Mukta Naik

The recently concluded 2014 Indian national polls were the largest exercise in democracy in the world. However, while franchise is a well-exercised right in the country of 1.2 billion people and over 800 million voters—60% was the voter turnout in 2009—this doesn’t translate into active citizenship. Nor does it ensure citizens access to basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Citizenship problematic for urban Indian

The relationship between citizens and the State is particularly weak in India’s cities. A recently launched pilot Citizenship Index for Bangalore, brought out by Bangalore-based NGO Janaagraha in collaboration with Brown University’s Brown India Initiative, found that while Bangalore’s citizens vote, they don’t participate in civic or political life between elections. This seems true of urban Indians in general, and is problematic in the context of the governance and management issues that Indian cities face? Why don’t urban Indians engage with the State? Do they just not care? If they do, what do they care about? How do they hope to access better services if they do not engage? Are there barriers for their engagement?

In an attempt to stimulate these conversations on citizenship, We the People, an organisation that aims to “expand an active, engaged and informed citizenry in India” organises Citizen Cafés across India. Vinita Gursahani Singh, Founder and Managing Trustee of We the People (watch her TED X talk here), explains the concept: “Through the Citizen Cafes, we are trying to get people to understand why they should be involved and what is their role as a citizen.”

In the first three months of 2014, We the People held Citizen Cafés in the secondary cities of Kanpur, Lucknow, Agra, Ranchi and Patna in a bid to tap into the densely populated nerve centre of urban India and influence the discourse on citizenship here.

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Citizen Cafes bring together concerned citizens from different walks of life to discuss their role in making their city a better place

What pushes their buttons? Hearing impassioned voices from secondary cities

In each location, people surged in, eager to engage and discuss. Vinita is thrilled at the enthusiasm. “People are less cynical in smaller places. The sense of belonging and identity is much more,” she says. However, the realities of India’s urban story are starkly evident in the stories they told.

Education, gender and sanitation were the top-of-the-mind issues for citizens in these cities. Across cities, people believed that education has the ability to lift people out of poor circumstances. Citizens even knew about the Right to Education Act while they exhibited little or no legal knowledge about other subjects. “At the end of the session in every city we asked what issue would you like to get involved with, and across the board it was education,” remarks Vinita.

In Patna, where gender equality is a distant goal, girls spoke out publicly about the atmosphere of repression and the fear of forced marriages at the Citizen Cafes. In Lucknow and Kanpur, cities where eve teasing of girls is an everyday occurrence, citizens spoke of the need for equal opportunities. They condemned acts of violence against women and demanded safer spaces.

Agra’s citizens, in a departure from the norm of government blaming, took partial blame for the inner city’s dirty streets. “If we clean our homes and throw the garbage on the street, how can the government help us?” said one agitated gentleman at the Citizen Café referring to the mess that central Agra is despite the tourist hordes that come in to see the Taj Mahal! His remark sparked an animated call for public campaigns that educate people and demand better civic behaviour.

Vinita found particularly encouraging the emphasis on personal integrity, a value rarely spoken about at a time when high-level corruption is one of the issues on which the national election is being fought. “If we ourselves aren’t honest, how can we expect government officials to be,” was one of the rhetorical questions that came up in the Lucknow Citizen Café.

Citizenship in transition

This introspective strain of the discussions in these secondary cities is a welcome change from the rather feudal understanding of citizenship in India, where citizens have traditionally regarded the State as benefactor and governments have regarded citizens as beneficiaries of their largesse.


Participation cuts across age and gender barriers and allows citizen to introspect and explore new perspectives


  Listening to each other and reflecting on rights and duties associated with being a citizen

However, the transformation from subjects to citizens still has a long way to go. As the Bangalore citizenship index shows, factors like class, caste and religion can alter the experience of citizenship in different ways. The study found that in Bangalore, “the poor have less effective citizenship, but it matters more to them. They feel that if they participated less in political and civic life, they would receive less from the State.”

That the State seems to be hard to find and even harder to trust is clearly a significant barrier! The index found that few people in Bangalore go to the State for services. Many people use intermediaries and as many as 19% paid bribes for services they were entitled to. Unfortunately, as Patrick Heller, Professor of Sociology from Brown University and an author of the study says, “While citizens respect the State, treating each other with respect is not that important. Community does not seem to be important. And that’s where the change is needed.” If this is so, then the voices coming from secondary cities perhaps indicate that change could come faster than we think.

Active citizenship as a tool

By all accounts, the 2014 election has seen the most controversial and divisive discussions in India’s modern history. The real concerns around governance and citizenship have been drowned out by sectarian and vote-bank politics. When the din dies down and the incoming government gets into business, the real issues will come to the fore again—access to services, improved infrastructure and the access to citizen’s rights like education, equality, freedom and safety. The importance of active citizenship in demanding and ensuring an accountable government would need to be reinforced. Those conversations in Kanpur and Lucknow, Ranchi and Patna are potentially seeds upon which the edifice of active citizenship—not just vertical in the sense of engaging with the State but also horizontal in the sense of engaging with community—can be built. Vinita adds a note of caution. “Indians are an extremely diverse people. To make sure all voices are heard is a very big challenge,” she avers. It is this reference to inclusiveness that underpins the most significant challenge to democracy and citizenship.

Banner photo by Sreejithk2000

Photos provided by We the People



Categories: Citizenship, Gender, Governance, Identity, Livelihoods