Not enough room to vent?

The election season that concluded in Bengaluru had some very well attended debates and interactions. That’s good news. But it also exposed one key reality that has hardly received attention.

At these meetings, citizens communicated in ways that made it very difficult for the organisers to give a fair chance for everyone present to engage the panelists.

At Q&A time, it is expected that citizens keep to their time allotted (usually a minute or so) and frame crisp questions for the panelists. This protocol is not outlandish, and is required. One, organisers understandably want as many people as possible to have a chance to raise questions. Otherwise the most articulate or the loudest tend to dominate these events. Second a single, clear question forces the candidate respond only to that, and the audience then has a chance to assess.

Here is what actually happened in a number of debates and election interactions – from Vasanthnagar to BTM Layout – during last month.

1. Citizens (senior citizens in particular, and this is said with due respect to them) do not start with a question. They start with a passionate speech on a problem and by the time they raise the question, time has run out, and emotion has set in. Repeated prompting from the moderator is necessary for a question to actually come out.

2. Many a time, the citizen walks to the front, takes the microphone, turns around and faces the gathering instead of the panelists, and fires off ‘a quick speech’. It is almost if the citizen first wants to draw applause in having made the point! Furthermore, it is as if citizens have written off the panelists themselves, and they came merely to pass social commentary on the state of the city.

3. Many citizens overload their timeslot with a kitchen sink full of questions on every topic from sanitation to encroachments instead of keeping it to one topic. Which one should the candidates answer in the time allotted?

4. Tougher problem: Citizens often don’t wait for a fellow citizen or the panelist to finish speaking – they standup and launch agressively into a supplementary. As soon as this happens, another citizen will jump in and before you know it, there is a commotion.

5. Hardest problem: Once unrest sets in, one or two citizens will simply snatch the microphone out of a volunteer’s hands and start speaking. By this time, entire rows towards the back start feeling that the front rows are dominating the interaction and more unrest sets in! 

There are a multiple reasons for this state of affairs in our meetings. Let’s start with just one:

We need more public meetings. Once in three months for a locality is perhaps a bare minimum. For a multi-cultural city with fast-compounding pain points and slow-moving-solutions, not having enough avenues to let people speak and be heard is itself a problem. Naturally, pent up emotions and frustrations come gushing out when the bottle is uncorked.

And that’s only half the problem. We must respect time allotted to us so that fellow citizens get a chance. Each of us cannot go to meetings only to listen to ourselves and the panelists! Some change there will help everyone.

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