(Note: An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu, dated October 9, 2014, under the title ‘Including people in governance‘)
The soul of India lives in its villages, Gandhiji said 100 years ago. London governed India’s soul then, which it perceived as unjust and so revolted. Delhi and the state capitals now govern India but not quite in a way that allows people to participate in decision-making.
By declaring the Vijayawada-Guntur region as the new capital of the successor state of Andhra Pradesh (AP), and wanting all major government institutions there, Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu has, like in other Indian states, has favoured centralized governance.
The logic for choosing Vijayawada-Guntur as the capital can be traced to the outdated industrial location theory (ILT), whose object is to choose industry sites that minimize transport cost of raw materials and finished goods. No doubt, Vijayawada-Guntur is centrally located in AP is and well connected, which helps minimize transport cost for visitors to the capital. But ILT does not consider many other critical issues.
First, it factors only direct costs, not externalities. The Vijayawada-Guntur is surrounded by some of AP’s best farmland, and a part of it will be lost to the new capital. Per researchers Ashmore, Marshall and others, air pollution from large cities like Mumbai and Ahmedabad have caused wheat and paddy yield losses of 15-40%, totalling to lakhs of tons, in a 60-70 km radius around each city. Air pollution from thermal power plants is similar to that from cities; hence crop yield losses around power plants can be extrapolated to estimate losses around cities. A 2013 environmental impact appraisal of the 1,760 MW Ibrahimpatnam thermal power plant located near Vijayawada, estimated that the plant’s air pollution-related crop yield losses in a 10 km radius around the plant were Rs 200 crores per annum. Extrapolating this to air pollution-crop yield losses in a 25 km radius around the new capital would mean a loss of Rs 1,000 crores per annum to local farmers.
And as the new capital grows it will attract migrants, the city’s carbon emissions will increase by at least one million tons per annum. The cost of raising plantations that can sequester these carbon emissions is Rs 3,500 crores.
Second, ILT does not factor costs for social conflicts. The new capital is to be made a smart city like Singapore. The energy required is 6 million tons of oil equivalent costing Rs 35,000 crores, i.e., a third of AP’s 2014-15 budget. To mobilize these funds, a public-private partnership may be sought. Private parties invest for profit and will want to transform newer parts of Vijayawada-Guntur into gated communities with super malls, leaving the older and crowded One-Town in Vijayawada and Patha-Guntur as are. Uneven development of Vijayawada-Guntur is likely to cause social conflict in future, and that has a cost.
Third, ILT may work for a single node like a centralized capital, but not for not for smart governance, i.e., decentralized democratic participative governance. In the former, higher-level government functions are centralized in one location, e.g., Vijayawada-Guntur as envisaged by AP’s chief minister. In the latter, government functions are dispersed throughout the state. Hence, people will travel shorter distances to district, taluka/mandal towns for their work with government rather than to the capital, thus minimizing transport cost. More importantly, the state’s polity, and all its regions will feel that they have been included in the state’s governance. The process of choosing a capital has just begun. AP should use this unique opportunity to opt for smart governance, an opportunity that Telangana does not have.
Tasked by the Union Government to identify sites for the new AP capital, the Sivaramakrishnan Committee has recommended dispersing government institutions across the state to allow for distributed and equitable development of all of AP, e.g., locate departments related to industry in Visakhapatnam, agriculture in Prakasam and mining in Rayalseema, etc. Accepting this recommendation to decentralize is the first step in smart governance. It will make all AP regions feel involved in the state’s governance.
The second step is to move to democratic participative governance. Indian law empowers local self-governments (LSG)—panchayats, municipalities, etc., to take decisions about local matters. LSGs have not discharged their mandate adequately for lack of clear jurisdiction and adequate funds. If this is corrected, governance can be transformed from a top-down for the people model of centralized governance done from state capitals to a bottom-up by the people model, where every village and town becomes self-governing.
Smart governance experiments have been done in many parts of the world. Participatory budgeting first began in 1990 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. In the first quarter of every year, communities hold open house meetings every week to discuss and vote on the city’s budget, and spending priorities for their neighbourhood. Later, city-wide public plenaries pass a budget that is binding on the city council. The results speak for themselves. Within seven years of starting participatory budgeting, household access to piped water and sewers doubled to touch 95%. Roads, particularly in slums, increased five-fold. Schools quadrupled, health and education budgets trebled. Tax evasion fell as people saw their money at work. People used computer kiosks to feed communicate suggestions to the city council’s website.
Participatory budgeting is now being done in 1,500 towns around the world—Europe, South America, Canada, India—Pune, Bengaluru, Mysore and Hiware Bazar. Twenty five years ago, Hiware Bazar was like any other drought-prone village in Marathwada. Today its income has increased twenty-fold and poverty has all but disappeared.
In the early-1970s, British scientist, Stafford Beer, designed a cybernetic system that did realtime monitoring of Chile’s economy and allowed production decisions to be taken at different levels, the lowest being shopfloor workers, the next being people in the entire production facility, then by representatives of like production facilities in a city; finally the highest level being the cabinet’s economic committee. If an issue arose on a particular shopfloor, workers were given a certain amount of time to discuss and fix it. If they failed because the issue was beyond their control, e.g., raw material shortage, an algedonic meter sounded an alarm and the decision shifted to a next higher level, and further upwards if necessary. Two 1970s-generation computers and telex lines was the technology used.
Before the Right to Information (RTI) became law in India, public boards carrying information on daily receipt and disbursement of foodgrains were ordered to be put up outside ration shops in Madhya Pradesh. Immediately after, foodgrain shortages in ration shops disappeared. Fifteen years ago, plants in AP were ordered to put up public boards outside their main gate with information regarding their compliance conditions, environmental data and the maximum vulnerable zone in catastrophic accidents. To make RTI more effective, a non-computerized information search engine has been designed in India.
Thirty years ago, Narsappa, an illiterate farmer aggrieved by Harihar Polyfibers’ effluents, was told by the plant’s management that their effluents were being treated to required standards and that he had no cause for worry. He asked why then could the locations of the plant’s fresh water intake and effluent discharge points not be switched; the intake point from upstream to downstream of the plant site on the Tungabhadra River and the effluent discharge from downstream to upstream. Narsappa’s question remains unanswered to this day.
Narsappa is an important part of India’s soul. Grassroot decision-makers in Brazil and Chile are like Narsappa. Participation of people like Narsappa in smart governance or gram swaraj will make AP and India a vibrant society, much more than using expensive smart toys like online air quality monitors from Singapore, the output data from which is un-actionable in Indian cities.
(The author works with Cerana Foundation on energetics of human societies and environmental risks, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)