By Tushar Anand
A Mini-Public event was organised by the Centre for Environment and Education (CEE) and Centre for Urban Policy and Governance on October 14, 2017 in Aundh, Pune, with the idea of bringing various stakeholders on the same table to deliberate on the topic of development of the streets. The name ‘Mini-Public’ itself alludes to the emphasis upon greater civic participation and social inclusion in the process of development. For this event, the Samvaad Hall at the YASHADA Administrative Training Institute in Baner, Pune was chosen. It seemed to be the perfect location for the event since samvaad literally translates to dialogue.
We the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences were volunteers and facilitators for the day. The hall was arranged with five different tables with ten chairs each. Care was taken to ensure that each table had equal representation from all groups, and no particular group dominated the flow of discussion in any table. A separate utility table was set up at the back of the room which held an assortment of stationery, card papers, permanent markers, and rolls of fake currency which were to be used as props as the event progressed.
The stakeholders started arriving around 11am, but the work behind the scenes is important to highlight. The stakeholders in the Aundh-Baner-Balewadi area were identified and their opinions were analysed as a part of the fieldwork done by the students for a few days before the event. CEE also had a major role to play, since they had been closely involved in the Smart City project which is being implemented in the area. It was important that the informal vendors in the area were provided with a platform to raise their concerns, and special care was taken to include them in the discussion. A significant point to remember is that these informal vendors work on a daily-wage basis, and their participation in the event meant that they would lose out on their livelihood for the day. This point wasn’t lost on the organizers, who compensated them for their time and participation in the event (although, the vendors themselves had no idea that this would happen at the time when they agreed to be a part of the event- which negates the argument that they participated solely for monetary benefits). The collective efforts bore fruit on the day the event was organized, when a substantial participation of such stakeholders was observed- a pleasant surprise for both the organizers and the students, who were still uncertain of the level of participation on the actual day. It was the allure of making their voices heard on a platform of equal opportunity, and being a part of discussions which they had been denied previously, which drew them to the event. A definite triumph for the organizers who envisioned the event for the empowerment of the weaker sections of the society, who probably had the most to lose and the least to gain with the current mode of implementation of the Smart City project, and no other platforms to make their voices heard.
The whole event was conducted in the local language Marathi to facilitate conversations among the stakeholders and make the people more comfortable while listing out their concerns and expectations from the project in particular, and governance as whole. The first round of discussions were conducted in two phases, with each table listing down the “Things we Want” and “Things to Change” as separate lists. Collectively, these lists represented the demands and expectations of various groups and every issue was meticulously debated and deliberated upon. It must be kept in mind that the vendors were sitting on the same table with residents and traders probably for the first time, and it’s quite understandable that the discussions were a bit insipid in the beginning. However, soon they lost their inhibitions and the room was full of voices from every corner of each of the tables. Every table had facilitators, translators and record-keepers, both from CEE and TISS, who would facilitate discussions and ensure that the core issues were being discussed, and recorded judiciously.
Mere discussions were not the only agenda of the day. In order to understand the actual decision-making process and participatory governance in action, each member at the tables was given a set amount of fake currency which they had the right to allocate to various issues that they had commonly decided earlier in the day. The idea was to understand the decision-making process by a governing authority which has a set budget to implement a project within a definite time period, at an individual level through the medium of collective participation. Fourteen key issues had been identified by the earlier deliberations, and each issue was discussed again with every individual allocating set resources towards each problem. For example, if waste management was an issue that people wanted to be improved in their area, they could allocate greater amount of ‘money’ to that problem and hence it would indicate a higher priority by the majority. The whole act had all the markings of a classical ‘game’ (from Game Theory in Economics) – with a stratified random sample group having to make decisions in accordance with predetermined set of rules. It is interesting to note that upon repetition of the game (there were two rounds with similar rules), the groups came to a better consensus in the understanding of the issues (which was evident in the high allocation of resources towards common issues such as better quality and access to public services and utilities) – a phenomenon that bears close resemblance to Nash’s predictions*.
Aside from the fact that this particular part of the event is of great fascination to anyone with a mild interest in behavioural economics and group psychology, the participants were very satisfied with the event. It was the first instance of participatory democracy and collective decision-making in practice, and there was great enthusiasm among all the stakeholders who devoted an entire day to deliberate upon the issues that affect everyone. It’s hardly surprising that all the participants responded with a resounding “YES” when asked whether they would be a part of similar events in the future as well.
* One of the most important ideas in John Nash’s famous concept of equilibrium in Game Theory is that reiteration and repetition of games would lead to the players being more familiar with the rules, and would eventually show behaviour patterns at the Nash Equilibrium- which can be predicted and generalized.
The Winter Institute is a full-fledged 3 credit Course in the academic calendar of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program of the School of Habitat Studies conducted in the first year. It is conceived as a platform for interdisciplinary collaborative learning through research and action in the field. The blog series showcases the work, reflections and opinions of the students, and not the Centre.