Delhi’s New Chief Minister Wants to Radically Democratize Public Spending. Can It Work?
Letting the people dictate the budget is unprecedented for Delhi, but it draws on a quarter-century of other "participatory budgeting" programs in India and around the world.
India is often called the world’s largest democracy, but when it comes to the country’s finances, decisions almost always rest with elites — and often corrupt ones. Arvind Kejriwal, the city of Delhi’s new chief minister, wants to change that. After campaigning on a platform of fighting corruption and holding officials more accountable, his Aam Aadmi Party won 67 of the 70 Delhi Assembly seats in the capital territory’s elections last month. And in his first speech to the Assembly he now heads, Kejriwal laid out plans for a radically democratic approach to public spending.
“The people of Delhi will form the budget,” he announced late last month. “To start with, we [will] begin with going to five to 10 constituencies, where people will be brought together and form a budget according to their needs.” Budget planners will take the feedback from these pilot districts and when possible include it in a budget for the Assembly to pass. “We will not go to the people of Delhi once in five years. We will go to them all the time,” he said.
Kejriwal’s thinking is unprecedented for Delhi. While ruling party officials have used past budgets to woo voters through measures like power subsidies and tax freezes, asking residents to help craft these plans is new. Supporters of this sort of process, who range from workers’ party leaders, socialists, and Occupy activists to World Bank analysts, say the scheme known as participatory budgeting can hugely improve cities’ ability to address poor residents’ needs and renew citizens’ interest in their municipalities.
Participatory budgeting — or PB — began in 1980s Latin America, as countries like Brazil transitioned from dictatorship toward democracy and corrupt local governments that had previously served dictators struggled to regain citizens’ trust. In 1988, most of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre’s infrastructure didn’t extend to its slums, and a World Bank report found that only 75 percent of the city’s households had sewer and water connections. The following year, the city began a PB program and by 1997, the share of households with sewer and water hookups had risen to 98 percent, a surge that surpassed similar cities without participatory budgeting.
Since then, cities across Brazil and more than 30 other countries from Portugal to Senegal to South Korea have tried out various participatory budgeting models — with varying degrees of success. Paris, Chicago, and New York have recently launched their own experiments.
“Thousands of cities around the world use participatory budgeting to allocate funds more efficiently and in ways that support low-income communities,” said Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit that advises PB initiatives. “If Delhi gives residents real power to develop and vote on spending proposals, it can transform the way government works for its poorest residents and be an international model for increasing equity.”
Cities tend to use PB to allocate funding for shared services such as infrastructure. Decisions about individual benefits like pensions naturally aren’t up for discussion. Depending on a program’s size and type, residents may hold community meetings and make decisions by consensus, vote, or some combination. While Porto Alegre’s program grew to involve several millions of dollars and tens of thousands of participants each year, Chicago’s began in just one of the city’s 50 legislative wards in 2010, when its alderman set aside $1.3 million for PB. A handful of other Chicago wards have since joined.
About half of New York City’s 51 Council districts are now using PB to determine portions of their budgets, though the money allocated this way only totals about $25 million of the city’s $75 billion budget. Last year, Paris’s new socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, asked residents of any age or nationality, no citizenship required, to vote on a range of environmental and other urban projects for which the city had allocated some $450 million — the largest amount ever devoted to a PB program. The project drew both praise and scorn in a city facing a budget deficit almost equal to the PB budget.
Kejriwal’s initiative in Delhi builds on a tradition of smaller-scale collaborative spending models elsewhere in India. In the ’80s and ’90s, activist luminaries preaching self-reliance, including Anna Hazare and Popatrao Baguji Pawar, launched participatory programs in backwoods villages such as Ralegan Siddhi and Hiware Bazar. They encouraged villagers to fight drought by chipping in for public works and agreeing not to grow water-guzzling crops such as bananas and sugarcane; as a result, residents saw their levels of wealth shoot up.
These schemes and Kejriwal’s combine participatory budgeting ideas with a homegrown brand of anti-corruption populism inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of swaraj. The term, translated as either “home rule” against colonizers or “self rule” against the tyranny of a central government, is a key plank of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party’s platform and the title of his 2012 book calling for government accountability.
While working as a tax collector and the head of an anti-corruption NGO, Kejriwal witnessed firsthand the abuses of multinational corporations and corrupt officials. “Today the leaders are buying the legislators of the country to save their party,” Kejriwal wrote in Swaraj. “Tomorrow the same legislators could be bought by any other country like America or Pakistan.” His Aam Aadmi — or “common man” — Party wants to solve this problem by returning power to the people. “In our vision of Swaraj,” the AAP’s 2014 platform declared, “every citizen of India would be able to participate in decisions that affect their lives,” meaning most decisions, including budgetary ones, should be made at the level of the municipal district.
Even before the AAP’s 2012 launch, some other Indian cities were experimenting with these ideas. In the early 2000s, a fraction of Bangalore’s wards tested out PB, and in 2006, Pune became the first major Indian city to start a citywide, formal PB program, with meetings at the neighborhood level to ensure residents both in and out of the slums had input about their own areas. Pune citizens’ budget recommendations aren’t binding, though, and PB spending accounts for only about one percent of the city’s total budget.
Kejriwal is also proposing a non-binding approach for Delhi, and that worries Giovanni Allegretti, a leading researcher on participatory budgeting at the Center for Social Studies of Coimbra University. “Advisory non-binding models of PB are always at risk of failure,” he said, because politicians can still cherry-pick the proposals that benefit their own interests. That might leave citizens feeling like power remains with the same (potentially corrupt) officials who’ve always held it.
“The key tension is to provide enough resources to make it worthwhile for people to participate, but not to overinflate expectations,” said Brian Wampler, a professor at Boise State University and author of a book on PB in Brazil. Kejriwal’s government is likely to choose pilot districts where a majority voted for the AAP or where the party thinks it can win new supporters, and avoid politically hostile districts, he said.
That’s one reason that a successful pilot program might not predict citywide success. “Pilot programs are always ‘successful’ as typically more than usual resources are made available,” said World Bank consultant and PB analyst Anwar Shah. “But system-wide implementations may later fail as the resources and political interest evaporates.”
In fact, PB programs’ startup costs are high and may take years to pay off. And like most exercises in democracy, they risk domination by powerful groups. Fearful that they may lose turf, drug lords in Brazil, for example, have pressured slum dwellers not to call for new infrastructure.
On the other hand, according to a saying that Allegretti cites, “It’s easier to bribe a mayor and 20 council members than to corrupt an assembly of thousands of people.” And researchers have found that because people involved in PB often feel more invested in their cities’ public works, it tends to be easier to raise contributions for projects — or even collect basic tax money in places where weak local government can’t always get people to cough up.
Kejriwal’s ultimate goal of involving all of Delhi in budget planning would mean participatory budgeting on a scale never seen before in India. But many questions remain about what the model there will look like. AAP officials weren’t able to give Foreign Policy details of the plan beyond what Kejriwal announced. Factional infighting has shaken the party since the election. For now, past programs offer hope, but we can only speculate about how much the aam aadmi will really benefit from Kejriwal’s radical proposal.
SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images