This is the eighth part of Dr. Prabhakar Kamath’s latest series on Managing Life Without God and Religion In The Twenty First Century. Links to all published parts in this series can be found here.
In the previous article, we studied some basic information Organizing Activists need to launch a viable Citizen Activists Group (C.A.G.) at the local level. In this article we will study how by means of an eight-step method Citizen-Activists could tame the corrupt and recalcitrant bureaucracy representing what is euphemistically known as the Government of India.
From Facebook To Face-down
In India today millions of highly educated and brilliant youngsters chat incessantly about one topic or another on their Facebook. They spend many hours a day expressing their opinion about whatever good or bad stuff going on in their lives and the society they live in. While such chat is good to raise one’s awareness of widespread corruption and injustice endemic in India, that alone is practically useless to bring about the urgently needed changes in the society. Some methodical action is needed. In Tunisia, one disgusted man’s willingness to sacrifice his own life changed the entire Arab world. In Egypt, one young woman who wrote on her Facebook, “I will be at the Tahrir Square today,” and showed up there as promised, inspired thousands of people to protest at the Square, leading to the overthrow of a corrupt and repressive government. In India, Anna Hazare’s fasting to force the government to pass a strong Lokpal Bill motivated thousands of people to show up at Jantar Mantar to support him and to shake a comatose government, which, by the way, is still yet to wake up. The government has learned, however, that it cannot ignore thousands of people showing up in the streets demanding reform. For permanent results, however, we must convert every citizen into an activist and teach him that democracy is much more that throwing the rascal out every five years. One must deal with the government on a day-to-day basis.
Break The Back Of The Broker System
Today just about everyone in India requires a broker to get any service from any government office. How did this system come into being? To avoid getting caught red-handed (not that there was anyone around to catch them, for almost everyone is corrupt) bureaucrats came up with a system of brokers who accepted bribe in the form of a fee from citizens and conveyed it secretly to the officials. These middlemen then took a cut for their service. For example, to get a license for anything, which costs ten rupees, the broker charges the citizen a hundred rupees. He gives fifty rupees to the official and keeps fifty rupees to himself. All one has to do is to find the broker, who usually has an office nearby, pay him the bribe money and the job is given priority. The broker does all the tedious paperwork. Many people don’t mind paying this “fee” because they have plenty of black money they don’t know what to do with. The broker system has become the outstanding symbol of alienation of people from their own government. The system is so well entrenched that the official does not think he is doing anything wrong. It is simply business as usual. This system further enables people’s passivity and fear of authorities. It is time we broke the back of this abominable system.
Dealing With Help-Seekers
No sooner does the local community perceive C.A.G as a principled and selfless organization dedicated to guiding people to solve their problems free of cost, than people from all walks of life start knocking on its door. This is a given. If the O.A. holds a fulltime job, he would have to set aside one or two hours a day in the evening to meet with aggrieved people at a designated place. If at all possible, at least a few members of the ad hoc committee should participate in this activity on a daily basis. The O.A. must train all ad hoc committee members the basic principles and modus operandi of the C.G.A. so that they are all on the same page when it comes to teaching the aggrieved citizens how to become true Citizen-Activists.
Most people seeking help come with the usual expectation that the C.A.G. would take up their problem and solve it for them. In other words, they think of C.A.G. as just another brokerage except that they charge no fee. We cannot blame them for thinking like this, as they do not know any better. This is a great opportunity for C.A.G. activist to eliminate passivity and empower them.
Step One: Triage
The first thing for the O.A. to determine is whether the aggrieved citizen asking his intervention has a genuine case of injustice perpetrated by a government official. This requires the O.A. to listen patiently to the complaint and examine any document he/she has to back it up. If the complaint has to do with a personal dispute between the complainer and another private citizen, such as financial or land dispute, the activist should not get involved in the case. The O.A. must have a clear understanding as to who the aggrieved citizen is and who the government official causing his problem.
Step Two: Educating The Citizen
Once the O.A. establishes the citizen’s complaint as valid, he teaches the citizen how to create a legal document. This consists of a letter written by the aggrieved citizen to the official concerned demanding service without a bribe. It is important that the O.A. educate the citizen that without a legal document it is impossible to pursue his case. Very often the citizen would be very disappointed to hear this bit of bad news, for he expected his problem to be solved right away. He believes that the O.A. would pat him on his back and say, “Arey baba, don’t worry; leave everything to me. I will take care of it for you! Go home!” He believes, as most people in India do, that writing a letter to a government official is an exercise in futility. He expects the O.A. to call the concerned official to use his “influence” to get things moving. The O.A. must explain to the citizen that he is not a broker, and its goal is to empower the citizen to get his job done by himself. Therefore, he must patiently work at it as guided by the O.A.
When it comes to writing the letter, consistent with his philosophy of passivity (“I shall do absolutely nothing”), the citizen might expect the O.A. to write the letter on his behalf. If the citizen is illiterate the O.A. could draft the letter for him and have him sign it. If the citizen is literate, the O.A. should instruct him how to write a letter to the erring official, and to keep two copies of the letter in his/her dedicated file. If the passive citizen says, “I have no time to write this letter! I thought you guys would do all that!” the O.A. should politely reply, “I am sorry that you have no time to solve your own problem. I have no time for it either. Now if you will excuse me, I have some other things to catch up with. If you change your mind do not hesitate to come back.” Case closed.
