Reviews of I, the citizen

Review by Mrs. Sheela Bhojwani. Published in May 2017 issue of EAST AND WEST SERIES Magazine

In this book the author showcases the power of the so called passive, non-descriptive, observer, uninvolved citizen – a faceless nameless, inconsequential citizen.

This power emerges when each and every citizen from every class and state of society decides to engage in a proactive involvement in the formation and functioning of society and the nation.

The author presents, urges and encourages citizen engagement to become the fulcrum for the development agenda for nations.It should be an unending movement in governance right to information, democracy, policies and the fight against corruption.

Mrs. Sheela Bhojwani, MA(English),
Review Editor of “East and West Series” magazine.

i, the citizen: unraveling the power of citizen engagement

i, the citizen is a rare book linking multiple topics and domains such as leadership, development, corruption, governance, democracy, and citizen engagement. The book discusses various domains of public policy, establishing interconnectivity through eight different segments of the book. The author, a development practitioner, has worked closely with communities and contributed to the policy-making process. He has seen as well as experienced the impact of development first-hand. The abundant learning that the author has acquired through his journey is aptly reflected in the small ‘i’ used in the title of the book.

The book unravels our narrow understanding on ‘development’ and the author explains the narrative from the beneficiaries’ perspective. Development economics is a subject of broad and current interest in economic and political circles with economists and politicians defining and deciding important parameters for the ‘development indicators’, which are limited to food security, health, education, shelter, sanitation facility, and so on. The author narrates and defines development in the book through many anecdotes, clearly emphasizing on the need to understand the beneficiaries’ perspective. His personal experiences highlight that often the policy-makers and benefit providers end up understanding the problems from their perspective, which may result in mere interference in the natural-normal course of life led by the beneficiary.

The author expresses that in an attempt to pursue economic growth, the policy-makers have to focus on key indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP), per capita income, standard of living, and so on. Their policies may pose a great challenge to human development as it results in displacement of communities, interfering into natural lives of tribes and rural folks. The economic activities such as constructing roads and dams, marking reserve forest, and so on may result in the loss of natural style of living of these people and connect to nature. The author observes that these tribes have embodied special skills and abilities, passed on to them through generations; they will stand to lose once they are uprooted. Some of the skills and abilities narrated in the book through various anecdotes are their ability to recognize and understand the forest environment, knowledge of natural medicines and ability to use forest-based resources for their livelihood. They are forced to acquire new ways of living for their survival once they are displaced. The displacement of tribes has a humane side; the emotions and dignity of people are emphasized in a rare attempt to address the issues of economic development. Addressing the complexities of measuring the indicators of development, the author raises pertinent questions on how to account for the loss of natural skills and abilities of the people. The author stresses on ‘development with dignity’. He also emphasizes that the benefit providers must consider the beneficiaries as partners in progress.

The book also deals with ‘natural conflicts’ that arise in the process of empowering people. The tribal and rural folks have failed to understand the objective behind government’s schemes such as Aadhaar, public distribution system (PDS), rural employment guarantee schemes, and so on to empower them. Therefore, the government should use various public–private administrative machineries to inform and educate people about the purpose as well as the outcomes of the schemes. Another issue raised is the need for ‘social innovation’ in the governing process. While addressing the issue of first-generation school goers, what appeals to the reader is that the author’s ability to understand the difference or rather the conflict between formal education and the knowledge is acquired through natural learning. The tribal children have abundant knowledge about the trees in forests, different animals and reptile species, and their life in the forest that they acquire naturally through observation. While reading this segment of the book, one feels that the formal education will make them unlearn so many things which they have inherited naturally. The book emphasizes on the need to understand the challenges of the beneficiary before deciding what is good for them and that the disconnect between the development practitioners and the beneficiaries need to be bridged.

The segments of the book focusing on topics such as ‘governance’, ‘democracy’ and ‘citizenship’ provoke unconventional thoughts. The book explains the perception of governance as viewed by various sections of the society. The author notes that each section feels that political class is responsible for rampant corruption and misuse of public money and office, resulting in bad governance. He emphasizes on citizens’ role in the system and considers the society as a mirror image. The book suggests that ‘community participation’ and ‘engagement with the state’ may ensure effectiveness of various public programmes and are steps towards good governance. The book also discusses governance issues from the administrators’ perspective. The events woven around the PDS highlight deep-rooted corruption. The social transformation initiatives of the new government such as Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga, and so on are being applauded by the author and he opines that as an electorate, each citizen has to own the responsibility of responding positively to such initiatives to build a healthy democracy.

The book highlights, through real life cases, the issues of ‘citizen engagement and fighting corruption’. The author points out that the corruption has to be understood and dealt with rather than just be talked about. Television debates, sloganeering, or street protests can never fight corruption. The book rightly identifies that corruption is an impediment to economic development as it results in production of substandard public utility goods and services. Corruption has maximum impact on the poor and it widens the gap between the rich and the poor. The performance of the private sector is also affected by widespread corruption. The book stresses on the fact that corruption cannot be fought with a single tool but needs strong political will, legal framework, and community movement.

