A common held middle-class view is that villagers tend towards lethargy and complacency, and are not driven by an impetus for change. However, this myth far from corresponds to reality, which reveals that, when provided a conductive platform, villagers can be highly outspoken and articulate about their grievances and demands. A recent public hearing and grievance redress camp held in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, brought to light just how many grievances an average villager is faced with and how ardent they are to make these heard. This jan sunwai and shikayat nivaran camp in the Gram Panchayat of Barkheda unprecedentedly gave villagers the opportunity to publicly speak out their personal and collective grievances before the concerned government administrators. What is more, a simple and ad hoc grievance application mechanism had been set up, allowing each villager to register their complaints and to demand work under NREGA. In a manifested proactive and spirited manner, over the course of the day hundreds of complaints were written and swarms of people rushed to the mike to testify the non-deliverance of government schemes.
This latest public hearing and grievance redress camp was organised by Suchna evum Rozgar ka Akhikar Abhiyan, in collaboration with Prayatna Sansthan, a local organisation. Prior to the public hearing, an audit team comprised of the two organisations had spent three days carrying out surveys and door-to-door verifications in Barkheda Gram Panchayat. The main schemes audited by the team were the Janani Suraksha Yojna, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna, and the MGNREGA. The state of all these schemes quickly proved to be appalling.
On the day of the public hearing itself, a colourful tent is put up on the school grounds. Desks corresponding to each of the departments have been set up, with volunteers facilitating the registration of complaints. One separate desk has been set up for application for NREGA works. As people begin trickling in they crowd around these tables, each villager anxious to have their complaint noted or their demand for work registered. No one wants to miss this unique opportunity to have their accumulated grievances registered. The commotion around the desks only subsides, when the crowd is convinced that the registering of complaints will be resumed later on and on the following day.
Representatives from all of the departments being scrutinised are present. From the electricity department, the Junior Engineer, the Assistant Engineer, and the Executive Engineer have all shown up. Two CMHOs have come from the health department. Also present are the BDO, the SDM and the Tehsildar of Barkheda. Towards the end of the public hearing, the District Collector also makes his appearance.
Prominent financial advisors and policy makers from key ministries, including the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Panchayati Raj, observe the proceedings, assuming the role of ‘jury’. They have been invited to attend the public hearing as part of a policy and service delivery workshop organized by theInstituteofEconomic Growth.
The first scheme to be scrutinised is the Janani Suraksha Yojna. Under this scheme, a mother is given Rs 1400 per delivery of a child in a government hospital, as well as Rs 300 to cover the travel costs and free medication. Throughout the public hearing, names of women from the official list of beneficiaries under this scheme are called up so as to cross-examine whether the recorded information is correct. The first woman to speak up is an old woman who is asked whether her daughter had received Rs 1400 for the delivery of her child, as stated on record. The old woman explains that her daughter has been a migrant labourer in Gujaratfor the last few years and that both of her children were born there, and had thus received no money from the local health department authorities. The next woman whose name appears on the official list as having received Rs 1400 for the delivery of her child, announces on the mike that her child was born at home, and was thus not entitled to the government scheme. More than 30 women are now on the stage, each one wanting to announce their story. One woman says that her child was born en route to the hospital, so she was not given any money. Another one recounts that she had given birth in a private hospital. One woman’s name appears on the record three times as having received money for all three of her children’s delivery, yet she states that she received Rs 1400 only for the birth of one of her children, as the other two were born at home and in a private hospital. Yet another woman announces that her child was born on the 29th of a given month, yet on record a cheque had been issued to her on the 22nd of that same month.
Various women come to the stage who had received their entitled Rs 1400, yet each one of them recounts that they had been made to pay a ‘cut’ to nurses and doctors. When asked whether they were given reasons for this payment, they respond that they were told that it was for ‘chai’ or ‘mitai’. One woman was made to pay on so many instances (for the cleaning of her baby, for medication, for the doctor and the nurse, for the taxi fare) so that at the end, she was left with nothing of the Rs 1400 that she had been given. Following each of the accounts, there is an uproar of laughter from the crowd. They are all evidently entertained by the unscrupulous, yet all too familiar, extent of these cases of fraud.
The next department to be examined is the electricity department. The representative from the electricity department is requested to inform the villagers on their entitlements under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna, which provides free electricity connections to BPL families. Under this scheme, BPL households receive all the components required to set up an electricity connection, as well as a CFL bulb, which consumes less electricity. The first man to come to the mike is asked whether he received a CFL bulb, to which he responds that he was given a bulb by the electricity company just the night before. The audience bursts out laughing once again. The audacity of this gesture is apparent to all. The calculation is made that if each CFL bulb costs Rs 100, and there are 83000 households in this block, the non-deliverance of bulbs alone amounts to a fraud of 83 lakhs rupees! Another man comes forward with his entire meter under his arm. He says his electricity has not been working for over three years, and yet he continues to be billed. Many such stories repeat, with people complaining that they still have no electricity, or that they were made to pay for their electricity components, or that they had not received CFL bulbs, with some exceptions who received a bulb on the previous day.
Lastly NREGA is scrutinised. The Gram Panchayat secretary reads out the amount that Barkheda has spent on NREGA over the last years, which amounts to a mere 15 lakh in total. When asked why so little had been spent when a Gram Panchayat can claim up to crores of rupees under NREGA, the response given is that people are not demanding work. When the audience is asked to raise their hands if they would work if NREGA were to be resumed, all the hands of the approximately 500 villagers present enthusiastically and vehemently go up. All of them say that they are in dire need of work, but that since years work has not been provided to them under NREGA. The villagers are informed on the significance of ‘Form 6’, which gives an applicant of work under NREGA a receipt as proof of when the work was sought. If work is not provided within 15 days of application, the person is entitled to unemployment benefit.
To conclude the public hearing proceeding, the District Collector engages in an interactive and animated session with the villagers and the audit team. In response to the individual and collective complaints, the Collector makes a range of promises, all of which he ends up keeping. Amongst other, two of the village midwives under the Janani Suraksha Yojna are suspended; the CMHO is ordered to provide a report of the Janani Suraksha Yojna from the entire district of Bharatpur within seven days; CC notices are issued to the BDO and the superintendent of the electricity department; the SDM is ordered to carry out public hearings of this sort in each of the Tehsils of Bharatpur.
Altogether, this event proved to have a highly bestirring and animating effect on people. It became evident that villagers know all too well that they are being deprived of their rights and entitlements, yet they have no opportunity to make themselves heard. In the current state of affairs that does not favour the poor and marginalised, an awareness of rights alone does not translate into redress and accountability. This public hearing and grievance redress camp allowed the aggrieved direct confrontation with those who deprive them of their entitlement. It facilitated a platform from which people’s sense of injustice and their demands for redress could not only be heard, but also addressed and ultimately acted upon.
The positive experience of the recent public hearing in Bharatpur signalled an important message for the entire country: in order for the innumerable grievances that a common person is faced with to be heard and addressed, a grievance redress mechanism must be institutionalised. Without such a mechanism in place, people will continuously be subjected to the apathy of government functionaries. A platform from which people can publicly and collectively raise their concerns, as well as a system that facilitates the registering of complaints, as was the case in Bharatpur, ought to be seriously deliberated at the policy level.
by Gaia Von Hatzfeldt