4th December 2011
by Gaia Von Hatzfeldt
The villagers gathered under the colourful tent in front of the Tehsil office in Bhim yesterday, were witness to an unforeseen, yet potentially very significant event: an impromptu experiment with a Grievance Redress Manch. What had been planned as a ‘jan sunwai’, by the spontaneous turn of events morphed into a platform in which mass grievances were raised and addressed. The presence of the concerned government administration as well as ‘civil society’ actors ensured a conductive environment for people’s individual grievances to be attended to. The success of this experience could prove to be an important ingredient in the broader attempts to strengthen grievance redress mechanisms.
Jan sunwais, as pioneered by Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangathan in the early 1990’s, originally focused on development works at the Gram Panchayat level. Of late, MKSS has ventured into carrying out jan sunwais on an entire department. The first such jan sunwai was held on 3rd November of this year, wherein the electricity department of Bhim, Rajsamand was audited. The particular focus was on the ‘Rajiv Gandhi Gram Vidyutikaran Yojna’ – a scheme to provide free electricity connections to BPL households.
Armed with the list of BPL families who have been provided electricity connections – as per the official electricity department records – a survey team conducted door-to-door verifications in various Gram Panchayats within the Block of Bhim. These findings were then presented publicly in a jan sunwai held in Bhim. Multiple cases of corruption and grievances were uncovered, ranging from bribe-taking for installing connections, to the non-deliverance of connection components, to the mishandling of electricity bills. During the jan sunwai proceeding, people’s complaints were registered and handed over to the electricity department. It was agreed that the departmental administration would look into these complaints and publicly announce its progress in a follow-up jan sunwai to be held the following month.
While the electricity department was diligently attempting to deal with every case that had been registered during the jan sunwai, another survey team set off to conduct further door-to-door verifications. Similar to the previous round of surveys, manifold stories of corruption came to the surface. People were urged to attend the second jan sunwai that would serve as a follow-up of the previous jan sunwai, as well as to allow people to register new complaints.
As scheduled, the follow-up jan sunwai was held one month after the initial jan sunwai. At first, as the day began, only few people turned up. MKSS members sat down on the floor and around the tables that had been set up to seat the expected panel of district administration, recording the grievances of the few people that had already arrived. Gradually more and more people began trickling-in, shoving their way towards anybody willing to record their grievance. By the time the electricity department administration and the related contractors arrived, there were such swarms of people, that they too were compelled to write down the many complaints that came flowing in. Over a span of a few hours, hundreds of people rushed forward, eager to have their complaint heard and registered.
It was astounding to observe with what conviction and fervour people presented their grievances. An elderly woman battled her way through the crowd on her crutches, infuriated by a mammoth electricity bill she had recently received. She had not received a bill in over three years, and when she finally did, it is over Rs 6000. Being widowed and having no children, she bemoaned that it is entirely inconceivable for her to pay such a bill. In another incidence, a group of people openly declared that they were forced to pay a bribe of Rs 700 each to the sub-contractor, blaming the contractors present in the event for being implicated in the bribe-taking. Another woman lamented that she had received the free electricity components, but had been told that she had to cover the costs for erecting an electricity pole herself. As she could not afford this, she had tied the electricity cables to a tree. Now the tree has fallen, and with it, her electricity connection has been cut. One man recounted that since over two years he had been receiving two bills, but that when he goes to the electricity department to complain, his problem is not addressed and he continues to be sent two bills. Countless such cases were brought forward, each revealing the severity of consequences that the inefficiency and corruption of the electricity department has on the villagers it is supposed to be benefitting.
This platform, in which administration and staff was exclusively focused on hearing and registering people’s grievances, turned out to be a critical juncture in the relationship between citizens and government administration. Had the widowed woman who received the delayed bill gone to the electricity department directly, in most likelihood she would have been shoved around, with no one catering to her demand. In fact, there were countless accounts of people who had gone with their particular grievance to the electricity department, yet, often, after the third or even fourth visit, their complaint had still not been registered. An individual seeking to be heard in the cold corridors of officialdom is typically greeted with apathy and contempt. However, in a setting set up exclusively for the redress of grievances, with each complaint heeded and legitimized, people gain confidence. Moreover, the public and participatory nature of such an event, allows for a sense of collectivity, furthermore empowering people. It was this that allowed villagers to directly accuse the contractor for seeking Rs 700 as bribe from them. It takes immense courage to speak up to those in power, when one is accustomed to being treated with disdain. The Grievance Redress Manch facilitated precisely such a platform.
The experiment with holding a public and collective ‘camp’ for registering grievances as experienced in Bhim proved to be such a success, that it is paramount for this experiment to be taken forward. The current deliberations of setting up a Grievance Redress mechanism only makes true sense, if people are guided in the process and a conducive environment is facilitated. Without such an environment, common citizens will not be guaranteed from falling prey to official apathy. The experience in Bhim showed that provided the platform, people proactively seek redress. There must be independent People Support Centres at the block level, providing information and facilitation to common people. In addition, regular Grievance Redress camps ought to be seriously deliberated, in order to spread the success of the recent Bhim Grievance Redress Manch.