Rajesh Tandon

 

Challenging the Professionals:
The Imperative of Democratic Governance Today

 

Democratic Governance

In the largest democracy in the world today, with nearly six decades of democratic functioning, governance still leaves much to be desired. Governance is about the systems and processes of mobilization and utilization of public resources for com mon public goods. Therefore, it implies that various institutions and systems in the government are essentially concerned with determination and delivery of various public goods. In a narrow sense, public goods include education, health, water, transportation, etc. In a broader sense, security of people and property, social justice and inclusion, respect for diversity and pluralism, freedoms of speech and association, human dignity, etc., also constitute public goods. Public goods can be seen at local, national and global levels too. Terrorism, militarisation and climate change are global threats to such global public goods.1

How “democratic” is this governance in India today? In the narrow sense of representative democracy, we have all the necessary institutions of parliaments/ legislatures, executives/ministries, judiciary, para-statals and commissions – you name them we have them. Representative democracy is operated through elected representatives, who in turn oversee various other agencies and actors responsible for delivery of public goods. What does our experience suggest? How effective is the “democratic” oversight and functioning of these agencies and actors? How responsive and accountable these representatives, officials and agencies/institu tions are to the citizens of this country?

It is possible to conclude that accountability of these governance institutions to citizens in India today leaves much to be desired. Claiming of citizenship rights by all citizens is still a mirage. The poor, minorities, SC/ST, women and millions of such citizens remain excluded from accessing their rights to public goods. In this sense, the non-utilisation of public development funds in states and districts is an indicator of such exclusion. It is an indicator of “democratic deficit” in contemporary society since accountability for performance is only “upwards” in the hierarchy of these agencies, not “downwards” to the citizens. Mere political accountability, as manifest through exercise of voting rights, is not enough; economic and social accountability of governance institutions, officials and actors to citizens at large is crucial and largely non-existent.

It could be argued that India today has enormous variety of citizenship experi ences. Millions of illiterate, poor, impoverished and ignorant citizens of India have suffered centuries of discrimination in this hierarchical society. But what about more educated, urban and knowledgeable citizens? Are they able to receive “demo cratic” accountability from such governance institutions and actors? Are they able to access basic services for which even they pay regular taxes? Why is it that many such urban, middle-class citizens are rushing to seek “private” solutions to what are essentially public goods? Do such citizens feel they are able to lead a life of dignity? Do they feel they are getting their tax money’s worth in public goods? Are they ever consulted on issues of mobilization of public resources through taxation and other measures?

Professional Calling

While such questions are relevant from the vantage point of all citizens in the coun try, they acquire special meaning from the perspective of professionals, particularly development professionals. As development professionals, we engage in working towards realization of various public goods for citizens of India, more particularly the excluded, poor and marginalized citizens. Development professionals bring a wide range of competencies to their work; they use their enormous knowledge of the profession to address various tasks assigned to them; they utilize their profes sional skills in effective performance of various projects and programmes. In their training and education, such competencies, knowledge and skills are learnt through a professional programme.

In addition, all professionals, including development professionals, are expected to “learn” the value and spirit of “service” to society. One of the main attributes of a professional is his/her orientation and commitment to “serve” others. Doctors are supposed to “serve” patients; teachers are supposed to “serve” students; lawyers, accountants, managers etc., are supposed to “serve” their clients and society at large. This value and spirit of service is what distinguishes a professional from oth ers. Hence, to act as a professional implies a combination of acting as a competent, skilled, knowledgeable worker, with decent work habits, and a spirit of service.

One may ask the question if our professionals in general, and development pro fessionals in particular, are acting in this comprehensive “professional” manner? One may even ask the question if institutions that educate and train professionals are facilitating the learning of such values of service among them? Or even more simply, if the education of professionals imparts any learning of “decent” work habits? The Indian story of “rise of professionals” may actually appear a bit sour from this perspective today. How many of our professional doctors and dentists stand up to such scrutiny of service? How many of our accountants and managers would be able to make “A” grade on this basis? Do we need to ask this question of our teachers and lawyers too? If I may say so the professionals in India today act in a most “unprofessional” manner on this count of service and decency. So, the democratic deficits of governance in our society today pose a number of im portant challenges to all professionals, more so to development professionals. Let me enumerate three sets of challenges with particular reference to development professionals.

The first set of challenges relate to the spirit of service in practice. As profes sionals, we serve others to access public goods. In so doing, professionals solve problems and create durable solutions. Whose interests are uppermost in our mind? Do we address problems and create/implement solutions in a manner that gives a sense of satisfaction to our “clients”, beneficiaries, stakeholders? Do they feel “served” by our actions? Do they feel “valued” by our service? Do they feel respected by our solutions? While professionals possess enormous knowledge, skills and competencies, do they contribute to a sense of empowerment of those whom they serve? Or do professionals act in an arrogant, “omniscient” manner? The challenge of service demands of profession als to utilize their enormous capabilities with humility, in the service of others.

The second set of challenges relates to integrity. Professionals are expected to act in a manner that reflects intellectual and be havioural integrity. In a society where deficits in democratic governance are largely on ac count of widespread corruption, integrity of professionals is crucial to promote citizens’ access to public goods. Many of us may claim that we are not corrupt, we do not accept bribes or considerations, and that we act in an essentially honest manner. But what about intellectual dishonesty? What about overlooking “deficits” and their causes? Do professionals question others’ corrupt practices? Do they speak the truth as they see it from their professional lens? Do they refuse to do what is not up to their professional standards? Do professionals uphold highest principles of integrity in their profession? The challenge of integrity demands of professionals to uphold highest standards of their professional practice in face of adversity.

Booktitle

The third set of challenges relate to the ethics of citizenship. In the face of the democratic governance deficits described earlier, many citizens are beginning to raise their voices against such deficits; many civil society groups are demanding greater transparency and accountability; many are taking advantage of new provi sions of the “Right To Information” to hold the governance agencies and officials to account; some civic groups are voicing their views on public services; some others are asking for better and more efficient utilisation of public resources; some are even protesting payment of taxes since they do not receive those services. Citizens in India today are more aware, more vocal and more assertive in pursuit of public goods from governance institutions. What do professionals do in such situations? Do development professionals consider this “not my work”? Do they become spectators? Or do they also engage? Do they stand by those citizens as citizens? Or do they hide behind their professional “mask”? The challenge of citizenship ethics demands of professionals to practice ethical citizenship with courage and conviction.

The development professionals may look at these challenges and compare them selves with other professionals in India today. They may weave their own “story” with the mainstream story of “rise of professionals” in India today. They may thus conclude that their profession is doing well. They could also demonstrate “another” way of professional practice. This another way – professionals with the spirit of service, with integrity, with ethics of citizenship – practiced by development profes sionals may in fact have an important message to other professionals. We may begin to challenge other professionals to create a “new story”. In today’s context, democratic governance is also a challenge for and demand from various other institutions in society – media, private sector, universities, hospitals, NGOs, etc. All institutions of society need to address the “deficits” in their democratic governance. Transparency and accountability to all stakeholders, especially citizens, is now on the agenda of all institutions in our society. Without deepening and broadening the practice of democratic governance in India today, the “new” Indian story may begin to fade away. Hence, all professionals serving in these diverse set of institu tions may need to align their professional practice in light of these challenges. Can development professionals “show” the way by traveling on it? Can this become tomorrow’s “new India” story?

Notes

1 Tandon, Rajesh & Kak, Mohini, (2007) “Governance of Public Goods: Local and Global” in Citizen Partici pation and Democratic Governance: In Our Hand, PRIA, New Delhi, pp. 22– 45.

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