Right to know: Right to decide (The collaborative impact of public hearing)

Right to know: Right to decide

The Collaborative Impact of Public Hearings

BACKGROUND

In December 1994, the poor villagers of Rajsamand, Pali, Bhilwara and Ajmer districts of central Rajasthan launched a unique campaign of fighting corruption in development works by using their right to information as a tool. Meeting resistance from powers that be, the movement, led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Saganthan, a grassroot level organization of poor peasants and rural labourers of the area, grew from strength to strength. The milestones in this saga of People’s Right to Information movement are:

  • Dec. 1994 to April 1995: The first phase of Public Hearings on development expenditure in some villages of the above mentioned districts. As these public hearings accessed bills, vouchers and muster rolls of expenditure incurred by village panchayats and exposed major frauds in development works carried out in villages, the panchayat secretaries, the lowest rung of government bureaucracy started refusing to share these documents with the public. The MKSS said the people’s right to know is a basic human right in a democracy.
  • April 1995: Bhairon Sight Shekhawat, the then chief minister of Rajasthan made an announcement in the state assembly saying that the state government would legally empower the people with the right to information with respect to the works of Panchayati Raj Institutions.
  • April 1996: As the chief minister’s assembly announcement remained unfulfilled, the MKSS led a mass sit in strike of 40 days in the small town of Beawar in Ajmer district. The strikers demanded right to information operationalised by the right to obtain copies of documents and records of happenings affecting them, including bills, vouchers and muster rolls of development expenditure. The Rajasthan government appointed a committee to operationalise the right to information in the state. A National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information was launched to lobby for a Right to Information law in the country and the states.
  • April 1997: With the people’s demand remaining unfulfilled, the MKSS led another mass sit in strike of 53 days at Jaipur, the state capital.
  • July 1997: The people of Rajasthan get the right to information with respect to the Panchayati Raj Institutions, including the right to obtain copies of the bills, vouchers and muster rolls of development works executed by them.
  • 1998-2001: The second phase of more effective MKSS led public hearings with greater mobilization. They dig up corruption in rural development works on a huge scale.
  • Year 2000: The new state government gives the people of Rajasthan a Right to Information law with respect to all state government departments. Ward Sabhas, assembly of all adult villagers in a ward of a village panchayat, also get the legal power to conduct social audit of development expenditure.
  • Year 2001:A public hearing led by MKSS in Janawad village panchayat exposed an unimaginable extent and kinds of corruption in rural development works. The public outcry against it led the government to launch a thorough probe by a committee headed by Bannalal, Deputy Secretary of Audit in the Rajasthan government. The Bannalal committee unearthed an embezzlement of Rs.70 lakhs out of a total development expenditure of Rs.1.25 crore in the panchayat in five years. Most of the works executed by the panchayat were ghost works and most of the muster rolls had ghost entries.

The New Phase of Jan Sunwais: An Exercise in Cooperation

In the light of the Janawad public hearing and the Bannalal committee report, the Rajasthan government ordered public hearings to be conducted in the highest spending village panchayat of each of the 237 blocks in the state. These public hearings took place in Feb. 2002.

These public hearings were conceived as means of operationalising the legal provision of social audit by the gram sabhas, assembly of all adult villagers in a panchayat.

Taking cue from the MKSS led public hearings, the state government solicited the participation of civil society groups in this exercise. The MKSS took the offer and along with other organizations and individuals participated in seven of the government initiated public hearings in three districts. (A map of Rajasthan highlighting these places).

Necessary Preparation for a Public Hearing

To be an effective social audit, a public hearing requires the following necessary preparation:

  • Making sure that copies of all government records are available to the public well in time before the hearing – at least week before.
  • The demystification and presentation of information contained in the government documents to the people in a way that is intelligible to them.
  • Pro active sharing of these documents to the people.
  • Creating an atmosphere for the public hearing that encourages the poorest and the most marginalized to speak out without fear of retribution.

