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Politics begins at home

We spend a lot of time talking about national politics in India, with the general elections in 2014 being a subject of conversations for well over a year now. Conversations on state level politics take up the remainder of our time. In contrast, many of the problems that we face on a day to day basis are municipal in nature: be it the lack of good roads and public transport, unreliable power supply, unsafe drinking water or garbage that lines our streets.

Who becomes your next corporator or local council member is perhaps as important as who becomes the next prime minister of India, but a curious inversion of interests means that we care a lot more about the latter than the former. When municipal elections took place in Karnataka earlier this year, much of the analysis and debate was about what the results meant for the soon-to-come state assembly elections. Who became corporators, won control of municipal councils and what they planned to do for their towns and cities remained a distant afterthought in most of our minds.

Cities are also complex systems that require sophistication and professional input. To improve Bangalore’s roads, for example, needs our elected representatives to ensure multiple things. The roads need a high quality of construction and functioning drains that clear the roads of stagnant water. The roads also need a well-planned traffic network accompanied by a good backbone of public transport. We also need better systems of coordination for what roads get dug up and when, along with a schedule of work that is sensitive to the monsoon.  All this cannot happen without trained and motivated elected representatives, who manage existing public employees like engineers, planners and administrators.

The popular understanding that our cities are poor is also quite mistaken. Indian cities are rich in assets and in vibrancy, and this is evident in how Bangalore and others have grown rapidly in the last decade. It is due to mismanagement and neglect that we are unable to extract value from municipal assets. This mismanagement makes it difficult to finance urban infrastructure and public services, and again requires well-trained leadership to reverse the trend.

Bangalore has woken up to the reality that things cannot continue the way they have been, so far. Agitations from the past few years have proved that. While performance of elected representatives has been underwhelming, there is a dawning realization that the supply of good politics does not grow on trees. In a democracy, people are governed no better than they deserve. We need better political engagement by citizens to change this – with more people voting, more good people entering politics and by financial contributions in the support of good candidates. If we want ‘black money’ to leave politics, it is time that some honest, well-earned money enters to replace it.

India being a young country also provides an incredible opportunity where a large number of youth will be coming of voting age in the next few years. How well they engage with city politics and governance can determine the future of Bangalore and other cities.

Beyond corruption and vested interests, urban governance needs the management of multiple stakeholders with interests that are often at odds with each other. The ability to persuade a diverse set of people for the betterment of a neighbourhood, a ward or a city is in short supply. Managing a city also needs astute application of economic reasoning, where an unpriced good like free parking or free water can turn out to be enormously expensive, all things considered.

Big cities like New York or London have famous mayors who have the ability to transform their cities. There is no reason why Bangalore’s leaders cannot reach a similar position in the next 10 years.

Disclosure: I am a part of the Takshashila Institution’s team that is developing the curriculum for Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC)’s Civic Leadership Incubation Programme (B.CLIP), a non-partisan initiative that seeks to train professionals and aspiring civic leaders to enter city governance and politics.

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Indian marriages, families and rape

Following up on a set of observations by my colleagues and friends on twitter, here are a few thoughts on rape in India:

Marriage in India largely happens between families rather than individuals. The social compatibility of families often matters a lot more than that of the bride and groom. Caste is the principal determinant of that, but it goes beyond that to class, social connections, wealth and more. The bride ends up marrying the groom’s household, for all practical purposes.

As Karthik Shashidhar observes, people often think of rape in India as a problem that results in a ‘loss of marriageability’, rather than what it really is: the assault of an individual. This also explains the rather mind-warping suggestions heard again and again: let the rape victim marry the rapist, and all will be okay.

The loss of marriageability is of the family, but the physical and mental trauma is that of the woman alone. It should be of little surprise to anyone that the latter goes unaddressed most of the time. Worse, the woman ends up getting blamed for getting into a position where the family honour gets lost.

Reporting cases of rape, seeking help and receiving support is difficult even in far more liberal societies. But as long as marriage remains the primary aim and raison d’être of a woman in society, rape will be an extremely difficult problem to address.

The Indian extended family can act as either a champion of individual liberties or an anchor that drags it down.

PS. Do read my colleague Priya Ravichandran on ‘Let’s talk about rape.’

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A Culture of Boldness

In 2009, there was an article posted on by an anonymous Chinese strategist saying that ‘If China takes a little action, the so-called Great Indian Federation can be broken up’. The notion of the Indian state being that fragile sounds laughable in 2013, as it did in 2009 – notwithstanding separatist movements in certain corners of the country. But it wasn’t always so.

When India became independent in 1947, it numbered among the boldest experiments in democracy the world had ever seen. There was a lot of skepticism that the Indian union would last any significant length of time. That such a plurality of peoples, cultures, languages and attitudes could have a single imagined identity of ‘India’ was ludicrous to many. But India proved them wrong. And the nation did so by ensuring universal franchise from the very beginning. And by having a constitution designed for great social reform.

The boldness with which India began its tryst with destiny has become a rare commodity in recent years. Poverty, malnutrition, subsistence employment and all the other problems that ail India are used as convenient excuses to cover up what is essentially a failure of imagination. We want to develop ‘low cost’ technologies instead of wanting to be the best at something.

