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AAP's experiments with democracy

Chitra Narayanan     May 15, 2015

Chitra Narayanan, Deputy Editor, Business Today
Ever since Micromax crowdsourced its punchy logo, brands, businesses and even governments have sought to get ideas from the masses. From product improvement suggestions to marketing campaigns of companies to policy improvement ideas (remember Sam Pitroda's famous Google Hangouts), crowdsourcing has been used a lot in the last few years.

In a sense, the entire country has become an ideas bank. And of course, since we love to tell others what to do, we have embraced it with relish.

Which is why it was surprising to see the lack of attendance at AAP's mohalla budget in my neighbourhood. Trust unconventional AAP to take crowdsourcing to another level - it is inviting people to vote on how they would like their mohalla budgets of Rs 50 lakh to be spent. It fits in with its rather over-democratic image in any case.

My interest was aroused when large banners went up in the neighbourhood two days before the event. Diligent volunteers came knocking at every door too to hand over the invitation to attend the mohalla budget meeting.

Despite the heat, I decided to attend, to find barely 20 citizens, mostly senior. Laggards strolled in a bit later, but the final headcount at the meeting was just about 50 (where were the otherwise vocal residents? Or was it the lack of party bigwigs that deterred them? Unlike some of the other Mohalla budgets that were presided over by AAP ministers, ours did not have any celebrity).

The arrangements were undeniably good. A large shamiana with good seating arrangements for residents. AAP representatives sat on the dais while MCD, PWD officials and electricity board officials sat on one side, ears cocked and pens to the ready.

For a while, the AAP representatives listened patiently to the suggestions ranging from frivolous ideas like building a library, impractical ones like pensions for poor people to over ambitious asks like laying a pipeline of Ganga water for the neighbourhood. After an hour or so of this, AAP officials became restive and asked people to stop talking and pen down the suggestions at which point one senior citizen took huge umbrage. "Yahan kis liye bulaya phir if we cannot discuss it? We could have mailed you suggestions."

In the end, we all dutifully penned down our ideas and handed them in. Within a matter of minutes, these were efficiently collated, impractical suggestions were crossed out (and it was explained why) and suggestions that fell under the jurisdiction of MCD or PWD or traffic police (such as one to make the market a car-free zone) were passed on to those officials.

Finally, after elimination, only 25-28 suggestions were deemed worthy of consideration. These were put to a vote. Not surprisingly, the demand for a library in the mohalla got four votes. Another for a foot-overbridge got none especially when the officials explained that it would cost a lot.

Surprisingly, the three that got the most votes were park maintenance and repairs; solar panels for lighting; and rainwater harvesting. A close fourth was to improve lighting and security on a dark lane near the Metro station.

I asked a few residents if they were happy at the final three. No one looked entirely satisfied. We could have spent it on something even better was the feeling. As economists say, individual preferences cannot be ordered sensibly.

It was a worthy experiment but it had some inherent flaws. What AAP should have done was to involve all the RWAs rather than call a public meeting. The RWA heads should have been asked to find out what their residents wanted and drawn up lists. That list could have been whittled down to three from each RWA. Such a filtering process would have yielded better results. At the moment what happened was a chaotic outpouring of thoughts.

And the meeting might have got more of a crowd if AAP had got our resident MLA to attend as well.

The point about crowdsourcing, as a marketer once said, is this: it only works well if the crowd is intelligent, enthusiastic and organised well. If not, it can end up as the AAP experiment has done. There is still time for AAP to learn.

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