Monday 18th December, 2006

Prakash Persad
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Dialogue—the way forward

The need to communicate is fundamental to human nature. One only has to look at the explosive growth of cellphones to see the tangible manifestation of this.

In a democratic society where freedom of speech is an inalienable right, social discourse is the very vehicle for the airing, discussing and resolving the issues of development and growth. Indeed, the absence of it results in the very opposite.

Thus it is absolutely critical that not only members of Parliament but also all social institutions and individuals be actively involved in discussions pertaining to the well-being of the nation. It is the essence of democracy. It cannot and should not be a once-every-five-year-event. Democracy is a way of life, an every-day practice.

Hindu culture engrains an ethos of democracy in that it does not lay down inflexible dogmas and edicts. It encourages questioning and dialogue, for only through dialogue can informed decision-making be implemented. It is an ancient and time-honoured tradition.

At the village level, the panchayat system of collective discussion among the elders was the mechanism for resolving disputes and dealing with new challenges.

In the Ramayan, Lord Ram, king of the prosperous and powerful kingdom of Ayodhya, told his subjects that they were free to disagree with him but he would appreciate it if the reasons for so doing were indicated to him.

Dialogue with leaders and citizens constitute the very essence of the highest democratic ideals.

Indeed, the pursuance of this principle was the rationale for Hindu kings of yore disguising themselves and mixing freely with the population so as to obtain a firsthand view, as opposed to a filtered one presented by advisers, of the state of affairs of the nation.

This is something modern leaders, worldwide, should emulate. In developing societies, I think it should be recommended practice for at least one day of the year. It would help to improve the governance process.

It bespeaks well of our society that more and more NGOs and citizens are engaging themselves in the social discourse. This must be encouraged and fostered. The ultimate goal of development is the empowerment of every citizen to air his views and to include them in the decision-making process.

In fact, it is the implementation of this very idea by Japanese manufacturers which allowed them to manufacture world class products post World War II. They democratised the decision-making process to include the factory floor, the so-called “quality circle” concept. Simply put, they moved away from the practice that the workers who actually made the products had nothing to contribute to final quality of the product.

Quality is enhanced if every worker (designer, engineer, production supervisor, floor hand etc) contributed to the quality of the product and therefore the input of everyone was important.

This practice is taken even further now by manufacturers who include customers in their design loop for new products. So now even hard-nosed manufacturers have come to recognise the value of the average man, and rightly so, for it is to him (and yes her also) the product is targeted.

Development is thus enhanced when the collective wisdom and views of all strata of society are considered. In small societies this is even more critical in that the resource pool tends to be limited and therefore to ignore or sideline opposing views, on considerations other than intrinsic merit, puts in jeopardy the whole process of sustained development.

One may postulate that people may be arguing for the sole purpose of opposing or that people are unable to visualise the particular scenario being proposed.

In the case of the former, by clearly stating the case most people would dismiss the opposing views if they are spurious. In the case of the latter, the value of the particular vision must be clearly articulated to convince the sceptics.

If the majority cannot be convinced then their views must be respected. It is the underpinning of free societies.

This leads to the very difficult and tricky question as to who constitutes the majority in the case of divided opinion. One can always get a sense as to what the majority of citizens feel and act accordingly. Clearly, for really contentious issues a formal process is to be preferred.

This brings us to the use of referendums. Whilst acknowledging that we cannot have a referendum for everything, most would agree that there should be the mechanism for invoking one. The trigger for this can either be through defined parliamentary processes or through the use of a minimum number of signatures from the public. Whichever mechanism is to be implemented, we need to urgently adopt one.

In most elections here, at least one-third of the population generally does not vote. It would be interesting to see if this one-third might be more motivated to act on specific issues, as would be the case of a referendum. In any event, the way forward requires greater participation of every citizen at both the local and national levels.

If, as we say, our greatest resource is our human resource, then is it not paradoxical that the entirety of that resource is not mobilised in the processes that have the most significant impact of the future of the country?

Talk is the mechanism for expressing thought. Dialogue is the best mechanism for determining what all sides think. The way forward does not necessarily require unanimity but it certainly does require consensus.

* Prof Prakash Persad is chairman of Swaha Inc

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