Whether it is GN Chetty Road's trees, or Sethusamudram, or the Sardar Sarovar project, I think one of the really big problems is that discussion and debate begin after work on the project begins. You cannot return to the status quo ante and you cannot really proceed. So insult is added to injury as something is lost and yet, that which ostensibly could have been gained is delayed indefinitely.
Why don't we debate these things before we start? It would identify pitfalls or at least make them known. My point here is not to start a rant but to genuinely pose this question.
I tried to look at this from the other point of view and imagine the reasons officials would offer for not having town-hall debates and the like:
- The issues are complex and cannot be debated by lay persons.
- Nobody would care enough to attend. If they did care, they would have been vigilant enough to know already.
- It is the role of civil society and the press to highlight these things.
- We cannot keep debating things; decisions have to be made and every decision comes at a cost.
Prajnya campaigns against gender violence every year primarily in order to bring the issue into everyday conversation. We want people to recognize that there is a problem, to use the words for which they invent euphemisms and to come around to having their own discussions about the root causes and solutions. Lasting change will come through this, we believe. We try to come up with creative, fun, different ways in which to nudge these conversations to start, but it is not easy even with an issue like gender violence which is closer to most of us than we will admit.
How much more difficult then, to get people to stop what they are doing to discuss infrastructure or energy projects whose impact most of them will feel only considerably further down the line! Take this article by Milind Deora today arguing for a new airport in Bombay/Mumbai. How do we take this out of the op-ed page, the talk show studio and the cocktail circuit into every space where conversations happen?
And if we did that would we find ourselves in perpetual debate mode, never calling a decision and carrying it out? I am also afraid of that. In fact, temperamentally, that bothers me more than lack of debate, I must confess.
Therefore, this is a serious question and I would love to hear some answers: How do we generate debate on important public matters and how do we do it so that debate does not derail decision-making?