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Eternal vigilance, but by ill-informed, ignorant citizens

The ‘news’ that college students in Calcutta have no clue (well, who does') to what mayor-in-council members do, came as no surprise. In the quizzing capital of the country, very few people, educated or otherwise, would be able to answer questions about the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC).

Even questions like how much the Corporation earns; or how its earnings have grown or how it spends the amount, would fox even professional newshounds. So, why blame the students alone'

But to put things in perspective, the question formed a part of the question paper that Part-I students of Calcutta University were called upon to answer. Most of the students, to the consternation of the examiners, skirted a direct reply and, instead, dwelt at length on the sorry state of affairs in CMC.

The examinees, ignorant of the functioning of the mayor-in-council members, chose to comment on the indiscipline and corruption for which the Corporation is known.

The answers triggered a somewhat strange reaction. Rather than feel concerned at the level of ignorance and find out if it was due to poor teaching, half-baked textbooks or a faulty syllabi, some of the teachers admitted to have been amused by the answers. Others felt sorry for the students, while a few felt sorry for the politicians. Some righteously commented that politicians have given such a bad name to politics that bright students no longer feel drawn to even study politics, let alone get drawn into it.

A teacher actually shot off a letter to the mayor, pointing out that young minds have developed an aversion for politics and politicians. The missive urged the mayor to ensure that the public image of the “heritage civic body” does not suffer.

Higher education minister Satyasadhan Chakraborty refused to react when his views were sought. The poor standard of education or a high level of ignorance among students is certainly not his responsibility!

The mayor himself reinforced the image of the Corporation being a corrupt institution last week. An indignant Subrata Mukherjee was quoted saying that so rampant was corruption in the civic body that people had started calling it ‘Chorporation’ (he must have been aware that the derisive, pejorative term has been used for ages by long-suffering citizens).

This would not do, the mayor declared and decided to act. His solution: transfer all municipal employees from one ward to another within the city! Mayor Mukherjee is no doubt a smart politician but he obviously does not think very highly of literate Calcuttans.

The statement has not been followed by howls of protest, or indignation; nor have people pointed out that if the mayor was serious about cleansing the stable, he could start by making municipal procedures simpler and transparent; make arrangements for recording complaints over the telephone or on-line and do away with middlemen and the ubiquitous touts.

He could also have launched an exercise to make people more aware of municipal laws. But transferring employees from one ward to the next sounds like an empty threat; and even if it is carried out, it is unlikely to deal a blow at corruption.

Mukherjee is certainly not alone to get away after making such statements. Nor is Calcutta an exception. The tax-payers, the civil society or the citizens — call the people by any name — are becoming increasingly isolated and aloof.

They seem to have little interest in governance; they appear even less inclined to keep abreast of the developments in public bodies or, for that matter, the performance of their elected representatives. Protests have ceased and criticism is muted.

The ignorance is not confined to the Corporation either. It extends to all arms of the state, with people hardly having a clue about the functioning of the legislature, judiciary or the executive. Not many citizens are even aware of the location of the state Assemblies, let alone visit them.

In short, public bodies are becoming more remote and divorced from the people. Information about them is vital because only informed citizens can be vigilant and watch over democratic bodies.

It is time, perhaps, for the mayor to learn a lesson from abroad. In many countries, citizens, for a small fee, are taken on guided tours through the legislature, the town hall and the corporation. In some cities, on holidays, the citizens are even ushered into the mayor’s office and invited to sit on his chair for a few minutes and get photographed.

The exercise could help public bodies earn a part of their upkeep and, at the same time, help people develop greater understanding of what their elected representatives are up to.

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