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CONTINUITY WITH CHANGE
Common Cause founder Mr. H D Shourie was a man ahead of his times. He made a difference in the lives of millions of Indians and fought for justice at a time when PIL was in an embryonic stage, and advocacy had not come of age. A bureaucrat-turned-citizen-activist, he took on incredible challenges and lived by his convictions. Mr Shourie believed in the common citizen's power to make things happen and did exactly that in his own life. He stood for democratic tenets, humanism, citizenship, and scientific temper — the values that continue to guide the organisation he founded 35 years ago.
It would be an honour for anyone to lead Common Cause. For me it is pride and privilege twice over to steward Mr Shourie's legacy and to succeed someone as upright and erudite as Mr Kamal Kant Jaswal. I have always been struck by his keen sense of justice, his infectious energy, his courage and his commitment to social causes. The team remembers him as a visionary who believes in — and works for a better world for our children. He joined Common Cause after a distinguished career in the IAS and took it to new heights. It is a daunting task for me to be in Mr Jaswal's shoes though one can take slight comfort in the fact that he is now the President of the Common Cause Society and a member of its illustrious Governing Council (GC). Mr Jaswal is joined by the new Vice President Dr B P Mathur, an author, social worker and a former Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
Significantly, the GC elected the outgoing President Mr Vikram Lal, a humanist, philanthropist, and a development thinker, as President Emeritus of the society. As a founder of Common Cause, and many of India's renowned civil society institutions, Mr Lal would continue to be its friend, philosopher and guide for times to come. The GC also elected Major General (retd) J P Gupta, a veteran of the Bangladesh war who has served in the UN Emergency Force at Gaza and has commanded the Army's prestigious ASC College, as the Vice-President Emeritus. These changes symbolize a purposeful succession in the organisation's leadership without losing the advantage of the vision and experience of its mentors. For the Common Cause team it is continuity with change.
This year Common Cause is in the middle of the fourth decade of its existence. Its objective still is to champion vital public causes with a mission to strive for an India where every citizen is respected and fairly treated. In the spirit of moving with the times the organisation will have to find new ways and strategies to defend and fight for the rights and entitlements of all groups of citizens. However, the new plan will build on the idea of Common Cause, as envisioned by its founders, and by those who nurtured it over time. In the process the team and the scope of work will expand as the new avenues open up for policy interventions and partnerships.
Our immediate challenge is to look for fresh ways and means to pursue public causes and influence policy at a time when PIL is losing its edge as an instrument of intervention and when NGOs are being treated with suspicion and even contempt. It is a test of mettle for all those NGOs which take themselves seriously and whose raison d'etre is to question the status quo and to speak truth to power. Common Cause will continue to pursue public causes and policy reforms against all odds and irrespective of governments in power. It will go on using democratic instruments to try and plug legislative, regulatory or functional gaps left by the state in its retreat from key areas of governance. Then there are other immediate issues which need addressing such as civic, environmental and developmental challenges arising out of fast expanding cities, crumbling infrastructure and rising corruption due to lack of transparency and accountability in the system.
The low hanging fruit for us is to strike in areas of our strength like the police or political reforms and social policies that touch citizens everywhere in India. Some of these issues are about pedestrians, public transport, clean air and water, affordable medicines and medical devices, human trafficking/ dignity of work and corruption in allocation of national resources. We need to hone policy intervention work through a variety of strategies like research, advocacy, partnerships, publications and legal action. While continuing legal interventions, we will especially scale up our advocacy and public outreach. For instance we will pursue ideas like strengthening the citizens' Right to Information by monitoring its implementation and by collaborating with like-minded organisations to make it more effective and accessible. We will also look for ways to create awareness around conflict of interest policies in different walks of like and go an extra mile to connect with the youth at universities and educational institutions. Our goals and priorities would be set around the following three mutually complementary strategies:
(a) LEGAL AND POLICY INTERVENTIONS: The idea is to continue to pursue public causes through PILs on our own and in partnerships where we focus on issues affecting a large number of Indians. We would go by the principles of citizenship, value-based practices and normative ethics of greater good (or happiness) of the greatest number of citizens. For this, Common Cause would strive to build all India appeal, impact and outreach. For instance there is vast scope for effective implementation of the Right to Information, Right to Education and for saving lives of pedestrians and other road users through better laws and responsive policies. Given the number of private schools and hospitals mushrooming everywhere in India legal guidelines might be required in the pricing of medical equipment and services and in ensuring a minimum standard of education.
(b) EVENTS FOR BETTER VISIBILITY AND YOUTH CONNECT: We plan to organize several signature events of Common Cause for better visibility and youth connect. Attempts will be made to organize events and programmes at renowned institutions all over India so as to sensitize students and the wider academic community about citizens' interventions in public causes. A flagship event could be an annual lecture while the smaller events could take the form of youth festivals, workshops and dialogues in collaboration with universities, IITs or other institutions. The endeavor would be to evolve a pool of campus talent to hold workshops/ dialogues where events are driven not by money but by passion and a desire to make a difference.
(c) ADVOCACY: Common Cause has to its credit many path-breaking initiatives in areas of governance and administrative/ police or political reforms. Efforts would be made to take this work to the next level while continuing the ongoing advocacy work on education, environment and corruption. Advocacy will be supplemented by research, publications, campaigns and collaborative projects. Many organisations are pursuing some of these issues in their own niche areas and geographical regions, and, in their own ways, building transparency and accountability in governance. It will be our attempt at Common Cause to collaborate with like-minded organisations to multiply our reach and impact within our limited resources. Special emphasis would be laid on social media campaigns and on promoting the idea of creative commons in the fields of science, medicine, spectrum, media, design, and software, among others.
At Common Cause office a small but handpicked team of professionals takes up everything from ideation, research, liaison and advocacy to preparing legal briefs and backgrounders. It is a deceptively small organization with limited resources. Its young staffers who do most of the back-office work often end up at the courts as well, helping those actually fighting cases for us. But the backbone of its work is pro bono support from some of India's legal luminaries whose contribution is immeasurable. The team gets broad guidelines and moral, material and intellectual support from an involved and eminent governing council. We seek the feedback and suggestions from the members of Common Cause Society, its well-wishers and from the readers of this journal to be able to pursue our work even better. You can also find us on the social media but feel free to write in to us. We will continue to use the quarterly Common Cause Journal as our link with you and seek to develop it further into a collection of alternative policy issue.