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A Visionary’s India

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August 2004
A Visionary’s India

Movements

Dr Jayaprakash Narayan is no ordinary citizen. Through Lok Satta, a grassroots movement, he is chipping away at the fundamental blocks that hold India back - corruption, mismanagement, poverty, red tape and bureaucracy in government.

By DEEPA AGARWAL

"Ideas are a dime a dozen, but the men and women who implement them are priceless." - Mary Kay Ash

The dire state of governmental and bureaucratic affairs in India makes for fairly juicy gossip in most Indian get-togethers. With every passing hour and plate of pakoras, anecdotes abound of the hours spent shuttling from one department to another for university transcripts, of the traffic policeman who was bought for a mere Rs. 20, the arrogance of corrupt bureaucrats and officials, the potholes that reappear with every monsoon, absurd pollution levels and an inefficient judicial system. Having grumbled and joked about how the country is going to dogs, most people return to their safe havens, believing they have done their bit by voicing displeasure. Sadly, India has become a classic case where everybody blames somebody and nobody does what anybody could have done in the first place.

However, this is about the one man who dared to be different; the one man who went beyond mere complaining. Walking away from a lucrative career as a medical doctor and bureaucrat, he decided to take a firm step towards building an India we all dream of; an India free of corruption, mismanagement, poverty, red tape and bureaucracy. That man, who had the courage to implement his ideas, is Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan of the Lok Satta movement.

"I would say that the origin of the Lok Satta movement took place nearly thirty years ago when Emergency was declared in India in 1975. As a youngster and a medical student, I was deeply affected and offended by the suspension of civil liberties. The fact that our democracy was so fragile that a few people could dictate terms to the entire nation angered me. I was exuberant when the Janata Party came into power in 1977. However, as is known, our happiness was short lived. And soon recognition dawned on me that the problem was not merely with "a" particular government. It was much deeper. Not knowing what exactly the problem was and what I could do about it, I decided to join the civil services, only with the intention of doing something for the country," recalls Narayan.

The Lok Satta movement is an idea which seeks to empower the people of India. It is an idea that believes solely and completely in the government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is an idea that started with a group of like-minded people with impeccable credentials and spread to thousands of grassroots groups in the state of Andhra Pradesh; and even as this is being written, it is burgeoning into national movement with alliances in several other states. It is an idea that stands for good governance and refuses to bow down to corrupt officials and practices alike.

The Lok Satta movement was initiated with the four objectives of electoral reform, decentralization of power, judicial reform and accountability. Dr. Narayan explains, "Unfortunately, the political process, which ought to have been the solution, has become the problem in India. We don't have a governance structure which can yield a high level of results. If we are to bring about a positive change in India, we need to mobilize the masses, who are the ultimate sovereigns. That is what Lok Satta is all about: "People Power." The people must assert collectively but in a democratic and constitutional fashion. In order to get people to act in concert in a practical way, we create special tools. We sit with the government, the opposition, and political parties, but with empirical evidence, to point out what is wrong in the system. What is required is not simply a change of players, but essentially change in the rules of the game."

Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Well, believe it or not, this movement has delivered results. In September 2003, the Election Funding Reforms Bill, largely the brainchild of Lok Satta, was passed into a law by the Indian Parliament. The law provides for full tax exemption to individuals and organizations for political funding. It provides for full disclosure of such funding and removes all the loopholes existing earlier. The law also allows free air time to political parties on government and privately-owned television and radio stations.

Another great victory for the Lok Satta movement was when the Supreme Court, in May 2002, ruled that the Election Commission of India ask candidates contesting assembly or parliamentary elections to compulsorily furnish details of their criminal record, if any. This issue largely arose because of Lok Satta's Election Watch movement and screening of candidates' criminal records in the 1999 Lok Sabha and legislative assembly elections. An impressive achievement, indeed, for an organization that is non-partisan, non-profit, and non-electoral.

"Most of the problems in India have a simple solution. I can give you an example of how we curbed corruption at gas stations in Andhra Pradesh. 90% of petrol bunks cheat customers in two ways: They adulterate petrol, and they use false measurements to give the customer less. The local officials who check these issues are often in collusion with petrol bunk owners, with bribes of course. Lok Satta volunteers went around Hyderabad with calibrated cans and measured the petrol being bought and if it was less than what it should have been, they raised a hue and cry. Within days, the local authorities set all the meters right. The benefit on this single incident was Rs.1 crore a day. We were successful in this mission and several others only because our fight is not individual. It is institutional. If we had simply staged a dharna ( protest), nothing would have happened," explains Dr. Narayan.

While most of Lok Satta's work today is largely within Andhra Pradesh, its goals are national. Dr. Narayan seeks to give the Lok Satta movement national impetus by focusing primarily on the electoral/political reform, so that people with impressive track records can be elected to positions of power. He reasons, "We have a peculiar situation where outstanding leaders are not electable. A system that does not elect respected and popular leaders, and which aids in the election of people with questionable backgrounds, ought to be changed. We have an archaic system, thanks to the British legacy, known as the ?First Past The Post', which perpetuates the feudal system. We need to move to some form of proportional representation so that the best candidates can get elected."

Elaborating on why Lok Satta's time may have come, Dr. Narayan sums up, "We have a lot of lessons to learn from the last election. In most states, the party in power lost because people have become disillusioned. It is the people's cry for better governance and inclusive economic reform process. People now want deepening and broadening reform. The country is now ready for reform in all spheres."


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