In the usual definition, “citizen” is a noun, a person with attributes recognized by a constitution and protected by the state. Dictionary.com defines the term as:
A native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien).
At least in theory.
In practice citizens aren’t treated uniformly; they are a hierarchically organized field with some making decisions and others subjects of those decisions. That hierarchy of power is in full display during the COVID19 crisis – citizenship is being marked with extreme inequality.
“The current pandemic has forced us to think about the plight of workers in our country. We have been compelled to realise that between 100 million to 125 million people leave their villages, families and homes to find work far away wherever they can find it; their invisible hands harvest the crops and feed us, clean streets, run factories, build roads, and construct our houses.” writes Rajeev Bhargava.
Migrants have been very badly effected by the lockdown and their future, both economic and social, is going to be determined by the future policies that are written and enacted. However, those who are making policies – about the extent of the lockdown, the distribution of services during the lockdown and the long recovery that will follow – all suffer from moral hazard: they are removed from those bearing the brunt of those decisions. Even when services are provided, they are rendered in a paternalistic mode.
The change in policies and state action will not come unless those who make these policies stop viewing the poor as sub-human who only have basic material needs that need to be met. Migrant labourers deserve to be seen not as recipients of charity but as full human beings. As we think of alternatives that treat citizens with dignity, we should consider citizenship as being demonstrated in practice, as a verb rather than as a noun. In this changed conception, citizenship is what’s mutually reinforced by what I do with other citizens, whether that’s a cash transfer to fellow citizens in need or having citizen representatives sitting in judgment on expert decisions.
Citizenship in this view is enacted in dialogical action.
Need for public decision-making
The COVID19 crisis is already causing massive changes in our economy and society. It is not yet clear how sectors like agriculture and construction will cope without their migrant workforce or how the economic recovery will look like. Further, COVID19 is only the first of many shocks that are likely to hit Indian society over the coming decades, perhaps much earlier.
Of these, climate change is the most insistent – it will create disruptions throughout our society again and again. As the COVID19 crisis has shown, the answer to disruption can go in multiple directions – it can lead to stronger expressions of authoritarian power or it can lead to greater democratic solidarity. We believe that local people are the best judge of what’s needed to make their communities robust in times of shock. The tending of forests to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be best done by Adivasi communities; the shift to less carbon intensive forms of agriculture is best led by farmers and so on. Here we give examples of important challenges of the future:
- How to transition energy use in Indian agriculture away from fossil fuels?
- How to move away from individual vehicle ownership (typically fossil fuel based) to more equitable forms of public transport in Indian by cities?
The legitimacy to implement disruptive changes will only come from the decision making process being centered around the citizen and their representatives.
That capacity to solve public problems by the public is one of the key needs of a turbulent future.
‘Janta ka Faisla’ – Citizenship in Action
Socratus wants to collaborate with other interested partners to create a platform for participatory citizenship and public problem solving designed to cultivate resilience, dignity and adaptiveness in responding to our mutual needs.
We are calling this platform “Janta ka Faisla” (People’s verdict). It is a space in which a jury comprised of regular people sit in judgement of policies made for them. Experts present their policies to an audience of representatives of various people’s groups – as a way of enacting participatory citizenship.
Without something like this, the policy-making would happen without any consultation with migrant workers. And this platform is not to enable a discussion with a narrow focus – benefits for migrants or social security – but the entire imagination of Indian society and economy – what it means for agriculture, education, environment, health, business, international relations, defense etc. This is creating a space that allows citizens, the ones most impacted by policies, to create and articulate a vision of their own.
How it will work
The process involved in ‘Janta ka Faisla’ is just as important as the final policy verdicts reached by the jurors – it has to engage the full deliberative wisdom of those who are usually denied any capacity to stand in judgment. Therefore, the jury will be comprised of migrant workers. At the end of the case, the jury will give a verdict that comprises of policy recommendations on a given issue. Here are potential questions for the jury to consider:
- Perhaps the lockdown was necessary, but was it done in a way that recognized the dignity of migrant labourers and other working class people? How should it have been done?
- (As a migrant labourer or otherwise): how do you see the trade-off between health concerns and livelihood concerns? Were the decisions of the government correct? What should have been done better?
- As we move out of the health crisis and into the economic challenges of the coming year or more, what policies are you looking for? How should they be implemented? Who should be in charge?
- In the future, how should the government make decisions during an emergency, especially when they affect millions? What systems should be set in place for them now?
The jury will be presented with ideas for policies. Advocates and stakeholders for different policy positions – think tanks, NGOs, independent experts, employers etc. – from different schools of thought would be invited to present to the jury. They have to present material in an easy to understand manner. Jury has the ability to directly cross-examine the presenters.
This process will be enabled through a judge(s) and ‘amici curiae‘ (friends of the court). The judge(s) will play a critical role – they will manage the process of presentation, questioning, guiding the jury to validate their understanding and facilitate reaching a verdict. Amici curiae are neutral experts who will assist a court by offering subject matter information, expertise, or insight. Their advice is non-binding on the jury.