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Boundary paradoxes: the social life of transparency and accountability activism in Delhi

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:55 authored by Martin Webb
Based on fieldwork carried out in Delhi during 2006-2007 this thesis explores the social world of transparency and accountability activism in the city. I focus in particular on the activism scene that has grown up around the campaign for and implementation of the national Right to Information Act 2005. There is a global interest in improving the transparency and accountability of government bureaucracies, and in schemes to foster active citizenship. In tune with this campaigns to provide Indian citizens with a right to access government information have captured the imagination of activists, policy makers, and national and international donor organisations. For transparency and accountability activists rights to access government information offer Indian citizens opportunities to interrogate official procedures and hold officers individually accountable; to provide people with mechanisms with which they might become more =active‘ as citizens; and to provide a means of monitoring the performance of the state in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities regarding welfare, equality and social justice. Taking boundaries as my theme my work looks at the activist scene in Delhi from an ethnographic perspective, investigating how activist projects work. I argue that the ideology and practice of transparency and accountability activism is concerned with boundaries in two ways. First it is directed at illuminating and delineating boundaries between the state and society, and public and private roles. The intention is to combat the effects of private influence and unofficial practices that might lead to the misallocation of government resources. Second it is directed at transcending social and spatial boundaries based on class, caste or community in order to enrol people into projects aimed at producing empowered and active citizens. However, in looking at the activist scene a number of what I call =boundary paradoxes‘ become apparent. Activist campaigns to get transparency and accountability legislation passed rely in part on the personal connections to the highest levels of government of activists from India‘s social elite. At the grassroots level activists play a mediating role between the local state and poor or illiterate clients. Social and cultural capital, space, class and gender distinctions emerge as significant factors in the everyday practice of activism, in turn reproducing existing social hierarchies in activist organisations. While seeking transparency and accountability from others activists have to negotiate the boundaries of transparency and accountability in their own organisations, deciding what can be made public and what should remain hidden. And, as activism is organised through informal networks sustaining a livelihood and a full time role in the scene immerses activists in webs of patron-client relations, recommendations and obligations, the antithesis of the disciplined, transparent and accountable bureaucratic organisation that transparency and accountability activism requires from the state. My thesis contains examples of the positive effects that involvement in activism can have, particularly for people from some of Delhi‘s poorer neighbourhoods. However, although activism is directed at producing a future that conforms to activist‘s ideal constructions of how India should be, activists must work in the present to bring this future about. I argue that even as activists work for change, activism itself is a site in which the existing structures of society are reproduced.


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