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By the people, for the people

Mar 21, 2011

Through regular ‘mohalla sabhas’ or neighbourhood meetings, citizens in Trilokpuri ward in India’s capital, New Delhi, are taking action against the inefficiency of local leaders and bureaucrats. By holding local officials accountable for their poor performance, the sabhas offer a democratic platform to residents to voice their concerns and take a lead in the development of their areas.

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How many times have you seen the same road or footpath being broken and made over and over again and cursed the inefficiency of the local leaders and bureaucrats? How many times have you looked at the overflowing drains in front of your house and wondered where does all the money earmarked for development in your area disappear? “Why can’t the concerned departments ask us how we want this money to be spent,”  you may have found yourself asking this question time and again.

So, also have people in Trilokpuri ward of capital city New Delhi, and are finally doing something about it. Since 2009, residents of the area have started conducting ‘Mohalla Sabha’ (Neighborhood Meeting), wherein they invite local leaders and bureaucrats and grill them about their performance and for non-accomplishment of campaign promises. The sabhas have offered a democratic platform to the residents to not only voice their concerns but also lead the development of their areas as they deem fit.

Mohalla Sabhas were started in the leadership of well-know RTI activist and Magsaysay awardee Arvind Kejriwal. The sabhas follow the Gram Sabha model where rural people have a direct role to play in decision and policy making processes that impact their villages.

Laxmi, a homemaker who lives in Sunder NagariJJ Colony (a resettlement colony in East Delhi) shares,  “The only park in the colony used to remain dirty and was not looked after, it was a home for gamblers in evening, children were not able to play there and girls could not pass through it without being subjected to vulgar comments.”

When she raised this issue in the mohalla sabha, the ward councilor asked the head police officer to reply. In his answer to Laxmi, the SHO gave assurance that the problem will be solved in a week. But residents raised objections to his claim. “We don’t trust your intentions and assurances.” One man even dared to tell the SHO, “How will you take action? You get a hafta (kick-back) from these very gamblers and anti-social elements.” But the SHO assured everyone that he will put a stop to all gambling in the area within the next 3 days. And much to the surprise of the residents, it did. Now, the police regularly patrol the area.

Issues ranging from eve-teasing, absence of teachers from municipal schools to missing doctors from government hospitals are raised and solved during these meetings. People, along with their chosen representatives, collectively take decisions about allocation of government funds to local projects. Women usually outnumber the men in these meetings and are leading the movement, says Santosh Jha, who works for the nonprofit organisation “Parivartan”, started by Kejriwal.

A mohalla sabha needs the consent of the local councillor before it can be conducted. Each ward (comprised of roughly 40,000 residents) is divided into 10 mohallas of 4000 residents each. So the nearly 4,000 households of each mohalla can have their own mohalla sabha. Three meetings of mohalla sabha are conducted in a month and basically function as an audit session of promises made and kept or broken by local councilors as well as a grievance redressal forum. Even the list of beneficiaries for government schemes for the poor are decided during these sabhas.

Neelam, another resident from Sunder Nagri recounts the struggle to rebuild a public lavatory in the area. About 20 years ago, her colony used to have a toilet, which was appropriated by an economically better off locality nearby for use as a parking space. As a result, slum residents were forced to defecate in the open leading to health hazards, and unsavory incidents with women. The slum residents were adamant that the toilet be rebuilt. When the mohalla sabha was conducted, both sides came; many viewpoints were discussed as well as argued upon. But ultimately, it was mutually agreed that the need of the slum residents was greater. The toilet was sanctioned and built within three months. Interestingly, no payments for any work sanctioned at the sabha are made till local residents express their approval of the work done. 

Although, mohalla sabhas are not recognised or registered as legal entities, they have received accolades from Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Recently, he made it mandatory for Delhi Police and MCD officials to take part in every mohalla sabha. The MCD commissioner has also approved of the sabhas,” shares Swati, who also works with Parivartan.

When asked why the councilors readily agree to participate in meetings where mostly they are at the receiving end of public ire, Swati shares. “Councilorsin Delhi don’t have any monetary powers; they only get funds from MCD. So they see it as a big opportunity for publicity and politics. They can meet people of their area thrice a month without much effort. This also reduces the burden of election campaigning. During this period, they are happy to work with and for the public to improve the chances of their reelection.”

Sounds like a perfectly win-win situation. And so, this new wave of local governance has now spread to other states like Haryana and Bihar.  It is heartening to see how the sabhas are furthering Gandhi’s vision of decentralized governance. As he famously said, “Twenty people sitting at the center cannot run true democracy that should be run from the bottom by the people from each village. The center of power today is located in Delhi, Calcutta or Bombay i.e. in big cities. I want to distribute it amongst seven lakh villages in India”

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