“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
The people, especially the most vulnerable and marginalised, suffer the greatest from a lack of accountability on the part of the government and its officials when they are denied their fundamental rights and access to the services they are entitled to. They are routinely harassed, discriminated against, ridiculed and deliberately excluded from social security measures designed for their welfare.
Therefore, these people, who have been facing systematic exclusion from the government, understand the need for an accountability law and what such a law should entail more than anyone. They understand more than anyone the loopholes the government officials use to keep denying them their rights.
After carefully analysing the ground realities of the ways in which the state tries to disempower them, a group of Dalit students in Bhilwara (Rajasthan) presented a framework in a public meeting on Ambedkar Jayanti in 2011, which enables them to invert the power dynamics and can be used to hold the state officials accountable to them .
The six core ideas in the Bhilwara principles which were conceptualised by the people are:
Even after the implementation of the RTI Act, there is huge reluctance by government officials to share information in the public domain. Even after most government documents are digitised, they find multiple excuses to not share the relevant information, which would make them lose their arbitrary exercise of power.
Without this information, people are not aware of their entitlements, time frames, grievance mechanisms, budget allocations, etc., and cannot hold these officials accountable for their actions.
Therefore, the first component of a social accountability framework is to have access to relevant, actionable and meaningful information in order to scrutinise decision-making and evaluate performance. It demands voluntary disclosure of all data in a catalogued and ordered way in the public domain and seeks the state to publish and broadcast the information so people can easily avail it.
Even if citizens have the information they seek about their entitlements and recognise their violation, it is difficult for them to push for change or rectification because they don’t have a platform to be heard. The power hierarchies of caste, class and gender, which are designed to silence and exclude large sections of society from accessing their rights, play a big role in limiting the ability of people to raise their issues.
Citizens are forced to complain to the same offices and officials who are, most of the time, the cause of the complaint. Registering the complaint becomes a tedious process in which people suffer harassment or are demanded bribes, further discouraging the public from proceeding with the issue.
The marginalised communities are limited by location, language, literacy, cultural norms, etc., from accessing these spaces. Therefore, the second component of this framework is setting up an independent inclusive mechanism to support complainants in articulating their grievances in their own language and formulation through multiple modes.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) April 24, 2020
Even if complaints are registered, there is currently no guarantee that they will be resolved within an assured time frame. The state machinery is excellent in sitting over files and ignoring them for years. Also, the different departments offer different time frames for grievance redressal from days to years.
Some grievances like deliberate exclusion while selecting beneficiaries or discrimination while allocating resources are not even recognised as grievances that can be redressed within a stipulated time frame.
Therefore, a need for fast and uniform redressal of complaints is demanded in this framework by setting up an independent commission that works without the interference of other departments and guarantees the citizens that their complaints will be redressed within a fixed time frame. The complainants should also be provided in writing with a “speaking order” detailing the nature of the corrective action taken.
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The complainant is the first person to be harassed or intimidated for complaining and disturbing the established status quo. The established caste, class and gender hierarchies skew the balance of power between common people and the officials in the latter’s favour. Consequently, the powerful intimidate and suppress those who reveal the nexus of power perpetuating injustice.
Therefore, the protection of citizens, particularly whistle-blowers, who enable the unearthing of social, political and financial corruption is of immense significance. Media reports of more than 300 instances of attacks or harassment of citizens and at least 84 murders and five death by suicides can be linked to information sought under The Right to Information Act.
Therefore, the fourth component is the protection of citizens from any adverse consequences arising out of asking questions, registering grievances and pursuing them to their logical conclusion in order to expose acts of injustice.
A citizen cannot effectively participate in a democracy without platforms that enable such participation. Participation of citizens in framing the policies, allocation of budget, providing services, monitoring their development and implementation, and registering of grievances will enable them to be more active in their governance and in understanding their rights as citizens.
It helps enable the voice of communities to reach the state, claim proper allocation of resources, identify instances of misappropriation and demand retribution. It decentralises the power of the government and restores power back to the people.
This comes from the understanding that people know more about their ground realities and what is needed and better for their lives than some bureaucrat who makes policies for them sitting in an office miles away, completely oblivious of their lived realities.
However, participation needs to be institutionalised to reach its desired objectives. Otherwise, only the dominant castes in the community will be consulted, and their feedback will be regarded as the view of the entire community. Participation of the elderly, children, DBA communities, migrants, functionaries, farmers, agricultural labourers, women and all minorities should be ensured.
For ensuring accountability, all the suggestions from the public should be recorded and treated with equal attention. Government should also give proper justification in case any of those suggestions are not accepted.
After the Bhilwara principles were formulated, a collective of civil society organisations suggested adding another principle.
Due to the huge imbalance of power between the citizens and the state, it was observed that the state’s narrative often dominates the citizens lived reality and truth. This lets the government get away with lies, denying any misconduct on their part. A single citizen is weak in demanding justice from the government, but as a community, they are strong.
The imbalance of power between a citizen and state can only be corrected if citizens are able to engage with the state collectively and publicly. Public collective platforms can be used by citizens who are facing the same kind of issues from the state machinery.
E.g., everyone struck out of the ration list arbitrarily or those who are denied pensions can join together and hold the government officials responsible accountable for their actions.
Through public collective platforms, the spirit of democracy is cultivated through enquiry and scrutiny of power. It works as mutual aid platform where citizens can come together, support and inform each other and develop a critical awareness about their rights and social realities.
In the course of participating in such platforms, individuals and communities get empowered and politicised in a way that they experience the power and potential of participatory democracy.
Once people take power into their own hands, democracy moves beyond the regular tales of elections and voting. It goes into the complex sphere of power decentralisation, consensus, and participatory decision making, which is how a true democracy should function.
Therefore, the final component of this framework is citizens having a right to participate in public collective platforms which will be attended by representatives of the state, where citizens can learn, ask questions and pursue grievances and the latter have the responsibility to answer and take actions.
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The Bhilwara principles were used as the foundation for drafting the current Transparency and Social Accountability bill of Rajasthan. Despite repeated deliberations and dialogues, the unwillingness of the political class to pass and implement this law shows how much the state machinery is afraid of losing the power it holds over the citizens and being under their democratic control.
This has led to the popular mass movement Jawabdehi Andholan currently happening in Rajasthan. The need for such an accountability law is clear and we should be demanding it is passed not just in Rajasthan but across India.
We cannot expect to find a manual for creating a democratic society from academic intellectuals or political leaders who are out of touch with the lived realities of people.
People who are systematically denied their democratic rights know very well what they want and they are demanding it. They understand the way power functions and how injustice is perpetrated on them more than anyone else. We just have to listen to them and hear what they are asking.
A society that functions on principles of democratic decentralisation, participatory decision-making, inclusion and proper representation of minorities is what people demand. They have conceptualised how to create it in ways beyond the imagination of the “educated elites”.
Babasaheb would have been proud to see these principles emanating from the communities for whom he spent a lifetime struggling for their democratic rights and to whom he gave the message: Educate, Agitate, Organise.
This article draws heavily from the excerpts of a discussion paper titled Explorations in the Concept of Social Accountability: From theory to practice, and from practice to theory.
This article was first published on Round Table India.