In a globalised world, migration begets migration. Those who are well-off migrate to metros or the West to seek better career opportunities. They may invest their earnings in apartments in large cities. Their investment drives construction that drives further migration: these apartment are likely to have been built by economic migrants from Chhatisgarh or Bihar.

However, as the pandemic has shown, the two migrants aren’t equal: the elite migrant could retreat into Zoom calls and “work from home”, while the marginal migrant was left stranded. A life of dignity, always precarious for the poor, became impossible after the lockdown.

What might they do to recover their dignity? One way to do so is to vote with their feet, i.e., to stay in their home communities as much as possible and migrate only when the destination guarantees that their rights will be respected. Both options are fraught with danger, especially when the lands back home are captured by the powerful, whether local or distant and when their gram sabha and other political institutions cannot protect their rights in the destination cities.

People’s verdict

These are some of the questions emerged from the citizen’s jury we called the “Janta ka Faisla” we organised in Raipur from July 11-July 15. The forum offered migrants the opportunity to participate in a deliberative exercise that addressed the challenges of Indian society. At a Janta ka Faisla, the jury assisted by a support staff delivers a verdict after hearing representations from experts across civil society, academia and officials from the government. The jury is in the driver’s seat and actively questions the experts. As a result, the normal power relationship between migrants and elites is reversed, with the migrants sitting in judgment and experts acting as advisors.

Our first Janta ka Faisla demonstrated that migrants have a keen appreciation of their situation and the larger political economy in which they live their lives. For example, while they recognise that work sponsored by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guaratee Scheme restores some of their agency, it creates further problems: who will take care of their children while they have to travel substantial (if still local) distances for MNREGA-related work? Nutritional support for children has to go hand in hand with livelihood support for adults.

The jurors posed these questions directly to Amarjeet Bhagat, Chhattisgarh’s minister of food and civil supplies and TS Singh Deo, the state health minister. Their answers are on record, but it is the spirit of questioning and judgment that we want to focus on.

The Janta ka Faisla event in Raipur.

Democratic life comes with rights as well as duties. Elections and parliaments are the best-known institutions in democratic life, since all citizens have the right to vote – and also the civic duty to do so. Besides electoral institutions, we also have the law. In some countries such as the US, the law is an essential part of civic life, with every citizen serving on juries and delivering judgments.

Jury duty is often seen as a chore, but it serves an important purpose: it reiterates that in a democracy, the people are sovereign and it offers a visceral experience of enacting that sovereignty and of bearing witness to the acts of their fellow citizens. In short, jury duty distributes the act of representation and recognises that each of us have the capacity to represent all of us.

In India, we aren’t accustomed to treating migrants as full citizens. We don’t protect their rights and we certainly don’t allow them to represent us or sit in judgment on the actions of the powerful or the state. But the Janta ka Faisla showed clearly that a jury of migrants can not only take on the burden of being a collective witness, their perspective adds insights that are missing from the views of the powerful who are routinely represented in the media.

Platform thinking

Take healthcare, for example. The jury noted that they keep being redirected from public to private health institutions and back for different things like tests, medicines and other services. Why can’t all these services be housed in one organisation in each city? In asking these questions, the Janta ka Faisla jury exhibited the kind of “platform thinking” for which an IT consultant would charge crores of rupees. If nothing else, such questions enable a process of human-centred design that will help build institutions that work for all of us.

The Washington Post has a tagline: “Democracy dies in darkness.” While agreeing with that claim, we ask a natural follow up question: whose light will dispel the darkness? Our experience with the Janta ka Faisla suggests that the capacity to throw light on our collective affairs should be widely distributed and that members of marginalised communities are as capable of revealing the truth as the most powerful in the land.

Gangaram Paikra is the Director of Chaupal in Surguja, Chhattisgarh.
Rajesh Kasturirangan is the CEO of Socratus Foundation for Collective Wisdom.
Biraj Patnaik is the Executive Director of the National Foundation for India.