Jan Sunwai is a Hindi phrase which means ‘Public Hearing’. It is like an informal court composed of local people as its judges wanting accountability; there is no system of penalising involved. Jan Sunwai is a democratic way to familiarise local people with government policies and the activities of the public authorities so that they can understand what the government is doing towards the development of their communities.
The practice of Jan Sunwai as an instrument of a social audit can be dated back to the pre-independence era and it has been widely appreciated as a democratic means of bolstering participation. It has evolved as a participatory practice of implementation of a scheme or programme. A method of social accountability, compelling the authority to realise its public responsibility. Social Audit is a device of rural India, one that keeps people in the loop regarding the government’s future activities.
The credit for the success of Right to Information (RTI) in India goes to this innovative method of social audit. Several Jan Sunwais were organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) between December 1994 and April 1995 in Rajasthan as an initiative or precursor to the RTI. In the presence of local people and local journalists, the workers spoke out about their issues with the bureaucracy, particularly about unimplemented programmes and deducted wages.
There was resistance at the beginning on the part of authorities but, because of the constant pressure by the workers and coverage by media, slowly but surely, the authorities agreed to provide the information. The gathered information was then used by the MKSS, to conduct a social audit of the records maintained in the administrative documents by the government. They then cross-checked this information with information provided to villagers in Gram Panchayat meetings and so on. It was found that the information hardly matched. For each jan sunwai, the organizers selected a project for its details, like – timeline, methods used for implementation, budgets decided, details of workers and wages paid to each worker and the final outcome of the project was usually read out at the hearing.
Villagers then stood up and spoke about the issues and problems they faced while being part of the project or if they were affected in any other way. It was noticed many a time that names of dead workers were included in the wage list and absentees were marked as present and their pay recorded. Certain thumb impressions were also found to be forged. Construction works like roads under Public Work Department (PWD) were most of the time shown as completed.
One of the most remarkable features of these jan sunwais was the unhesitant questioning, even by the illiterate, who can make the authority answer for even the most complicated record of the accounts. This process helped the most vulnerable to speak and criticise the government publicly on the basis of the evidence in hand.
A simple and handy arrangement is required for jan sunwais: a tent, covering audience and few chairs and tables for panellists and dhurries. Some electronic devices, a mike set, loudspeakers and a video camera are also needed to keep a record of the hearing. The Jan Sunwai at grassroots appeared to be a potent weapon in the hands of poor. It has been conducted in a very familiar and friendly manner with the vocabulary of idioms and phrases for communication, that usually happens to be informal while preserving the environment of ‘court of law’, upholding solemnity and impartiality of proceedings.
Every panel of jan sunwai consists of judges with independent credentials, who can listen to everyone and ensure that the proceedings are not unfair and are not biased to any particular group of people, making a mockery of the idea. The people, the audience in itself is the ultimate jury. Thus, making it hard for the proceedings to be reduced to a non-egalitarian approach.