Sometimes, I think of democracy as a giant, never-ending public participatory art project — people throwing themselves into the creation of a vision.
Perhaps, it is like building and maintaining a giant city inside a fort on the banks of a river. Only, a million times bigger in scale. Fortifications, homes, roads, water supply, bridges, stables, garages, religious structures, schools, hospitals, boats, bazaars: all of this built, used and funded by the people.
Theoretically speaking, one should be able to count on those who ‘represent’ us. They show us a blueprint of the vision through manifestos and speeches. We expect that they will make it real. But often, they don’t. They are human, after all, and given to greed and self-aggrandising ennui.
Part of our job is to vote in new people who might actually do the job. But we also have to repair the infrastructure that exists and use it so that it doesn’t disappear. Our representatives can ensure that a facility — say school, hospital or road — exists. They cannot force us to use it, nor can they keep track of our changing desires and needs, unless we are visible and audible.
One example of how people participate fully in the democratic project was seen in the Nilgiris. In Iduhatty village, the panchayat school was on the verge of being shut down. It had only six students enrolled; others were going to private schools. When citizens heard about this, they decided to intervene. After all, they themselves were alumni of the school. It had got them to a point in life where they could afford to pay the fees that private schools demand. So, they enrolled their own kids at the panchayat school. They also pitched in with labour, painting the old school walls with murals.
I have not heard of a better citizenship story in months. The villagers of Iduhatty demonstrated what they wished to protect — public education that everyone can access. Across India, parents send children to private schools even though the government is committed to funding ‘free’ public education.
I’ve dropped in at private and public schools in villages across north India, and while it is true that government schools don’t always offer high-quality education, many private schools also don’t offer the same. Still, even parents who can ill afford it will pay private players because many don’t believe they can make the government change things. This is a big blow to democracy.
To lose faith in our collective ability to create and maintain a right to education and healthcare is to lose faith in the democratic project. We must learn from Iduhatty. When something was wrong, people examined their own role and they tried to fix it. In a democracy, we don’t get to sit back between elections. There will be some wear-and-tear of institutions. There will be those who gain power and money from damaging what already exists and then telling us that our lives are broken and now we must pay twice as much to get back on track.
If we want our schools and hospitals, electricity and transport to be clean and affordable, we have to stop ceding our vision. Squeaky wheels get oiled. We shouldn’t be afraid to squeak for what is ours.
(The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen)