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Achyuth Punnekat
Thursday , August 18, 2011 at 12 : 56

Giving voice to the silent masses: Can UK show the way?


The Sadhu of Ralegaon Sidhi has won the Second Battle of Delhi. A disorganised government licks its wounds and offers placations. It is evident that the mighty UPA has been brought to its knees once again. One may debate the prudence of the Gandhian's demands. And one may question the probity of this government... But the truth remains that among all this brouhaha over a draft Bill, which may or may not be passed by Parliament, one fundamental issue is being left unaddressed.

Anna is the hero millions of Indians seem to have pinned their hopes on. I was surprised by the vehemence of the arguments even some experienced journalists put forth in supporting Anna. And the Jan Lokpal Bill has become the quick fix solution to the people's urgent problems. Here is a billion strong country plagued by a vicious disease no true democracy should be afflicted with... The lack of a voice. Political aphasia.

We as citizens have no say in legislative policy. No scope to voice our opinions. No way to dissent without being thrown in jail. And even worse... you will probably be thrown in jail only if you are another Anna Hazare. For an ordinary citizen, the only recourse is to fume unnoticed.

Just a few days back the United Kingdom descended into anarchy when mobs, some say of an excluded social class, roamed its streets. Here too, just as in Delhi, an embarrassed government sought to blame the police... But in India, the fact is that a similarly excluded social class- the voters- have come out on the streets with nary a stone thrown or a shop left alight. That I know is more than commendable. I also know many proud Indians who lost no opportunity in underlining the contrasts...

But there is a fundamental difference between India and the UK. Just hours after the riots erupted, Parliament for the first time decided to look into an online petition calling for the benefits of the rioters to be taken away. For the first time since the British government set up the online petition portal, a petition proposed by a common citizen had received the requisite number of hits - 100,000 - for it to be sent for the consideration of a business committee in the House of Commons.

The concept of online petitions as a means of pushing for the demands of the citizens is nothing new. There have been several instances were similar petitions, opinion polls and even surveys have influenced government policy. Just a day ago in New Zealand, the petition demanding the removal of tax on financial speculations and food products was presented to Parliament. In UK another petition doing the rounds, with increasing popularity, is the one to bring back death penalty for terrorists.

Even in India online petitions seem to have made the debut. Anna's cause has received a fillip with techies launching an online petition. Sadly, these efforts of sections of the society have so far been disorganised. Online petitions launched on private Websites, by focus groups, lack the gravitas and the confidence of our lawmakers.

For a government, and Parliament, which insist they are receptive to the needs of the people, it seems strange that a similar mechanism as in the UK has not been considered. In an age where social media websites and SMS messages are being used increasingly to mobilise public opinion, online petitions can be the ideal way to present that public opinion in a quantified way to the powers that be.

One may argue that India is not UK. It is true that the ratio of Internet users in India is nowhere near that of the UK. A large section of the society may still be left unheard, even if such an online petition portal is launched. In fact, recent reports suggest that India will continue to trail behind other developing countries in internet access. Yet, the figure of Internet users just in rural India is at present a formidable 24 million, just short of the 30 million Internet users in the entire UK in 2010 (Click here for stats).

An online petition is exactly what it says it is. A petition. The government need not have any apprehensions over the much detested 'civil society' dictating legislation. Even in the UK with a population of over 62 million, the necessary hits on a petition before it is considered by Parliament is just 100,000. Even 500,000 hits on an Indian petition should warrant a 'consideration' by the Indian Parliament.

The calculations may be made by those more competent to do so. But the nub of the argument is that it is high time the Government of India, or Parliament, considers presenting an online, transparent forum for citizens to give their opinions on governance issues. A government may shy away from referendums due to a hundred practical reasons. But what is stopping it from listening to legitimate suggestions with demonstrable popular support?

Some may argue that given the track record of government departments in maintaining online assets, this proposal is sure to fall flat. That is true. Some would argue that the maintenance of such a system could be open to manipulation by hackers and other undesirables. That is also true. However, the first would then just be another reflection on the incompetence of government bodies... And the second, the incompetence of our much vaunted software engineers.

There will be others who argue this is a futile exercise, as governments would simply turn a blind eye as they always have... But the counter argument is that an online petition would demonstrate in quantifiable numbers the groundswell of support for any petition. You can't argue with numbers... even in a democracy.

The final drawback could be that the portal would end up becoming a forum for frivolity. True, there will be suggestions from some citizens which may challenge the boundaries of good sense. But then, that is democracy... where anyone has the right to talk and be heard, but not necessarily supported.


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