Lofty ideals, baby steps: Delhi’s experiments with participatory budgeting

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 16 February 2016

In neighbourhoods across Delhi in early February, elected representatives held public meetings to seek citizen feedback on a recent policy experiment that regulated the use of private cars in the city. Similar consultations were a key strategy used by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to formulate their election manifesto for the state elections last year. Combined with online platforms, feedback at public meetings is currently used by the state government’s Public Grievances Monitoring Cell to inform everyday governance decisions, says AAP’s Neeraj Kumar, who coordinates the cell.

The mohalla sabha (neighbourhood meeting) is deeply embedded in the DNA of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Delhi’s reigning political establishment that has a history of bottom-up activism around several issues, held together by two linchpins—transparent governance and zero-corruption. In the foreword to his book titled Swaraj ("Self-rule," a term used widely by Gandhi and others during India’s freedom struggle from colonial rule in the early 20th century), Arvind Kejriwal, party leader and current Chief Minister of Delhi, writes: "...people’s role in a democracy is not merely voting once in every five years. They have to participate in governance. Power centers have to move from Delhi and other state capitals to villages and communities."

The most ambitious use of mohalla sabhas, however, has undoubtedly been the government’s experiments with participatory budgeting. Soon after it's electoral win in February 2015, in the searing summer months, the AAP government held a slew of public meetings to pilot participatory budgeting in 11 constituencies of Delhi. The INR 40 million (USD 580,000) fund (of which a fourth is paid out to the water utility Delhi Jal Board) was hitherto managed by the MLA, who is the elected representative to the state government. In a bold move, the participatory budgeting model placed this money in a discretionary fund spent based on citizens' priorities decided via public meetings.

Addressing a conference on citizenship held by think tank the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in August 2015, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said, "Public money will be spent as per the wishes of the people. They will not have to go to the MLA or even the councillor for basic amenities and infrastructure." Public records indicate that the money is being spent on a range of improvements, including water supply, drainage, public libraries, dispensaries, security fencing and beautification, with substantial differences in priorities across constituencies.

It is early to bring out a report card on Delhi's participatory budgeting experiment, which is yet to achieve scale. Its full implementation is hampered by the failure of the government to bring into force the Swaraj Bill, a piece of legislation that formalizes the concept of participatory governance through the mechanism of the over 3,000 mohalla sabhas in the state. The bill envisages 69 "indicative functions" to be performed by neighborhood-level ward committees that would be democratically appointed at the mohalla level. It grants the committees administrative and financial approvals and even the power to recall elected representatives.

In the interim, the government is seeking ways to strengthen the institution of mohalla sabhas. "We are looking to build more sensitization and increase preparedness among citizens, government employees who deliver services, as well as elected representatives to be able to smoothly implement participatory budgeting. But a solid beginning has been made," says Neeraj. The AAP government completed its first year in power on Valentine’s Day; in year two, expectations will soar and all eyes will be on the success of its participatory budgeting strategies. The government would do well to put metrics in place to monitor progress and demonstrate success in this critical "proof of concept" stage.

Photo: Greha

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