Step Three: Creating A Legal Document
The letter to the errant official must be brief, to the point and assertive. Its importance lies in the fact that it becomes a legally valid document:
“Mr. So and so,
“The purpose of this letter is to let you know the following:
1. On such and such a date I directly applied for such and such a service at your office. I did not go through a broker who deals with your office. It has been over a month and I have not received the service I should have.
2. I have reason to believe that the delay in this matter is motivated by considerations other than the merit of the case. This is to notify you that such consideration, whatever it might be, is against the law.
3. This is to notify you that if I do not get the needed service within a week from today, I will pursue this matter with your superiors and demand that he take appropriate action against you.
4. In addition to filing a complaint against you with your boss, I will take this matter up with the Vigilance Department or with the court.”
Signed: So and so.
Copy to your boss, C.A.G. and the local newspaper and television station.”
Note here that the citizen does not make obsequious statements such as, “Please do this and that” or, “Yours most obedient servant.”
There is nearly 90% chance that the erring official would ignore the above letter thinking that if he did nothing at all, the aggrieved citizen would just give up in frustration. He is in for a rude shock.
Step Four: Creating A Breach Between Officials
If the citizen returns to the O.A. complaining that he has not received a reply from the official within a week, the O.A. encourages him not to get disheartened. The O.A. tells the citizen to draft another letter, which is addressed to the boss of the corrupt official:
“Mr. So and so,
Subject: A formal complaint against Mr. So and so.
1. I am writing this letter to file a formal complaint with you about the behavior of your official by the name of so and so. He has not taken the needed action to provide me the service even though I have submitted the required documents. I am certain that had I gone through a broker, my license would have been issued by now.
2. I request you to investigate this matter immediately and let me know why he has not provided me the needed service. If I do not receive the requested service within a week from today, I will consider appropriate action against your department with your superiors as well as the Vigilance Department or the court.
Sd/- So and so
Please note that a copy of this letter has been hand delivered to the official concerned, and also a copy has been sent to Citizens Activist Group, the local newspaper, television station, and the Chief Minister for further action.”
There is nearly 99% chance that this tactic would bring the desired result immediately.
Step Five: Gaining Public Support
If the above tactic does not work, the O.A. should organize a campaign to raise public opinion about the problem. The behavior of recalcitrant officials should be given wide publicity in newspapers, Internet, television and other media. People should be encouraged to write letters to the superiors of the concerned officials.
Step Six: Legal Action
If the aggrieved person could establish that the government official has violated the law, he could file a lawsuit in the court. The problem with filing the lawsuit is that it takes a long time to resolve the issue in the court. However, a simple lawyer notice to the concerned official expressing the intent to sue might be enough in most cases to solve the problem. However, it is mighty hard to find a good lawyer who does not rip off his clients. In India, lawyers are not guardians of the Constitution. In fact, most of them are brokers themselves.
This is potentially the most dangerous part of C.A.G.’s activities. For, in India it does not take much to provoke a riot. The O.A. must thoroughly train marchers about the need to be peaceful and nonviolent at all time. They should not throw stones, call their adversaries names, stop traffic, or indulge in other antisocial behaviors. On a given day activists and aggrieved citizens march to the office where corruption is rampant. They notify the police about their proposed action. They march peacefully and silently to the office. They must never attack bureaucrats verbally or physically. They should demand to meet with the officials to let them know that the public is disgusted by whatever corruption going on there. They do not leave until the officials agree to stop their corrupt practices there. The officials should be told in no uncertain terms that if the corrupt practices continue protesters would be back.
Step Eight: Satyagraha
This term means, “Persuasion by Truth” or “Insisting on Truth.” As we witnessed recently, even idiots call their dastardly acts of protest Satyagraha. In view of this sad situation I shall devote my next article exclusively to explain the exact principles of Satyagraha. I do not recommend Satyagraha to Organizing Activists who have not thoroughly studied H. D. Thoreau, M. K. Gandhi and M. L. King, Jr.
Such hands-on experience of successfully exercising one’s rights as an empowered person is infinitely more useful to the citizen than listening to a hundred thundering speeches. The immediate benefit from such experience is that he becomes a Citizen-Activist. In the long term, he becomes the model for others to emulate. Another byproduct of the C.A.G.’s work would be that neighboring towns would follow the model set up by the local C.A.G. The speed with which the ripple effect occurs can be surprising even to a most modest Organizing Activist.
There are several potential pitfalls in the course of these steps. I will mention just two here:
1. The aggrieved citizen might be in the wrong and the information he gave to the O.A. might be erroneous, misleading or an outright lie. The O.A. must make sure that before recommending any action the veracity of the complaint is thoroughly confirmed. If the mistake has already been made, the citizen and the O.A. must offer an apology to the wronged official and widest publicity should be given to it.
2. The O.A. and the successful citizens might become drunk on their success and begin to act arrogant with officials as well as people seeking their assistance. They must behave with utmost humility all the time. The O.A. must always stay in the background, away from the limelight. He must avoid bragging in the public how many cases he has helped solve, how he humiliated officials, and the like. People in India are very sensitive to such boasting, and it does not take long for the O.A. to lose his moral authority. Once lost it is impossible to regain it. People would say, “We thought this person was different. After all, he/she is as arrogant and corrupt as our politicians and bureaucrats!”
The point is that in the process of serving his society the activist should have high level of self-awareness and self-control, and he should experience personal growth in the course of his work. As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, the Organizing Activist is the weakest link in this whole process. Few O.A.s have the self-awareness and self-control to resist the temptation to abuse their power and fame. The danger of conquering passivity and fear is that they invariably fall prey to fame and power. This is the single most important reason why most Citizen-Activist Groups suffer premature death in India.
(To be continued)