The nuclear tests of 1997 were the last, really bold step that the nation took, with the golden quadrilateral highway programme perhaps coming close.

As Saurabh Chandra noted on twitter a few days ago, ideas as ‘crazy’ as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is ideal for a country like India to adopt. Like the country leapfrogged over landline phone connections to cellphones in almost every household today, only our imagination is limiting us from doing the same in dozens of other fields. We mistake jugaad for innovation and get lost on inventiveness with terms like ‘appropriate technologies’.

We can use a lot more of the boldness this nation was born with – in technology, social reform, governance, art and in every conceivable field of human endeavour. And it is that boldness that will allow us to be independent in every sense of that word. Happy 67th Independence Day, India.

Do take a look at the Independence day posts from my fellow bloggers: Sarah Farooqui, Saurabh Chandra, Priya Ravichandran and Nitin Pai.

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In Pragati: From Open Data to a Culture of Openness

This week, I write in Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review about thinking beyond open data and creating a culture of openness in India:

Building sound public policies requires robust information systems and data. The state has the primary onus on provisioning for the public good that is knowledge – and traditionally the working of the Indian state involved secrecy as a core principle. The state enjoyed a monopoly on generation and access to large parts of knowledge and data relevant to public affairs, with its citizens often kept in the dark. Thanks to almost two decades of campaigns in the country, this paradigm has been overturned significantly.

When it comes to knowledge, information and data – the form of opening up determines how usable it is. Since the passing of the Right to Information Act into law, the focus of many advocacy efforts has shifted to usability and ease of access to government information and data. Release of information suo moto decreases the time cost of accessing information, and when it comes to data it is quite obvious that whether it is shared as a photocopy, PDF or an excel file makes a world of difference. Unfettered open access to data and information generated through taxpayer funds may remain a distant goal, but there are constant signs of progress. The Census of India is an exemplar of openness and friendliness as a data provider, and the Government Data Portal: data.gov.in was launched just last year is being populated with more datasets every month.

Increasing openness of official information is but one leg of improving the ‘public good’ quality of knowledge. Along with openness, the contestability of information has also increased in India over the last two decades. As Pratab Bhanu Mehta mentions, when official pollution numbers are not trusted, you have private organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment to monitor the pollution on their own and provide independent evidence.

Research institutions, not-for-profit organisations and the media are playing a larger role in generating data that is relevant to public affairs. Many private players routinely engage in data collection exercises, and conduct large surveys for research and to answer specific questions. Not only is this being done on a local scale, but nationally as well. Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre conducted a national analysis of public services in India about a decade ago, and the ASER Centre provides state and district level information on children’s learning levels and education across the country, year after year. These are but two examples out of many.

While citizens of India are demanding more openness from their government and private entities are playing a greater role in contributing to public knowledge, openness as a culture has been far slower off the mark. Barring exceptions, research and not-for-profit organisations are far from open with their data in India today.

Data is collected with great care, cost and effort and is often used with great effect – but rarely more than once or twice. The original researchers often do not have the inclination, incentives or the luxury of going beyond their original mandates in analysis. Just like government data is underutilised if it only remains in an official report, the utility of privately generated data may far exceed this limited use.

Data and information are also network goods. Data sets can complement each other and together they can yield  richer knowledge than they would on their own. A lack of public sharing of data sets and a culture that does not expect that of its knowledge creators prevents this from happening.

None of this is to say that individuals are not generous with what data is at their disposal. While rent-seeking remains a problem, many researchers and organisations are happy to oblige requests for data. However, this remains sub-optimal as personally investigating and enquiring after data results in very high costs for searching – if not monetary, then certainly in time and effort spent. The only way to change this is if more people adopt online, open disclosure of data.

While an open culture around data is desirable, it takes several complementary actions to get there. Access to private data, whether it is generated by a business or by an NGO, cannot be treated as a rights issue. Individual freedom and private property need to be respected while creating enabling incentives and encouraging voluntary efforts to open up information.

As research and data get exposed, the first problem that arises is that faults and errors become evident and can cause people to beat a quick retreat. What needs to be kept in mind is that pioneers who open their data sets before others can reap a large signaling dividend. Modest research with openness could have a higher impact than a superior quality study that remains closed. If sustained, open data researchers can build a reputation that is several notches above those who keep their data closed.

The second problem is that open disclosure results in a loss of control – where unknown anonymous users could use it without giving proper credit and for radically different ends. While this can indeed happen, the public benefit from open disclosure and the credit for it remains higher than such losses.

The third problem that can arise is that as the culture of sharing is weak and data science is still nascent in India, the benefits of opening up data sets may take a lot of time to yield impressive results. What is also needed is a kick starter – perhaps in the form of scholarships for students and researchers to use high quality datasets and publish new results.

Donors and foundations funding research and analysis also have an important role to play here – by committing to openness and providing platforms that enable sharing, they can change the work cultures in organisations that they fund. Official mandates to that effect government-funded research would work the same way. In India there is ample precedent for comfort: agencies such as the World Bank and others have embraced open data, it is for others to keep up.

If India is to transition to a true knowledge economy, open access, availability and contestability of public knowledge is paramount. A narrow campaign to liberate government data will have far less of a lasting impact than a broader attempt at creating a culture of openness and sharing around information and data. It is time we started on the latter.

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