome by the challenge and feel powerless to do anything and those who are indifferent because their basic needs are met. But, the situation at the grassroots in rural India is very different. There, people are politically involved in various ways. They constantly interact with the local panchayat, they are in touch with the local MLAs, and they depend heavily on the state. The opportunity to disengage is less because there is always politics going on around and because of the close knit society, one is always called upon to go out and be involved. So, there is more energy, vibrancy, and willingness to engage at the grassroots in rural areas than in the cities.

There is a big gap today between the state machinery and the common citizens. There are 2 asymmetries that are further widening the gap. One is the asymmetry of information where the governments always know more than the citizens who are either disinterested in knowing or unable to access the information they would like. So a big factor that will encourage citizen’s participation is knowing what the government is doing. Here, the government cannot be blamed, there is the RTI, the government has made some information accessible on its websites, but people need to understand that they need to do their bit too.

The second asymmetry is the asymmetry of power. The ordinary citizen feels helpless, impotent and powerless against the might of the State. He needs to not only feel empowered but also understand that raising his voice and demanding his citizenship rights has to be accompanied with fulfilling his duties. Citizen engagement is not about the citizen versus the State or the State against the Citizen. It is about a synergistic partnership between the citizen and the State in ensuring equitable development.

It should be understood that politics is not something dirty or something that is transacted by political parties in the confines of Parliament or the legislative assemblies. Anybody engaging in matters of the state and its development policies is political, from small SHG movements to parliamentary policy debates.

The role of campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in promoting citizen engagement

Campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan are symbols that help in making a particular malaise visible on a national scale. Unfortunately however, the buzz around such campaigns is short-lived and as soon as the state’s goals and priorities change, these movements are forgotten and people move on. While such programmes have led to people mobilizing themselves, there is a strong need to look deeper and understand the sociological processes that lead to problems like open defecation, poor sanitation, failure of state waste disposal machinery etc. Citizen engagement today is limited in its scope and value, being restricted to symbolic gestures like publishing photographs of overflowing garbage in the paper or on social media. While that is necessary in spreading awareness of the problem, citizens must make a habit of asking state authorities deeper questions in an attempt to get to the root of a problem. For example, asking ‘How do you prevent farmers’ suicides?’ is the beginning but to go deeper, question the underlying sociological processes, and assume ownership of governance is to ask ‘Why do farmers commit suicide?’ ‘What are the policies that are driving them to suicide?’ and ‘What can the State and citizens do to prevent these suicides?’

On the present attitude of the Indian State towards citizen participation in governance

There has been a transformation in the state’s attitude towards citizen engagement in the last three decades. Thirty years ago, the State felt threatened and insecure by the idea of citizens’ engagement. Post liberalization, with the pressure of contractual agreements with bilateral/multilateral funding agencies that required it to engage citizens, the State is now becoming more accepting of citizens’ participation in development.

Today, there is a mix of people in the system, some who genuinely want citizen engagement and believe in its transformative power and others who continue to fear it. The slow but encouraging shift towards the acceptance of collaborative advocacy has had multifarious manifestations, including the fight against corruption, the RTI, and the growth of the media.

Role of social media as a platform for citizen engagement and participation

Campaigns on social media tend to be symbolic. Unfortunately, too many people get stuck at this level of engaging with problems on social media. While it is a great space to enhance transparency and demand accountability, it does not provide opportunities for deeper engagement. Today, people’s participation is reduced to commenting on friends’ Facebook posts, tweeting about the inefficacies of the State, and posting pictures of overflowing dustbins. I call this the ‘urban engagement phenomenon’. This is a great beginning, but I say, don’t stop here, take it to the next level, write to your Corporator, talk to the Commissioner, engage with the local government. For it is our moral right to hold the state accountable for the problems we see around us and enhance our own role in solving these problems.

The role of industry and the corporate sector in development

I do not support dividing development into sectors like the social sector, the corporate sector etc. While the State as a permanent institution is constitutionally mandated to lead national development today, the community or citizenry forms the only other permanent institution for whom the State exists. If development is defined as ‘the expansion of human capabilities’, it is necessary for the State, the citizens, and the corporate sector to appreciate each other’s strengths, identify each other’s limitations and learn to work together. The trend we see today of people moving across sectors, is a positive one because development needs different kinds of inputs and skills from different sectors. So whichever sector has that skill must optimize it and share it in order to hasten the process and expand the scale of development.

On what makes for meaningful and effective community engagement

Community engagement can be an extremely powerful guiding light for development processes. But, for citizen participation to be effective, it needs to be empowered engagement for which people must be ready to participate, trained on their roles and responsibilities and be given a stake in governance and development programs that ensures continuous engagement and interest that goes beyond token involvement. Community engagement is most effective when it arises spontaneously and evolves organically as a function of the social dynamics within the community. Citizen engagement that is imposed from the top or mandated to comply with program requirements cannot replace citizen engagement that is informed, structured, and focused on meeting logical ends. Simultaneously, the state and the development sector must be prepared to accept and treat citizens as equals. Unless the concept of partnership informs progress, it will continue to lack citizen’s voices.

I think citizen engagement for social transformation must have 3 components:

  1. Transparency: The spirit of enquiry that goes beyond symbols, demands transparency of information and process from the State and reduces information asymmetries. This requires that citizens too be transparent, abide by laws, follow rules, pay taxes etc.
  2. Accountability: Following from fewer information asymmetries and more transparency, is greater citizen power to hold the state accountable and take ownership over development.
  3. Participation: Real democratic participation is that which goes beyond voting and engages with development at the level of sociological processes.

On what readers can expect from ‘I, the citizen’

This book is a compilation of my reflections and narratives of my experiences as a medical doctor, a development activist, and a public policy advocate. The eight chapters of the book cut across a range of topics. It introduces readers to the phenomenon of ‘development’ from multiple perspectives, mainstream and grassroots. It outlines the power of citizen engagement in ensuring that development is democratic and equitable and explains practical everyday opportunities for people from all walks of life to engage policy, reduce corruption, improve democracy, and keep the focus of governance on the ‘people’ by going beyond voting. The book addresses people’s right to correct and timely information and its empowering potential.

With the book, I hope not only to inspire more people to get engaged but offer practical and easily implementable ideas for engagement in various areas. The book is meant for a wide audience – common citizens, policy advocates, politicians, bureaucrats, civil society organisation, students, and academia.

The combination of my experience as a practitioner and as an academician is reflected in the book. The theories it discusses provide an academic perspective that is complemented with evidence of how these theories have been applied successfully by people on the ground. The book leaves many questions unanswered in an effort to get readers to find their own answers. But it does give them a definite idea of the advantages of engaging with governance and policy making.

In closing…

I am inspired by a comment an Indian politician once made. He said, “Laws cannot be made in street corners, they have to be made in Parliament.” To this I say, the democratic process is about citizens, so while laws have to be made in Parliament, they have to be made in consultation with people on the street corners so that laws are made truly for the people by the people.



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