Interview: Kazim Rizvi, Founding Director, The Dialogue

  • In the age of Social Media trends, how does a forum like The Dialogue stand out?

The Dialogue is an outcome of the high-level attention paid on Social Media these days. With the growing discourse taking place on Social Media, it is important to drive constructive debates that are based on facts and data. In the information over-flow across Social Media channels, it is important to distinguish sensible and productive debates with that from sheer noise. India is home to one of the most charged people on politics who love to deliberate on issues that appeal to them. In the age of hard noise on Social Media, it is crucial to channel our energy in the right direction and filter out discussions and issues that really matter.

Our objective at The Dialogue is to facilitate this by driving a constructive policy discourse that relates to development. How do we stand out? We engage with subject matter experts and communicate the points in a simple language that can be understood by laymen. We work towards communicating the impact of policies to people, so that they understand its effects on their families and societies, and subsequently make informed opinions and choices.

  • How does an education in law aid one in the field of Public Policy?

Law and Public Policy are like cousins that belong to the larger family of governance. Policy precedes any action, while law establishes a framework for it. One cannot do without the other. Understanding of law has helped me tremendously in my work. One, it gives you the right skills to draft and analyse policies from a critical perspective. Two, the ability to interpret policies from a legal perspective. Three,understanding of the Constitution has helped me develop a right frame of mind to ideate on policies. Fourth, legal education allowed me to be a part of a very vibrant and dynamic ecosystem that consisted of intense discourse on governance and political issues. This prepares one with the right mental framework to dive in the field of Public Policy.

Whenever a policy is debated, law is always a critical aspect to it. Since both fields relate to Governance and administration, having studied an associate discipline always helps to tackle the other side of the spectrum.

  • Do you think that our Constitution has enough room for public dialogue in policy discourse?

Yes absolutely! The Constitution is based on the principles of liberty, freedom and tolerance that enshrine the idea of a dialogue. To have a Constitution is to have a system that can only survive on dialogue, and not monologue, between all our stakeholders that comprise of the state, public and private institutions, citizens, civil society and media. The federal structure of governance, separation of powers between the Legislature, Judiciary & Executive, fundamental rights and a lively Media are some of the essential features that have laid the foundation of public dialogue in our democracy.

In a democratic setup, it is not just the duty of the Government to take the country forward. Citizens are an equally important stakeholder too! And I am not just talking about the power to vote. That is just one way we can exercise our Constitutional right to drive policy discourse. I am talking about the ability to make a daily impact by voicing, motivating and working on issues that matter, so that we can have a long-lasting impact.

A democracy functions successfully only when there is a two-way communication between Government, citizens and other stakeholders. Fortunately we have a Constitution that allows for this two-way exchange of words. It is upto us however to use it for the right reasons. But before that, do we really understand what are the right issues to be bothered about? Or are we swayed by the might of the Big Media? These are important questions to be answered as we progress towards a healthier democracy.

  • How does a healthy Public Policy discourse serve the last rungs of a developing society?

The idea of a healthy Public Policy discourse is to serve the last rungs of our society. Let me give you an example of policy implementation. There are two approaches to this. First, there is a Top-Bottom approach, where the policies are designed at the Center, to be implemented at various levels and finally trickle down to impact. Second, a Bottom-Up approach, where local governments and municipalities enable micro-policies to drive impact, and such actions are recognised by the Center. Once again, our Constitution allows an ecosystem that enables both these approaches to flourish. This is where the idea of cooperative federalism comes into the picture. Now, looking at discourse, sadly, we don’t have a healthy Bottom-Up discourse, where regular voices from interior India get amplified in Delhi. Our media is mostly metro centric and does not focus enough on issues of the last rungs because they don’t make great TRIPs, unless a scandalous event takes place. This is a tragedy, because we are losing focus as one nation and getting distracted away from the job at hand – which is to enable high-level developmental growth, lift millions out of poverty, provide jobs, develop in-house manufacturing capabilities & infrastructure to become a middle-income country in the coming years.

For the last rungs, it is important that issues such as water, food security, sanitation, roads, jobs, agriculture, education, housing, electricity access etc end up as rituals of daily policy discourse. Second, we need to enhance Bottom-up communication, where we can take the voice of the poor farmer or labourer to New Delhi with the objective to make an impact. We need to amplify voice of the development agenda, where the policy-makers can take real time feedback from different parts of the country to accelerate growth.

  • Human Rights, other than the ones that fall under the ambit of rights as per the Constitution, fail to be recognised in a developing country like India. Do you concede?

I don’t think so. I believe the Constitution has a very wide ambit of recognition of human rights in the form of fundamental rights and the basic structure. It is upto to the Government to ensure that such rights are delivered as per the principles enshrined within the Constitution.  

  • How can Civil Society assist the Judiciary as far as a constructive discourse regarding environment protection is concerned?

I think this is already happening. The Civil Society, including NGOs, think-tanks, have  played a tremendous role to educate the Judiciary about the right environmental framework as well as laws and policies that should be enacted. I would like to bring the Government here as well. Let’s look at the example of air quality in Delhi. Much has been said and spoken about it in the past few years that people are taking notice. The media has woken up to it, and that has resulted in some serious prime-time discussions bringing together experts about ways to tackle this problem. Will this lead to policy action? I think it already is, but currently our Government has a very ad-hoc approach to it. Short-term action such as implementing odd-even rule, enhancing parking feed, ban on entry of heavy vehicles will not lead to long-term impact. There are three steps to any policy impact – recognition, diagnosis and action. We are on step two with limited inputs on step three. We need a coherent strategy for action, and I hope that 2018 will bring that into effect.

  • Does India have a progressive society in a developing country? Do our social and political structures support this perception?

As a relatively newly founded democratic nation, India is still a work in progress. We are finding our feet in terms of domestic growth and international recognition. We are progressing as a society and culturally and socially, we have to cross many milestones in our journey of a socially & economically advanced nation. As a country, we are probably the most complex to govern, simply because of the diverse cultures, way of life, social structures and religions we have. Somewhere down the line, we did not progress at the pace we should have because conservatism, as a political tool for parties to win votes played spoilsport to the idea of transformational progression of our cultural and social structures. Of course, since independence, we have progressed quite a bit from where we started when the British left in 1947. We have seen that through the instrument of law, evil practices such as Sati and Triple Talaq have been abolished. Over the past few decades, literacy rate has gone up, women are finding their feet more prominently than before and marginalised sections of society have a voice. However, we have long a way to go on such social parameters and there is a lot of work to be done.

The aspirations of our people are getting higher, our income levels are growing and so is our consumption. With the highest number of young, working population at hand, we have a great opportunity to translate it into serious growth. But to do that, we need to skill millions, create equal number of jobs and create an environment of hope and opportunity for anyone who wants to do great things in life. The country will benefit tremendously if everyone of us starts believing in our abilities and work towards achieving it. We need to keep raising our benchmarks and meet targets accordingly.

Innately, India is a composite liberal society. Even though historically and presently we have had acts of extremism, it has happened in pockets and our diversity binds our societies that ensures social unity and economic progress.

  • According to you, how can civil society make governance a more engaging process?

If media is the fourth pillar of the Constitution, then civil society is the fifth pillar. Civil society is defined as the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest the  will of citizens.

I believe that civil society is a very powerful tool to bring transformational policy impact. It can hold the Government to account and ensure that policies are framed keeping in mind all stakeholders, rich or poor. In a healthy democracy, civil society is at the center of policy reforms and action. It also supports governance by developing cutting-edge research, ideas, communicating the will of the people through discourse as well as involving citizens and other relevant stakeholders in the democratic process.