Dr Samuel Paul rides a thin line between success and realism that feels almost overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Success for the Bangalore-based economist and management expert (one-time director of IIM Ahmedabad) turned iconic founder-chairperson of the Public Affairs Centre comes from other states in the country and other countries coming forward to try out his innovations in getting the system to deliver better governance.
Despondency comes from wondering how long you can go on with public action. Where do people have the time to protest endlessly when they have to get on with their lives.
"It is like an ocean. I ask, is it a viable approach in the long term? My theory is that public action should help the system get over the hump. You have to put the system under the scanner long enough to change the culture." Thereafter, the system should deliver on its own.
The latest feather in Prof Paul's cap is being chosen by the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research to chair the review panel on the governance of the 15 research centres that come under the group.
These centres are absolutely the global top of the heap -- Manila's International Rice Research Institute, Mexico's CIMMYT where Nobel laureate Norman Borloug did his pioneering work that enabled India's Green Revolution and Hyderabad's ICRISAT.
Dr Paul seeks to take some fresh ideas to this new task. These labs were all set up at a time when there was a lot of funding for agricultural research, particularly to help poor countries. Today, there is a bit of aid fatigue generally and for these labs funding is restricted to projects.
"Our committee will look into whether the lab's governance is efficient and fair. We will come up with new ideas consistent with modern thinking and practice. I have an idea that these centres should be exposed to feedback. We can have half a day when the board of the consultative group can listen to farmers."
This is just the latest. Recognition has come from governments far and wide which want to adopt the citizen's report card (assessment of institutions and services) that Dr Paul's centre has pioneered since the mid-nineties, as a tool for better governance.
The Delhi government will shortly start work on it; West Bengal is in the pipeline, seeking to adopt it as a tool to monitor the work of smaller municipalities around Kolkata that have received a Rs 700 crore (Rs 7 billion) grant from the British government.
Overseas, China's leading Tshingua University has conducted a two-day workshop to see how the report card can be adopted in a system with a monolithic power structure.
"The Chinese are constantly experimenting," he says. The Vietnam government has sent a team to study the idea and adopted it. Ukraine has tried it out in six cities and feels it has got the respective mayors to move forward.
Another area where the centre feels satisfied with its initiatives is the current regime set in motion by the Election Commission, compelling candidates to disclose details regarding their assets, educational background and criminal record, if any.
As Dr Paul recalls, the campaign for such information was first taken up by the centre around 1996-97. The centre made a video presentation and circulated it widely. A Hyderabad organisation took up the idea and eventually a Delhi NGO initiated a public interest litigation. The rest is history.
The centre has been using the information available through the affidavits that candidates now have to file to build up a profile. The facts are revealing. As many as 25 per cent of MPs have criminal cases against them. Less educated MPs have more assets and criminal cases filed against them. And those that win elections have more cases against them.
The centre is also seeking to take its electoral initiative to the villages. This year it assisted people for the gram panchayat elections in eight Karnataka districts, organised public meetings where candidates spoke, and helped women candidates file nomination papers.
But then why the sense of futility? It is perhaps the result of a realism born out of experience. Without civil society being "demanding" you won't get governments to do better than they did in the past.
"The organised effort to demand accountability through public feedback seems to have some power in making governments respond." But beware, "there are limits to what civil society can do, it is not a panacea. You can't go in for collective action every day."
The report card is technology that has been tested. Citizens' opinions are sampled and played back to the authorities to fill a critical information gap. If you will not tell us what you are up to, then we will tell you what we think of it. But the report card really works when the system at the apex uses it to drive the lower administration.
"Government itself should adopt this approach as Delhi (Sheila Dikshit) has. If more and more government agencies adopt this then they themselves will have an instrument for achievement."
Dr Paul's realism comes out the clearest in the note of caution he sounds on the Right to Information Act, over which there is some euphoria in civil society. He describes it as "a heavy-handed tool". You can hardly expect poor villages to use the law (fill up forms, pay a fee and then maybe go on appeal) to ferret out information from the government.
When Karnataka got its own Right to Information Act the centre got volunteers to apply for information. In many cases the staff didn't even know what the Act was all about. And then the centre found that to use the appeal mechanism you needed a lawyer! Rajasthan's success in ferreting out information is "not a model". They had to slog for five years before getting results.
There has to be a culture change, the hesitancy to part with information has to go. The key differentiator in the West is the level of awareness of citizens. So the long-term solution is to bring up a more aware citizenry. The centre has therefore been working with schoolchildren.
The initiative, Children's Movement for Civic Awareness, started about five years ago. Now there are civic clubs in 60 Bangalore schools, 10 in Mumbai. Children are helped to do projects on environmental issues, like plastic bags, garbage disposal. They are now helped to produce report cards on organisations like Bangalore Municipal Corporation and Karnataka Pollution Control Board. The Mumbai children now want to initiate safety drills in the wake of the floods.
The centre's latest initiative, which is still taking off, is the Coalition Against Corruption, which it has floated in the last couple of months, after a national study indicated that Karnataka was the fourth most corrupt state in the country.Its aim will be to help people who want to stand up against corruption, fight their battles with officialdom. A sort of complaint monitoring centre will be set up to begin with. The battle goes on.