The Experience of Collaboration

This collaborative exercise had its own heady and frustrating experiences. To recount:

  • The MKSS and other helping organizations and individuals tried before each public hearing to reorganize information contained in government documents in such presentable format as would be easily understood by the people with just elementary literacy skills. This exercise was successful wherever the documents were available well in time. The information presented in new charts communicate easily and immediately engage people’s interest. They also render easy the physical verification or works claimed to have been executed and entries maintained.
  • But the exercise became frustrating where the government documents were being made available till the last minute, as happened in many cases. Examples.
  • The whole exercise was completely subverted where critical documents went missing. For instance, in Bhagora panchayat (Mandal PS, Bhilwara distt.), all the records of the work executed in 1995-96-97, including cash books went missing. In Panchu panchayat(Nokha PS, Bikaner distt.), measurement books of nearly half of the 44 works to be examined in the hearing were not made available. This made it impossible to conduct a proper social audit of these works. The state government has charge sheeted the three errant junior engineers in this case.
  • The government order to display relevant information on boards was implemented in all the seven panchayats where the MKSS participated in the public hearing. But there were inaccuracies in most of the boards and gross inaccuracies in many.

Suggestions to Check Default

  • Firm action should be taken against administrative and technical personnel responsible for withholding documents from public. Apart from departmental proceedings, FIRs should be lodged against them.
  • Panchayat secretaries or Gram Sewaks should be made responsible for the display of accurate information on the boards. Action should be taken against them in case of any default.
  • The example of the Rajsamand district administration needs to be followed which is seriously considering maintenance of all records pertaining to development works in these simplified formats. This should be implemented in all districts.
  • Rajasthan government’s orders to write measurement books in Hindi needs to tbe fully enforced and widely publicized. The MBs should also have easily understandable summary abstracts.
  • Two copies of all critical documents should be maintained so that if one is lost or tampered with, the other can come in handy.

Musings on Pro active Sharing of Information

This is a significant pre requisite of a successful social audit, for often people do not even have basic information that enables them access relevant documents. This is also necessary for the involvement of the weakest and the most disadvantaged in the whole process.

In Rajsamand district, joint teams of government officials and civil society groups took the records around from village to village for 3-4 days before the public hearings. In some cases, the government personnel too became as enthusiastically involved in this as the citizens’ groups. The impact of this in mobilizing people’s participation was obvious.

But in some cases, the government personnel leaked information regarding physical verification of works and testimonies of people to the vested interests who played tricks of intimidation and inducement to dissuade people from speaking up.

In Bhilwara and Bikaner district, it was the civil society groups which obtained relevant information and proactively shared them with people.

In Bhilwara district, the team of engineers deputed to verify each work and report to the public hearing were required local residents witness to their site inspection. This had such an effect that even before the public hearing, recoveries were apportioned for dubious execution of works.

In Bagore in Bhilwara district, simplified information charts were displayed a day before the public hearing. The tremendous response to this indicates a need for such advance sharing of information for a successful social audit.

All this experience suggests that for an ongoing process of social audit, there should ideally be a pro active sharing of information by government officials along with a parallel provision  enabling citizen’ groups to examine freely available records in the Panchayat office. A provision should also be made enabling citizens to take away copies of these documents and conduct their own verification.

Conclusion

  • A public hearing or social audit is not just about examining expenditure. It is also an opportunity and platform for citizens to fully participate in self governance. It is a platform for their right to know to become their right to decide development priorities and fairly execute their collective social responsibility towards the most disadvantaged by ensuring fairness in beneficiary selection for schemes made for such people.
  • Given rural conditions of oppression and fear, silence can not be mistaken for consent. In Jan Sunwais where nothing was done to pierce the pall of fear and pressure, the people could not muster courage to speak up on the mike even though they kept muttering dissent. In Pharara, Jhalon Ki Madar and Panchu, the marked tension made it difficult for the women to attend the public hearing. In some cases, the administration colluded in this as the BDO or his representative conducting the public hearing hurried through, not giving time to the people to react to the information provided.
  • If a public hearing or social audit is to become a real, necessary legal consequences must follow from it as they do in the case of financial audit.
  • The backlash witnessed in the form of Sarpanches uniting with the purpose of putting an end to public hearings is a pointer to the danger to the process and also its enormous potential. It underlines the necessity of a firm political resolve see the process through its full logical and democratic course.
  • The Sarpanches raised many points related to policy discrepancies that encourage manipulation and lead to corruption. The public hearings just concluded showed that it is the poorest and the weakest who are at the receiving end of such discrepancies. The public hearings have provided an opportunity for the people and the policy makers to take on these irrationalities and look for practical solutions.       
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