Not at a janta durbar

Updated: Jan 16 2014, 21:23pm hrs
A grievance redress system must provide a decentralised system for receiving and dealing with complaints.

A malaise that afflicts every citizen of the country is the lack of an effective mechanism in the government to deal with everyday grievances of people non-receipt of pensions, poor delivery of ration, broken roads, poor sanitation and drainage. It is therefore not surprising that the recent janta durbar initiative launched by the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi crumbled under the overwhelming number of complainants who turned up.

A centralised grievance redress mechanism, wherein complainants need to get an audience with ministers to have their complaints heard, will inevitably be fraught with problems. Even for complaints that ministers are able to hear personally, the standard response would be to forward them to the concerned departments. The departments would accord them priority as they are accompanied by a communication from the minister, but there will be no system for follow-up or for filing an appeal unless an appropriate and comprehensive grievance redress (GR) mechanism is put in place.

There are existing supervisory structures and GR systems in every government department. In addition, in Delhi, several vigilance committees, such as the district grievance redress committee, thana committee, ration vigilance committee and Rogi Kalyan Samiti, have also been set up to address peoples complaints. The ineffectiveness of these mechanisms might make it tempting to demand the dissolution of existing systems and setting up new, parallel structures. But unless the problems that plague these systems are understood and fixed properly, the new mechanism would soon be affected by the same glitches.

Supervisors in our bureaucracy are to ensure delivery but have escaped real accountability. An effective GR mechanism should hold both the implementing functionary and the supervisory structure accountable. It should provide every person the right to make a complaint and create an architecture for complainants to receive time-bound redress. Failure to do so should attract a penalty to be paid from the concerned officers pocket.

There are some critical provisions that must be included in a GR mechanism to ensure it has the institutional capacity to effectively receive, inquire into and redress complaints.In a country like India, it is critical that a GR mechanism provide a decentralised system for receiving and dealing with complaints close to peoples place of residence. A janta durbar goes against the basic grain of decentralisation by requiring people to converge at one central place to register all manner of complaints. It places an immense burden on the already aggrieved complainants of having to travel long distances to register their complaints. The scenes at the janta durbar of thousands of people who had reached the Delhi secretariat to get their complaints heard bore testimony to the fact that a centralised mechanism cannot be expected to succeed in resolving peoples complaints. In order to facilitate registration, follow-up and tracking of grievances, the GR mechanism must provide for facilitation centres at the most decentralised level. Citizens should have the right to file a complaint in multiple ways on paper, through email, text message, website and telephonically.

Every government office should have a supervisor designated as a grievance redress officer (GRO) at the municipal ward level for receiving and disposing of complaints within a stipulated timeframe. The GRO should have adequate authority and power to ensure that the deficiency is redressed in the stipulated timeframe and responsibility fixed.

The supervisory structure, the fulcrum for the redress of grievances, must be held accountable by holding supervisors (GROs and heads of departments) answerable for not sorting out peoples complaints. It is essential that a GR mechanism provide for an independent authority at the district level to take action against GROs who do not resolve complaints properly. Further, appeals against the decision of the district level authority must lie with a state-level grievance redress commission. Delhi already has a Delhi Public Grievance Commission (PGC), which should be given powers to penalise erring officials and, where necessary, provide compensation to complainants.

Also, grievances are often symptomatic of larger problems and therefore must be inquired into properly, to not just redress individual complaints but also fix systemic problems. The PGC should therefore have powers to give directions, where appropriate, about systemic changes that may have to be made to prevent the recurrence of grievances.

The GR mechanism must provide for the imposition of mandatory penalties on GROs and other erring officials, unless the officers can show that they made all possible efforts to redress the grievance. These penalties must be deducted from the salaries of the concerned officials. There must be provisions for compensating complainants for the loss and detriment suffered as a result of non-redress of grievances.

An effective GR mechanism has the potential to transform the relationship between an ordinary citizen and the bureaucracy. One hopes that the current dispensation in Delhi will put in place a proper system for redressing peoples complaints and not allow it to be reduced to an arbitrary, populist measure. The latest reported proposal of the AAP government to include grievance redress in the Delhi Jan Lokpal, which is meant to look into cases of corruption, will also run into problems. While it is true that some complaints of non-delivery of essential services arise out of corruption, an even larger number of complaints arise due to problems like inefficiencies in government, lack of resources human or material or due to the policies of the administration. To term all complaints as cases of corruption would be a falsehood. Further, a high-powered institution like a lokpal or lokayukta, set up to investigate and prosecute complex cases of corruption, would be rendered ineffective if it were also mandated to look into everyday grievances of people, given the volume of such complaints.

By Anjali BhardwajandAmrita Johri

The writers are members of Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the NCPRI.