Kopal Mital speaks with Antaraa Vasudev on various aspects of pre-legislative consultation policy.
Antaraa Vasudev is founder of Civis, a non-profit organisation working in the field of pre-legislative consultation policy. It is a technology platform which helps connect citizens to the Government.
LSPR: How did you get interested in the field of pre-legislative consultation policy and what has your journey been like till now?
I have a background in political science and I started off as really curious about how technology and democracy interact. Technology is changing so much in our world in terms of how we connect with people and how we access services.
But, the one thing that it was not changing was actually how we connect to the government. This seemed like one area which was static even though technology was transforming other aspects so much. I have always been curious about that and led me to do a lot of interesting work before starting Civis. This included interning with a political body during a general election, and working with an Argentinian movement which was working on a similar issue of getting people to participate in governance through technology.
I realized that if we were to start a similar movement in India where individuals were proactively engaging with the government, there are two key things that needed to be fulfilled. One of these was that we needed to make sure this dialogue is constructive for both the citizen as well as the government. If it’s just noisy , then people will not be keen to come in and engage with the process. Neither the citizens sharing their valuable feedback nor the official receiving the feedback want it to feel like a burden. There had to be civic engagement which was seamless and which also fit in with the way the government worked.
The second key aspect was that we needed to make sure that there are responsive loops. Otherwise you can tweet at your local MLA on Twitter but nothing really happens because the MLA cannot grasp what is going on Twitter. You also cannot correspond back to anything that is said.
These two challenges came to the fore and we were thinking of how this can be solved. This led to a lot of research. To be very honest, I didn’t know about the pre-legislative consultation policy either before I started looking into relevant provisions of the law in India, what makes it participatory and how citizens can engage with the government. It took me months of research to figure out the gap that exists. It took me about a year or a year and a half of actually working in this space to understand how this gap can be bridged and also what pieces are not working together and how we can make them work.
LSPR: What are the changes that you have noticed in the pre-legislative consultation policy field since the time you have joined till now?
One of my colleagues and friends Arun PS has actually been tracking this policy since 2014-2015 when it was first passed. What we have seen is that there actually been almost a 49% increase in laws that are being put out for consultation.
There was a short dip during the election year, because because of the model code of conduct among other things. But, specially in the last three years we have seen there has been a 111% growth in consultations year on year. The bills coming out for public feedback are going up. The number of people who are speaking about public consultations has also really spiked especially like with the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment consultation. The awareness and knowledge of public consultations has increased.
A statutory framework is still required. Still, I think things in this field are moving in a very positive direction. In fact, in some of our consultations, we’ve seen an increase of 52 percent of citizen feedback being received. The value in the process is slowly being discovered and it is our work to make it go faster.
LSPR: How do you think the current structure should be changed?
I definitely think there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure that the policy is enforceable. In an ideal world it would be great to have a pre-legislative consultation law.
In a lot of countries for example in South Africa and the UK, if a particular Bill does not go out for consultation it can be challenged in court on that ground. This puts an impetus to ensure that the process really happens. Right now, in India, pre-legislative consultation is being treated as a ‘good practice’ to have but it is not seen as essential. Making it legally enforceable would be one step towards that. However, an important part of that would be demonstrating that the process can be done easily. Right now, we see one of two things happening.
First, the policy is put up for consultation in the public domain and nobody responds. This is particularly discouraging when the policy is a good one or one which is broadly agreeable. What we have found that policies on which there is a strong public stance, get more feedback. This is a little problematic because if you want your lawmakers to create policies that are meeting your needs you also need to provide that positive reinforcement. This is currently lacking.
The second thing that ends up happening is that the citizens and the government become overwhelmed with the lakhs and lakhs of data points. They become inundated with the data. Within the government, there is no designated consultation officer who looks after consultations in a Ministry. There is a lot of administrative overhead. This also creates a lack of accountability because there is no mechanism by which the government can communicate why suggestions of the citizens were taken or rejected. The capacity constraint hampers the efficiency of the whole process. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to eliminate these pain points to make sure there is smooth collaboration from both sides on draft laws.
LSPR: Given the context of recent events such as the Farmer’s bill and the criminal laws reform committee, what do you think about the attitude of the current government towards pre-legislative consultation policy? Have you noticed a change in the willingness to engage with the process?
