DISCLAIMER: This essay was awarded 2nd prize for an essay writing competition held by IIT Bombay during Vigilance Awareness Week in November 2020. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
By Prathamesh Mokal
After independence, we, the people of India, agreed on our shared road to prosperity, and that is Democracy. Our democracy, as it is today, faces perils not from outside but from within, from its constituents. The current threats to our democracy are covert and lie deep within the societal structures that we have built. We are the agents of such structures. Hence, the words of Thomas Jefferson that “Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy” hold more weight today than ever before.
Vigilance is not an easy task. It demands an alert civil society if not the entire citizenry. Being vigilant requires one to be fearless and question those in power, those reposed in authority and above all oneself. Only an aware and a questioning mind can perceive the subtle manoeuvres of those at the helms of power. Constant vigilance works like a negative feedback system. It ensures that those who are entrusted with power by the public are kept reminding that they are under the perpetual public gaze. ‘The janta is watching’, and those representing the janta must act accordingly. Vigilant citizens create a vibrant and a real democracy which in turn ensures that the fruits of prosperity reach the last person. There are four specific issues which require our utmost vigilance- corruption, crimes of hate, cybersecurity and climate
After the 1990s, with skewed economic growth came income inequality. Moreover, in a country with inherent graded social inequality in the form of caste, the picture is grimmer than what meets the eye. Inequality is a breeding ground for corruption. However, corruption in its traditional form is not the real cause for concern. Petty bribery at the lower rungs of administration would be taken care of by the digitization drive of the government. Today, we are witnessing a metamorphosis of operational corruption into structural corruption.
Structural corruption is the reason why, despite complete digitization of banking services in India, large banks still fail. The leading cause for bank failures like in the case of PMC Bank or Yes Bank is the corruption pervading in their governing boards. Political pressure forces banks to lend to defunct projects with the minimal scope of repayment and allow individuals with clout to siphon off public money. No mechanism put in place can detect such corruption. Here, a vigilant citizen can come to the rescue. Stakeholders can form an independent committee outside the purview of a bank. Bank failures do not happen overnight; they are the outcome of a long process. Hence, such a committee can collate all the necessary information to keep a watch on the bank’s performance parameters. A vigilant stakeholders’ committee can identify the abnormality in their bank’s functioning and notify the RBI as well as the rest of the depositors. Banks are the engines of a country’s economic prosperity. Hence, such prompt collective action would contribute a long way in India’s prosperity.
A nation cannot prosper by staying indifferent towards the predicament of a significant section of its population. Such an attitude nurtures divisiveness in society. The recent Hathras incident is an indication that hate crimes against women and socially deprived castes and communities are on the rise in India. Adding fuel to the fire is the phenomenon of fake news. Hence, vigilance is the need of the hour in this age of post-truth politics. Political parties to garner support may project lies or distorted facts through social media. Also, people tend to follow similar pages and accounts on social media platforms. Thereby, confining themselvesto echo-chambers where a repeated lie is projected as the truth.
In such a scenario, one must be a vigilant consumer of social media content. This means not believing in things as they are shown, following genuine sources and, most importantly, verifying before forwarding. One needs to stay alert against online toxicity and be wise enough to distinguish between facts and fakes. India’s prosperity rests on her social cohesiveness. Prosperity is possible only when all social groups contribute towards it. Thus, a vigilant citizen who breaks the chain of ‘WhatsApp forwards’, potential of stoking communal passions, serves the national cause.
Digitization and penetration of the Internet, like any other technological intervention, has inadvertently opened an arena for fraudsters. Rampant digitization in a society with no prior digital literacy has shot up cybercrime in India. This is corroborated by the fact that the National Crime Records Bureau’s data for 2019 showed a 63.5 percent increase in cybercrime. Cybercriminals tap into the innocence and ignorance of the Indian user. Flashy advertisements of Ponzi schemes on websites or calls from fake job providers are used to trap people and extort money and extract their crucial data. The government has legal instruments like the Information Technology Act, 2000, to combat cybercrime. Also, it has set up the National Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in) as the nodal agency for cybersecurity.
However, a digitally vigilant citizen is an essential component of Digital India. One should not divulge any personal information, passwords, addresses, etc. to an unreliable website or page. Also, rather than rushing to ‘I agree’, one must read the ‘Terms and Conditions’ before entering any deal online. In the age of big data, one cannot afford to be incautious about one’s digital footprint. Just as an alert driver saves lives on the road, a digitally aware user can save money and reputation on the information superhighway. Furthermore, youngsters can ensure prosperity by disseminating digital literacy to the elderly and the less-educated.
Climate Change is an imminent danger to India. With millions living in ecologically vulnerable areas, its effects will be disproportionate towards the poor. Mass migrations caused due to floods or droughts are detrimental to the working of democracy. A socially and economically battered crowd is susceptible to a populist political agenda. Hence, vigilant citizens can play an important role in combating Climate Change and its adverse effects.
First and foremost, as a vigilant citizen, one must reflect on one’s lifestyle. As one attains social mobility, one should not give into extravagance and flamboyance. Experience of the West has shown that consumption-based lifestyle is a significant cause of pollution. One must strive to achieve an eco-friendly way of living to the extent possible. Moreover, purchasing earthen diyas instead of plastic lanterns would contribute to the prosperity of indigenous artisans. Secondly, as vigilant citizens, we must be the guardians of our country’s natural wealth. Forests and wildlife are an inseparable part of national prosperity. We must be aware of any nexus between politicians and industrialists to encroach upon forest areas. Collective vigilance is a roadmap to sustainable development.
Citizens are the base of a democratic polity and their vigilance is the cement that holds it together. As humans, we are susceptible to buy propaganda and lower our vigil. Indifference on the part of citizens can push democracy down the slippery slope. Hence, vigilance is the pre-requisite for prosperity in a democracy. Ultimately, the question is ‘who will guard the guard?’ The Buddha’s eternal message can be our guide in this task- “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts”.