The author believes that the Right to Information Act (RTI) passed in 2005 is a remarkable change showcasing the changing political landscape in India. While on a month-long campaign on foot covering 120 villages between Mysuru and Bengaluru, the author experienced how people were responsive and eager to understand how RTI could be used to solve their problems with the administrative machinery. The book shares those experiences and quotes the difference in the response of villagers and city dwellers to the campaign. The author observes that the city life kills the natural curiosity and inquisitiveness; the city dwellers feel that the information is at their doorsteps, unlike the rural folks who have to make an attempt to gather and synthesize any information.

The book addresses the issue of citizens’ engagement to make democracy work in an electoral politics. The inclusion, cost-effective medical facility, and so on. Although these are the relevant issues, towards the end, the book seems to be focusing on all possible areas of public policy. The author is right in identifying that the process of development is unending as new indicators may be added continually. The lives and rights of tribal communities living in India are highly vulnerable to the development process. It calls for occupational changes, cultural adaptation, and a different lifestyle. Organizations such as GRAAM can contribute constructively to the policy research and policy advocacy initiatives.

The elections held in 2014 have proved that Indian politics is at a crossroads and changes in the political and administrative set-ups are expected in the future. The book offers a lot of insights to the readers and triggers the readers’ thinking process. While the message on development, citizen engagement, democracy, and so on may not be entertaining to read, the way the issues are highlighted through the experiences of the author makes the book reading interesting and hard to put down. The narrative style of the book ensures that the tone of the book is positive and evokes the reader to ponder over possible solutions.

Savitha G Lakkol
Associate Professor, JSS Centre for Management
SJCE, JSS Technical Institution Campus
Manasa Gangothri, Mysore

Dear Dr. Balu,

I thank you for sharing with me your book, i, the citizen, which I just finished reading. You have very effectively communicated your message that it is of prime importance to first find out what a ‘beneficiary’ really needs before designing government schemes or even individual do-good projects. Some of the responses are really counter-intuitive, such as the women who did not like the availability of water in their village!

I also admire your ability to reach out and understand the lives of the people. I would have thought of, but not had the courage to ask Rathnamma, the vegetable seller about her business model. You did, and the answers are revealing.

In case you are planning another edition of the book, you may consider the following suggestion. You have uniformly narrated instances of the integrity and participative nature of the poor and the underprivileged. But surely, there are also instances where they may mis-state/cheat and be deceptive that you came across. Narrating some of those situations, and how you structured your programmes to deal with those situations would also be informative. In other areas, such as on p.92 where you call upon citizens to participate more in receiving good governance, you identify a problem. I wish you take the discussion further and spell out a few ways in which you think a solution should proceed, such as a few ways in which citizen participation can help governance, in this particular situation.

Thank you for a thought-provoking book that has come straight from the heart.

Review By

Dear Sir,

The book, “I, the Citizen” by Dr. R. Balasubramaniam was given to me for reading by a relative, Mr. V. Natrajan, a senior Executive of Tata Pigments Ltd., who said, “Anna, you will like this book. Please read it.” In fact, he had not read this book but had given it to me.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the finest books I have ever read and feel compelled to share my thoughts on the same. I have thanked Mr. Natrajan for giving me this excellent book to read.

Dr. Balu and his team, who have rendered selfless service to uplift the lives of the ‘poorest of the poor’ and make them aware of their rights and duties, need to be thanked immensely.

Dr. Balu has demonstrated in a very simple manner as to how ordinary people can become ‘change agents’ if they are provided proper guidance and help by right-thinking people.

The book also goes on to prove that tribals are in no way inferior to the people who reside in towns & cities, but are far ahead in their thoughts which are clean and devoid of any politics or greed for wealth or material comforts. Characters like Jadiya, Ningamani, Akkamma, Kempiah, the seven-year-old Manju, Thimmaiah, Shivamma, Bhagyamma and many others have put ‘educated’ people like us to shame for, we stand nowhere when compared to them. Despite leading simple lives, they are very clear in their thoughts and remain rooted to their culture and tradition.

Dr. Balu has proved that proper information and education can create wonders. Though there is a lot to be done for societal development, this book can be considered a ‘torch bearer’. Dr. Balu has shown us a way as to how, “We, the citizens” can contribute our bit in educating and developing the society in and around us. However, for all this, we should start this exercise from our very homes.

Being an ordinary worker, I am at a loss of words as to say which portion / chapter of the book I liked the most and also, do not find proper expressions to thank Dr. Balu and team for their extraordinary efforts in giving shape to this book which, in my humble opinion, should be present in every house. It should be read by all sections of the society, leaders and politicians in particular. This book should be translated into different languages and paperback editions at a more affordable price will make it reach more and more people in our country.

I am reminded of a beautiful poem often recited by our former President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, which reads as follows :-

“Where is righteousness in the heart,
There is beauty in the character.
Where there is beauty in the character,
There is harmony at home.
When there is harmony at home,
There is order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation,
There is peace in the world.”

Dr. Kalam always wanted our society to consist of “enlightened citizens with value system” and Dr. Balu and team are doing their part in fulfilling Dr. Kalam’s dream. Once again, I thank Dr. Balu for this wonderful book.

