Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Need to Strengthen Panchayati Raj: Insights from Kerala’s Mass Contact Programme

The Kerala CM’s Mass Contact Programme for redressing grievances and rooting out corruption has won international recognition. In this context, the article seeks to evaluate present-day popular models of grievance redressal and explore the role of Panchayati Raj in addressing people’s concerns.

It is only a few months since the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, won the United Nations’ Public Service Award for ‘Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service’ for his 2011-12 Mass Contact Programme. According to records of the Kerala Government, the CM visited all districts of the state, imbibed lessons by listening to people’s grievances, collected 5.45 lakh petitions and managed to resolve 2.97 lakh of these within a short duration. A similar exercise was carried out in 2013 as well. The UNDP appreciated the initiative, hailing it as exemplary in strengthening democracy. At the same time, one needs to evaluate whether the initiative, while it brings the politicians closer to the voters, is the best way to approach grievance redressal.


Mass Contact Programme 2012: A Broad Picture

Source: Boundless Access: Kerala’s Tryst with Governance, Department of Information & Public Relations, Government of Kerala, March 2012, p.32

Inadequacy of Mass Contact Programme as a Grievance Redressal Mechanism
The table above shows that during the 2011-12 Mass Contact Programme almost 20 per cent of total households - that is one in every five households- in Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Wayanad districts presented their cases before the Chief Minister. If so many people have to depend on certain high-ranking individuals to address their grievances, it makes one ponder upon the extent of progress of democracy in this country. With the ‘Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011’ still pending in the Parliament, people have no choice but to depend on a few individuals to address their problems. The situation thus throws light on the incapacity of institutions of local self government to address people’s problems.
Need to Strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions
In the year that lakhs of people participated in the Mass Contact Programme to seek redressal of their grievances, Kerala ranked first in Panchayat Devolution Index (2011-12). In this context, it seems ironic that Rajiv Gandhi envisioned Panchyati Raj as a systemic solution for ‘responsive administration’, replacing managerial solutions like grievance redressal mechanisms. At the beginning of his tenure as the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was actually in favour of such managerial solutions like the one that the then District Collector of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra had introduced. The Collector had brought in a system, similar to that of the Kerala CM’s, wherein he used to meet the general public in the open under a tree and attempt to provide immediate disposal of their problems. Despite his earlier support to such initiatives, Rajiv Gandhi later accepted in the Parliament that, “At that time...we were looking to a simplification of procedure, grievance- redressal machinery, single-window clearances, computerisation and courtesy as the answers to the problems. As we went along, we discovered that a managerial solution would not do. What was needed was a systemic solution.” Despite it being two decades after  Panchyati Raj was introduced as a systemic solution, it is grievance redressal programmes like the  Oommen Chandy’s that have managed to more effectively address people’s concerns, than institutions of local self government . 
Referring to a case that was brought before him which could actually have been settled at the panchayat level, the Kerala CM said, “How is it that a complaint that could have been tackled by a local governing body reached the chief minister’s hand? ...
Alas, an issue that could have easily been solved didn’t go the way it should have.” If this is the situation in the state with one of the strongest Panchayati Raj systems in the country, it is hard to imagine how deplorable the condition in other states would be. We would not have needed Mass Contact Programmes if there were empowered Panchayati Raj Institutions in place, with adequate powers devolved to them. Therefore, it is high time we ponder over the effectiveness of Panchayati Raj Institutions and take initiatives to empower them so as to facilitate effective delivery of services to the common man.

*This is a revised version of the paper published by the author in eSocial Sciences on 12 July, 2013.

Amrutha Jose Pampackal


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