Public Grievances: How much does it cost?

People have grievances. These grievances range from the personal to the national level. Problems include domestic violence, bad roads, contaminated drinking water supply, losses due to floods or drought, crime, poor wages, promotions, jobs, unemployment, to name a few. Some are very personal, but many face the same problem such as domestic violence. Some are only personal, like harassment of the owner by the tenant, or vice versa. Property disputes can be personal and also public, depending on the issue. Government employees usually have problems in promotions, pay rise and perks. Private employees do have the problem of arbitrary dismissals, poor pay and inadequate working conditions. Farmers do find nature going against them, are cheated by seed and pesticide products, and agents short change them in the market yard. There are many problems, which are endemic, short term and also long term.

In a democracy, it is the right of every citizen to seek correction to the problems they are facing. All the four principal pillars of democracy, legislature, executive, judiciary and the media, have a respective fundamental role in addressing these public grievances. Many institutions have been built and tasked to enable the process of accepting, if not soliciting, and solving public grievances. From panchayat to the national government, there are many steps and methods that are available for people to bring their grievances to the attention of the decision-makers.

Normally, if these institutions are working, the process of a grievance reaching the appropriate decision-maker, at a village level or a national level, should not cost or burden the common person. Democracy, and our Constitution, guarantees that. But in practice, it does not happen so. Today, it costs for any grievance to be channeled into the process of decision-making. The issue is why it is costing, why the costs are rising, what costs how much, is there a least cost method, how does one benefit from the least cost method, who pays for which public grievances to be solved?

A simple representation, or a letter, easily costs more than Rs.100, depending on the subject of the representation. If the decision has to be taken at a higher level, than the village, the costs would include transport expenses, loss of wages for the day, speed money, and probably several rounds of similar expenses. Usually, a wider public grievance requires more funding. A dharna might be required. A rally can be a necessity. Visits to the capital cities by delegations would also cost.

It all depends on who pays for these costs. A pensioner would internalize such costs, and a shrewd politician would externalize such costs. Often, these costs are considered investments which can be recouped later from the benefit that might accrue from the decision. For example, a delegation would represent for the laying of a road. Earlier, years back, it did not cost. Today, a contractor-politician nexus would ‘fund’ the delegation costs, and reap the rewards. A huge ‘development’ project would have economic interests in the back, with political justification at the front. Ofcourse, some of these projects might be beneficial. However, my point is the process is not purely democratic or public-spirited.

These days there are many dharnas happening in the capital cities. In Hyderabad, the famous ‘dharna chowk’ has dharna tents for days together. There is a season for these dharnas as well. However, one can observe that most of these ‘long standing’ dharna’s belong to grievances of employees, and not of unorganized like farmers, handloom weavers, etc.. This is because employees do contribute to the costs of these dharna’s. Whereas, it is difficult for the unorganized to continue with dharnas, with such costs.

There are champions for unorganized, which includes certain political parties, unions, individual leaders, etc. They would mobilize funds from various quarters to hold rallies, delegations, etc. However, difficult as it is to mobilize funds for such events, government may not even ‘bat an eye-lid’. I have seen delegations, from a huge rally, get at the most 5 minutes of attention from the receiver of the delegation. After spending atleast Rs.2 lakhs, mobilising more than 5,000 people, the result may be zero. For this reason, political parties are now mobilizing people ‘in lakhs’ ably supported by ‘investors’ and a section of the media. Investors may get MLA ticket, while the media gets its TRP ratings, advertisements and income.

In comparison, a business delegation can walk in and have more than 1-hour interaction with the topmost elected and appointed officials. Ofcourse, there would be costs here as well, ‘hidden’ as they are.

In recent times, it is also expensive to get media attention. A typical press meet in Hyderabad costs you a minimum of Rs.2,000. There are organizations who spend atleast Rs.100,000 on a press conference. Media coverage is irrespective of such ‘investment’, more or less. A public sector unit has spent Rs. 5 lakhs on press conference, and the coverage space they got was less than what a Rs.10,000 advertisement costs. On other hand, an organisation by voicing a genuine public grievance could get a half-page coverage in the daily newspapers. However, such a situation is passé. It is now reverse. With competition and business investments in media houses, genuine public grievances do not get any space at all, unless it is paid.

There are other costs too, if you are ‘interested’ in getting your subject get prominence. Politicians who want limelight and corporates who want publicity routinely invest more.  For this reason, inauguration of a business outlet gets prominent mention, while a public grievance, without such ‘investment’ would not get the same.

Reaching out to the judiciary is expensive, as everyone knows, since time immemorial. However, with ‘loads of investment’ you can really get quick results. For elected representatives, who haggle for protocol and respect in public spots, there is no free service. In fact, recently a elected representative shot back at villagers saying he has paid already for their votes. It is quid proquo. They cannot come back and ask him. Because of investments in elections, every public representative would touch only those issues which bring him/her money. Genuine public grievances would find it very difficult to climb the rope of priority. Only his conscience might be helpful, which is very rare.

Community (euphemism for caste) networking might help in defraying some of the costs. However, community networking happens in a class. A Community leader would respond to a issue of a person from the same caste and class. Without class, caste networking also does not work. Thus, the costs of ‘caste’ grievances are not better, despite the emergence of ‘dedicated’ organizations.

S. No. Method Minimum Costs Results
1. A representation Rs.200 Often, nil
2. Dharna Rs.5,000 per day Often, nil
3. Rally Rs.100,000 per day Some impact
4. Delegation to Secretariat Rs.20,000 Result might be guaranteed
5. Fast Rs.1,00,000 per day 50/50
6. All party delegation Rs.1,50,000 per day Maybe
7. Press meet Rs.2,000 Often, nil
8. Press release Rs.500 Often, nil

This is only a illustrative table, which does not take into consideration the costs of corruption, speed money, etc.. It does not include all the methods as well. Also the costs mentioned might vary by huge percentages depending on who is doing, what, where and how. It also depends on the kinds of mobilization: more people would mean more money. Going to New Delhi would increase costs. Travelling from far away Srikakulam to Secretariat at Hyderabad would also be expensive. People, or organizations, often repeat their methods, or upgrade their methods, to get the results. Some follow a step approach.

There are least cost methods, which can get results too. Such as a rasta roko, or a bandh. However, some costs in these methods are ‘hidden’. The protestor needs to pay for legal costs, later. These methods are available only for ‘organised’ groups. Many violent or disruptive methods may not cost much, if one is part of an ‘organised’ group. In fact, these days, governments seem to respond only to such methods.

I do not know, in comparison, in USA, which is another democratic country, if there are such costs. In any case, this should be an interesting topic for a doctoral thesis.

In conclusion, one can say that the costs of getting the attention of a democratically elected government towards public grievances are increasing by the day. Increasingly, poor people are finding it difficult to get attention, leave alone solution. Prajala Vaddaku Prabhutvam, Prajala Vaddaku Paalana and Rachabanda programmes would be helpful. Most of these forays of decision-makers into the people are stage-managed, with police playing a major role, without giving scope for the common person to interact. However, administration is all at sea, when they receive a ‘sea of representations’ through these processes. Often, the whole representation process comes to a naught and people lose faith in the process.

The ultimate solution, I believe, lies in a transparent, decentralized, accountable and democratically elected governance process.

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