The data actually shows that there is an increasing willingness to engage with the process. We should keep a couple of factors in mind. One of this is that the pre-legislative consultation policy has only been in play under the NDA government since 2014. It has not been in play for any other government before that. The data does show that the Bills being put up for consultation are rising. However, the Bills being referred to Standing Committees have been going down. We have also seen that even if certain Acts have not been put up for consultation, the Rules are being put up for consultation. There is still a lot of work that does need to be done in this field. However, the data is encouraging and we can see an upward trend in the engagement of citizens with the government.
LSPR: Where do you see the future of pre-legislative consultation in India?
That’s a exciting question. Now, if you look at it from two lenses, social and technological, I see that there is actually a lot of promise for where it could go. The one thing is that if you look at citizen engagement itself, it is much more than has ever been in the past. We see incredible organisations like Reapbenefit which mobilises young people to work on civic issues. We have Jhatka which works on cause-based issues for civic engagement. We also see veterans like Janagraha which have been working in this space for more than 15 years.
The opportunity for civic engagement and mobilisation is huge when it comes to technology. It is enabling. Today, we can engage with a person living in a basti, city or a rural area, using technology. For example, IndusAction and others do very interesting work in remote community mobilisation using missed calls and other techniques. In terms of technology, the space is ripe for innovation and engagement. There is a lot of interest to engage which is very interesting. Even in our offline work which we do in bastis and remote areas we have noticed that there is a lot of propensity to make your voice heard. This is very encouraging because I think that is the base structure for any sort of constructive dialogue. So, I personally see that it’s going to expand exponentially in the domain of urban governance. For many years now different missions in urban governance like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Amrut Mission have spoken about building participatory governance and building engagement. This can now become a reality as the technology is remedying those initial hurdles. At Civis, our vision is to ensure participatory governance at all levels in India. This includes aspects of participation of people in decision making in their own neighbourhoods and also panchayat participation by women in rural areas. There is huge network of governing structures in India.
From that perspective, if you combine the social aspect of people’s desire to participate with the technological ability of being able to connect them with the appropriate means to engage, there is an exciting possibility of what it can grow into. In a sense this is also necessary. A good book to read in this regard is New Power. It highlights that younger people share a different relationship and equation with existing power structures. The demand is to be more participative rather than being a passive consumer of public services. India has a large population of young people. These are all people who are willing and keen to engage. They see it as a right. This is really encouraging to see.
LSPR: How do you think law students in particular can get involved in this area? And can you suggest some opportunities in this field as a prospective career for law students?
The most effective way that law students can actually engage with the policies is by sharing feedback in these consultations. A lot of consultations that come out do have direct bearing on your future practices. The second is by sourcing consultations. If you see a new policy or Rules coming up, share it in your community and get feedback from people. The third way is spreading awareness about the pre-legislative consultation policy. How many of people around us are actually aware of this exercise? Awareness would be the first step towards effectively engaging and channelling feedback from people around us to the right sources.
Being involved also has its advantages from a purely career perspective. For example, when you walk into an internship and you are aware of the changes that may be made to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, it adds a different perspective to your contributions because others may not be tracking the legislation in that manner.
From a point of view of getting involved in this field as a career, the field is growing and we do have a lot organisations coming up. However, a lot of the work right now is more volunteer driven. You can intern and research with organizations pioneering this concept. We have Mr. Tarunbh Khaitan and Mr. Arun PS who have done a lot of work in this area. One can find opportunities in the wider field of policy itself. One can become a Legislative Assistant to a member of Parliament or work at policy think-tanks. Given the immense scope for growth in the pre-legislative consultation policy field, one will have a lot of space to go forward in a career in this area.
LSPR: Could you please share an eureka moment from your work? A moment when you realized its potential and importance?
I have actually been fortunate to have had multiple such instances but one particular story does come to mind. We were working in a basti area and were collecting certain data from that area. In this basti, the washrooms were all pay per use. This created a lot of financial burden on the families specifically during the COVID-19. We were able to use this data and convey the problem to the local MLA and we got a speedy response from the government. They ensured that the washrooms were made free. This was a big Eureka moment for me personally for a couple of reasons. First, it showed me that there was a willingness on the part of the government to engage proactively even at a time of crisis. Second, it showed me that it was not just an internet user’s privilege. If we can find ways to get the voices at the grassroots level heard, that also has the ability to being about change. I saw that the work does have impact and it is powerful.
Kopal Mital is a II Year B.A. L.LB (Hons.) student at NLSIU, Bangalore. This interview was conducted on October 19, 2020.