Indian Cities Eye New Delhi's Quiet 'Citizen Revolution'
Program Offers Antidote to Red Tape
Sunday, March 2, 2008; Page A15
NEW DELHI -- Seven neighborhood activists sat across from a bureaucrat last week with a long list of complaints about damaged streetlights, uncollected trash and what is known here as the monkey menace -- hordes of monkeys straying into homes through windows and balconies. The bureaucrat offered tea and biscuits, took copious notes and ordered immediate action to resolve the problems.
"We also have a complaint against your accounts officer," thundered Satya Paul Gupta, 78, who heads his neighborhood association. "He sleeps on our files and keeps telling us, 'Next week, next week.' "
The bureaucrat called the accounts officer. "There are complaints against you. Come to my office fast," he said. "You are answerable."
Gupta leaned back in his chair and smiled. Eight years ago, this would have been unimaginable; highhanded and inaccessible city officials would have shooed residents away. But under a popular government initiative called Bhagidari, which is Hindi for partnership, citizens' groups across New Delhi have been empowered to walk into any office and demand answers.
Since 2000, neighborhood groups participating in the program have collaborated with the government to solve everyday problems with sewage, trash collection, roads and community parks. And that is no small feat in a country infamous for its bureaucracy and red tape.
"Bhagidari is a silent citizen revolution that fixes the problem of corrupt officials and indifferent politicians," said Gupta, who represents about 35,000 people as the head of what is known here as a Residents' Welfare Association, or RWA.
Before Bhagidari, there were only about 20 RWAs across the city. Now, there are more than 2,000 such groups, and they are enjoying expanded political clout. Many are run by retirees like Gupta.
"My RWA business card has the most powerful logo in the city, the Bhagidari logo," he said. "It opens doors, makes officials sit up and listen."
With its economy booming, India is grappling with how to manage growing cities, many of them populated by an increasingly assertive middle class. Analysts say Bhagidari might be part of the answer. At least six Indian states besides Delhi are studying the idea for possible implementation in their capitals.
"These neighborhood groups have now become a very potent platform of people's power," said Arvind Kejriwal, head of a group called Parivartan, which campaigns for participatory and transparent government across India. "They now have a say in how the money is spent in their areas and how to hold the officials accountable. The middle class in the city has moved from complete cynicism toward their rulers to active participation in governance."
Bhagidari is the brainchild of Shiela Dixit, chief minister of the Delhi regional government, whose Congress party was returned to power in 1998. Back then, Dixit was worried that citizens' complaints weren't reaching elected politicians.
"We needed a different model of governance in a mega-city of more than 14 million," said Keshav Chandra, an aide to Dixit who oversees the Bhagidari program. "Bhagidari gives us a direct understanding of the pulse of the people."
Dixit opened her doors to the numerous RWAs, ordered local officials to meet with them every month and created a separate fund for their needs. Two years ago, she strengthened them by ordering that contractors be paid only after the residents' groups had expressed satisfaction with the quality of work done. Last month, the Delhi government decided that no developmental work would be undertaken in the city without RWA input.
In the campaign for state elections in November, Bhagidari is being showcased as Dixit's biggest achievement.
Despite the best of intentions, however, Bhagidari's power-to-the-people mantra has not been easy to implement in a system rife with corruption. The notion of being accountable to residents met with bitter resistance in the first few years, and members of Dixit's own party opposed the program on the grounds that she was circumventing them to listen to the people directly.
As the elections draw closer, residents' associations worry about their future. The Bhagidari program lacks statutory authority and could be eliminated by the next government.
"The officers do not like the daily nagging and ordering by the residents," said Mool Chand Chawla, 66, a local politician from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "Bhagidari is not good for democracy because it bypasses elected representatives like me. I am here to serve the people. We do not need a parallel power structure."
Gupta, the head of his neighborhood RWA, said Bhagidari has done a lot of good. His group, for instance, recently procured money to renovate a community park that had been full of trash and stray animals. A new gate, a wall and a walking track have been built, and the park is being cleaned up and replanted.
Still, Gupta said, he understands why some politicians don't like the program.
"Their under-the-table earnings have gone down," he said. "Their power has eroded because they are now answerable to ordinary citizens like me."