When Mr. Oommen Chandy took over as the Chief Minister of Kerala on a wafer thin majority, lot of Keralites wondered whether he will be able to do anything for the people. Since he took over as CM in the year 2011, one thing he succeeded well is in his unprecedented Mass Contact Programmes which even received accolades from the United Nations Organization. Mass Contact Programme (MCP) or 'Jana Samparka Paripadi' is a forum where the CM, along with officials from various departments and other ministers, meets the people to receive and find solutions for their grievances against the system.
In the latest Programme at Malappuram district alone, a total of 10,171 grievances were received, out of which 4217 were resolved at district officials’ level. 2609 applications were rejected on various grounds, and 394 reached for CM’s considerations and decision. That apart, during the Programme, the CM directly received thousands of applications which were also resolved.
The current MCPs are the second round, after completion of a highly successful first round. Even during the first round, the MCP received criticism from many sections of the intelligentsia and opposition. While the opposition has political reasons to oppose the programme that gets the CM a lot of goodwill, intelligentsia has other reasons to oppose it.
CPI (M) led opposition has been demanding the CM’s resignation for his alleged role in the infamous solar scam. Their agitations against the CM have been going on for some time now. Each agitation got replaced by yet another agitation when the former failed to achieve its objectives or popular support. It even reached the level of physical attacks and stones throwing against the CM, at Kannur. Attempts through violence and blockade to remove an elected Chief Minister who is continuing to enjoy majority support in the Legislative Assembly, is not part of the democratic process or spirit. However, that is not the subject matter of this post.
Latest in the series of these agitations is the attempts to block the CM’s entry into the venues of his Mass Contact Programmes. So far, three such programmes were conducted successfully, without much hindrance since these agitations were announced. Apparently, even LDF is scared of preventing these programmes that are beneficial to a large number of people from the poorer sections of the society. Even after repeated failures to prevent these programmes, the opposition continues to boycott the same. As the famous Malayalam saying goes, these mass contact programmes have become something that is’ too bitter to eat and too sweet to spit’! However, due to these agitations, each MCP becomes a matter of concern and subject to unprecedented security arrangements.
Leaving the political opposition aside, I shall now attempt to record some of the objections from the intellectuals and my responses thereto, in the following paragraphs.
One of the most heard criticism is that the CM is doing the job of a Village Officer. Even if we agree that it is true, can we deny that there is a need for the CM to do a Village Officer’s job, if the Village Officer fails to do that? Where does the buck stop? If there was no such need, we would not have found 1000s of applicants belonging to all sections of society and different political hues, thronging these Programmes to get their grievances addressed. There is no point in burying heads in the sand and stating that there is no need for such programmes, to help the needy.
Of course, for the intelligentsia who belongs mostly to the affluent sections, these problems are not critical to warrant the CM’s personal intervention. However, for the poor people, it provides a great opportunity to get their issues resolved.
There are two reasons why the CM has to work like a Village Officer, to make things happen. One reason is the apathy of officials towards the problems of the common man. For various reasons including expectations of bribes, many officials refuse to do what is their duty. The second reason is the legal impediments in helping the needy. A Village Officer can only act within the set rules or refer the matter to the higher-ups for decision. However, by the time a decision is obtained in such matters, it is generally too late. MCPs provide a venue for the officers at various levels to get together and resolve all such issues. The presence of the CM and other ministers helps in expediting policy decisions, where necessary.
Another criticism is that the CM is acting like a King and distributing taxpayers’ money as if it is from his own pocket. Well, even a CM is answerable for any money spent from the government’s treasury. All the financial aids provided to the people during the MCPs are well within the rules. Just that in many cases these aids do not reach the needy due to red tapes and other inefficiencies in the system. The CM’s intervention through MCPs only helps in overcoming these delays.
Yet another criticism is that a CM’s job must be to reform and improve the governance so that there is no need for such programmes. There is some merit in this criticism. A CM cannot resolve all the issues of people through his direct intervention. The systems must improve, and bottlenecks must be removed. However, MCPs are addressing this need, as well. To quote the CM’s own words, spoken at the Programme at Malappuram district:
“The importance of these Mass Contact Programmes is not in distributing financial aid to some of the needy people. These Programmes reveal the legal impediments at governmental level, in serving the people. The importance is in being able to make reforms in governance procedures based on this learning. As a result of the last round of Programmes, 45 such orders were issued, out of which 43 were collated and published as a book.”
These words show that the MCP is not just a money distribution scheme. It connects the government with common people, helps in understanding the impediments in serving people, and finds solutions for addressing their problems. It also makes the officials accountable for their actions and inactions. They have to explain why a decision is taken or not taken on an application submitted by a citizen.
Mr. Chandy is already on record that this government will implement the Right to Services Act that prescribes mandatory time limits for officials to act on an application. Hopefully, reforms such as Right to Information Act and Right to Services Act will reduce the need for such Mass Contact Programmes. In the meanwhile, it is a noble effort from the CM to provide succor to the poor people.
Sometimes, it is said that MCPs are nothing but cheap tactics for garnering votes. Well, votes are fundamental to electoral politics, and there is nothing cheap or wrong in a current government having votes also as a motive behind their actions. This tactics was available all governments in the past, and is still available to other state governments. Why is it that they all failed where Mr. Chandy succeeded? Also, in a country like India where CMs are accused of organizing pogroms and riots to garner votes, finding fault with welfare programmes like MCPs as cheap tactics for getting votes, is rather difficult to digest.
To conclude, there is not one government or governance system in the world that has achieved perfection. The reforms and improvements in the system is an ongoing effort. There will always be unforeseen problems and unsolved grievances of people. It is the duty of a government to ensure that there are suitable forums for these grievances to be addressed. At the same time, government must make policy changes to enable the system to address such issues when repeated in the future. To quote Mr. Chandy again, “the soul of Mass Contact Programmes is in providing the confidence to people that they have a forum where they can raise their grievances and find solutions”. Such a confidence is indeed, critical for the wellbeing of any democracy.
Note: This post is based on various news reports and Twitter debates on the subject.