Saturday, October 23, 2010

Involvement at the Library

Continuing on the theme of civic sense in America – sometimes last year, the Columbus Metropolitan Library was facing budget cuts due to the recession. One day I received an email from the library explaining the whole situation and asking me to contact the governor’s office if I felt the budget cuts were detrimental to the library system and the community it served.

Even at that time I was quite impressed by this. Such a campaign would be unthinkable back in India. Switching libraries with another public service that Indian people actually value – public transportation – it is still unthinkable that a) the public would actually come to know about the budget cuts b) that some of them would be organized enough to stage a protest c) that they will not be ‘punished’ for joining the protest.

‘Punishment’ is a huge deterrent in India. Given that we all got emails from the library and the protest was on the front page of the website, I’m assuming that at least some library officials were involved with the protest. In India, I can’t image office holders to get involved at all. Because as soon as they do, they’d be punished – transfers, suspensions or verbal admonition from their bosses.

So what makes protests of this sort possibly in the US? Does America have a cleaner system where such punishment isn’t meted out? Or does it have more courageous people who don’t really care about what happens to them? Or is it that corruption still happens, only that this façade of fairness is maintained to appease the general population?


  1. I think there is a difference in the basic DNA of the set up there and here. Over here, as far as the government is concerned, we're still stuck with the colonial hangover for lack of a better term and the administration is very top down and heavy handed in its approach.

    I feel that in the US, due to the way the country has come about perhaps, that the public administration is built up from a more ground up level.

    Now this doesn't necessarily mean that things in the US are actually more fair or democratic. From what I can see is that public opinion seems to matter (people calling up their local congressman/senator, etc.) How much public opinion (or the vocal part of public opinion) is managed by the media or the hegemony of a particular group is the question.

    The underlying principle is the same in India, only instead of lobbying we have vote banks, buying/bullying the poor vote, etc.

    It seems democracy is more about the illusion of freedom, than really having it.

  2. on the contrary , i suppose that the system of protest is very real in India. On my return to India an year ago, my bus was blocked by angry residents for no water supply for the past few days. Civic sense is quite similar, but the priorities are different..

    The library officials are involved because the budget cut is directly affecting the jobs there. Its a civilized form of 'strike' we see in India..

  3. I agree with what Shyam said. However, I think Vinod is talking about the civil servants themselves and their dialogue with the public. The public protesting about poor civic amenities is different.

    But, even as far as civil servants are concerned, I feel that the "fear of punishment" mentality which Vinod talks about is limited to individuals. Whenever something happens to a department en masse (especially job/work benefits related) everybody goes up in arms. Of course the reason behind that is the presence of Unions. The Indian public sector is heavily unionised, with the unions having obvious political links. Thus it becomes easy to stage a protest or dharna when everybody is affected. Its the individual cases which are probably silenced.

    Looking at the case in point (state budgets) which Vinod has brought up, I'm not sure how much of a regular involvement the average Indian citizen has, beyond discussing it with friends and voting in the next election. There is no feedback process (excepting strikes, etc.) so to speak between elections.

  4. @Shyam: Good point. I guess I was just looking at things from a very middle class perspective.