Best Wishes,
S. Balakrishnan,

i, the citizen – a citizen’s guide to the world of social activism

Dr. R Balasubramaniam (Balu) is a doctor by training but some early experiences in his profession turned him into doctor of society instead of doctor for human beings. This book ‘i, the citizen, is story of a person who has spent 30 years of his prime years in the service of society. It is NOT a biography, nor is it a depressing story of a person who has spent major part of his 30 years of social activism in tribal areas near Mysuru in Karnataka. It is not a self- laudatory tome of a person eager to get appreciative ovation. It is an uplifting account of humble, self-effacing, non-publicity seeker person who has worked quietly with his own people as a part of his duty to society. It is about his evolution as he seeks better ways of serving his brethren. He speaks more as a member of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) that he founded; and his move from social service to social advocacy. It is a book that could be a citizen’s guide to the world of social activism.

It is by sheer accident that I got my hands to this book. A young volunteer, an IIT alumni and an MS from US, ShobitMathur who is founding member of Vision India Foundation who had come to Mumbai to spread the word about this young organization gave me this book as co-publisher of this book. It was another stroke of good luck that I had an occasion to meet gentle smiling Dr. Balasubramaniam in Mumbai within a month of getting this book during a Litfest organized by Swami Vivekananda Insitute of Management. It was much easier to read the book and understand it as I could put a face to the experiences of a social activist, a worthy citizen of this nation.

The most striking and endearing part of the book is its story of ordinary Indian. Not stories about us, city bred educated well off people, but of people living on the fringes of our society, who are a blur at the periphery of our vision; whom we see while travelling but only see as another object on the side of the road. These stories are not narrated with pathos, but with straight forward honesty. Without any flourish from Balu, they simply touch you deep down and you slowly start seeing these tribal brethren with a new eye. There is no anger flowing from Balu when he talks of these touching experiences many of them changing his own life at different steps. There is compassion that comes out of the heart of a devoted follower of Swami Vivekananda, not just in words but in deeds. This compassion is of a person one with his tribal friends whom he loves.

Dr. Balasubramaniam is impressed and moved with their dignity and their honesty. He feels one with them when they share their food, love, travails and helplessness and come forward to work with him when he feels that may be, he cannot really do much to change wretched condition of poverty struck society that gave this nation so much for its progress but have been sidelined. Though SVYM has worked mainly in tribal area near Mysuru in a few tehsils, and his new organization Grassroots Research & Advocacy Movement (GRAAM) is head quartered in Mysuru; the experiences could be from any part of Bharat i.e. India. Any person working in some other region of India can easily identify with Balu’s experience.

As I read through the book ‘i, the citizen’, I could mentally divide the book in three parts – First is his experience of starting his journey in social service as a young doctor. This is full of anecdotes and most uplifting and wondrous, heart touching part of this book. Second part is about his social advocacy and work as a organizer of citizen’s movement in educating people on Right to Information (RTI) , fighting against corruption. This is critical part of this book, but being of recent history sounds familiar except that he has lived these movements moving amongst ordinary citizens. But his sharing of living stories during this time and paradox of people wanting corruption free society while they use it as compulsion in daily life does change your perspective and you realize how difficult this work is. Third part is about his evolution to research and advocacy based on ground level experience in social movements. This would sound preachy except that he has actually lived this while we have only debated it.

Latter two parts are thought provoking and a lesson for people who write about corruption, peoples’ rights and talk big on TVs, though not as gripping as first part. Author shares his experience in lucid style about utilizing various social welfare schemes that government floats and why they fail and how difficult is it to make them succeed. How various programmes are made for deprived sections of the society without hearing their side of the story or their expectations.

He narrates the story of a poor mother who shook his conscience by teaching this young intern fresh from MBBS the difference ‘prescription’ and ‘treatment’. How this single incident told him which way his life would lead him. He recounts how women from a helmet berated him in worst language for providing them with water taps within the village instead of thanking him for saving them 8 km of water to fetch water. This set him thinking what is development? Shouldn’t citizens have a way in policy making for policies that directly affect them or profess to support them? A simple tribal woman taught him why government should not build houses for poor but let them build it with traditional skills with resources provided to them, rather than making impractical costly houses not fit for their habitat. He talks about difficulties an honest villager faced in getting benefits of ‘Below Poverty Line’ citizens and how these benefits are siphoned off by well to do people.

There are innumerable stories, innumerable experiences. Through all these, he leads you to his world of social activism through citizens, each citizen being responsible for bringing out a change in our society, to bring in participatory democracy with peoples’ direct participation in working of government and policy making.

Any person who has some inkling towards social work or seva, needs to study this book, not just read to open up her/his eyes to real functioning of our society outside the light circles of light that we enjoy in cities, how one needs to work patiently with people as one’s own family, work patiently with governing apparatus that is so foreign to real world of Indian citizens and take along people to bring in positive change in the society. Afterall, political governance cannot bring in change, society has to be part of it.

Ratan Sharda
28th Feb, 2016

Review by Prema Raghunath. Published in the October 2016 issue of The Vedanta Kesari