Referendums are usually associated with major issues of public life. But the one recently held in Siliguri over the felling of some trees to widen an arterial road of the town has a crucial message for democracy. Contrary to popular perceptions, elections to legislative bodies or even local government institutions such as municipalities and panchayats, are not the last thing in a democracy. It is particularly so when the people have little choice but to vote on political lines, even if the issues do not directly affect their lives. Elected representatives often give public opinion short shrift until the next polls. Elections cannot be the only time when the people are taken into account or the politicians are made accountable. True democracy should go beyond elections and reflect the people’s involvement in making their own choices on all public issues, big or small, at all times. The Siliguri referendum is a welcome exercise in grassroots democracy on an issue which is usually left to, not the people at large, but environmentalists. Although some panchayat bodies like the gram sabha have provisions for eliciting the people’s opinion before approving a development scheme, the letter and the spirit of the law are rarely honoured. The ruling group often imposes its will on the entire people.
There are two grey areas, though, about local referendums. Much as they reflect an extension of basic democracy, they can be manipulated like all other elections by dishonest politicians. Such an exercise will be a mockery of democracy if only a handpicked section of the population takes part in the vote. Also, to be truly meaningful and democratic, the number of voters has to be large enough to represent the entire adult population. Despite its commendable initiative, the Siliguri municipal administration should have involved far more people in the trees-versus-road referendum. The other problem that such local voting may pose is to delay administrative work, especially if recalcitrant groups try to exploit it for their petty ends. More people participating in more such referendums is the only way to call the fake democrats’ bluff.