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COMMON VIEW

A team of World Bank experts decided to share its plans for a new drainage system with villagers in Karnataka. Participation was a buzz word in development circles and the team wanted to report back that it had conducted a participatory session with “the people”. The villagers listened to the benefits that would accrue from the new drains, the route that had been planned and how the design of the drain would ensure rapid flow of water. The team was getting ready to leave when one villager asked for permission to speak. He said that the design of the drain was wrong: instead of a V-shape, the drain should be U-shaped. Granted that the V-shape may allow for faster flow but should the wheel of a cart go into the drain, it would require far more effort to push the cart out than a U-shaped drain. The experts bowed to the simple logic and changed the design.

Almost four decades ago, Professor J. Scott Armstrong of Wharton School described the delusionary reliance on experts as the “Seer-Sucker theory”: for every seer, he said, there is a sucker. After reviewing several studies on forecasting from diverse fields, he found that the value of expertise beyond a certain base level did not show up in improving the accuracy of forecasts.

Cut to Calcutta, June 2010. The newly-elected mayor-in-council of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation announces that it has invited 70 ‘experts’ to assist the CMC. Not much has been said by or heard from them since then but it would be reasonable to ask what tangible change has the city seen since the group was constituted. Trident lights that cost the city more than we can afford. And if carbon footprint is a worry, the city is now piloting even more expensive LED lights to replace the tridents.

Come together

Expert advice has also led to the widening of streets in crowded areas “to speed up traffic” when common sense and global experience on safety say that traffic should be calmed in congested areas and that engineering for speed should be left to arterial roads. Central dividers with high-maintenance plants now adorn many of the roads. What the reduced road space does to accident rates is yet to be determined but in some areas residents have complained about the social cost of having a barrier erected between them and the community across the street.

Barriers seem to be the hallmark of the expert advice coming to those who manage Calcutta. Guardrails, installed at enormous cost to keep pedestrians from walking on the carriageway, serve only to support plastic canopies erected by hawkers. One stretch on Park Street has plants caged within a double row of guardrails, preventing passers-by from getting a glimpse of the encased greenery. New bus shelters block footpaths and force pedestrians onto the carriageway. Parks are being surrounded by high blue-and-white fencing, as if to suggest that they are not meant for the public.

This is not to say that we do away with expert inputs. But we need to move from the old, top-down, expert-knows-best approach to one that is based on community consultation. One answer comes from the work of Professor James S. Fishkin, director, Centre for Deliberative Democracy, at Stanford. The idea of deliberative democracy consists of public polling but not of large numbers selected by complicated sampling methods. Instead, a relatively small but representative group is brought together on civic issues and briefed by experts who do not hold a common view. When people are committed to solving problems and are given an opportunity to combine their commitment with greater understanding of the issues, the solutions they come up with are sensible and sustainable. Perhaps Calcutta would gain by devising its own version of governance based on deliberative democracy.