I have just read a fascinating paper published by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and written by Naomi Hossain. It is titled 'Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh' [IDS Working Paper Volume 2009 Number 319]. The paper describes and analyzes what happens when poor peasants in Bangladesh are being poorly served by frontline service providers like doctors and teachers in an environment where the institutional accountability mechanisms do not work. So, what do these poor peasants do? They get angry and they show it. They speak rudely to these doctors and teachers who normally expect deference. They embarrass them. They get local newspapers to name and shame them.They even engage in acts of violence like vandalism. And their reactions often produces results, particularly the media reports. This is what Hossain calls 'rude accountability'.
In India’s 2 million villages, public meetings at the village level called Gram Sabhas (GSs) have provided a structured, institutionalized space for dialogue between the local government and its citizens. In a recently released paper on the topic, Vijayendra Rao and Paromita Sanyal have coined these GSs as “state-sponsored” public sphere. In fact, these meetings are mandated by national legislation.
In India, these public meetings not only offer a space to dialogue and feedback between citizens and local power holders, they also pair it with real decision-making on how to manage local resources for beneficiaries for public programs. This is the most striking feature of the GSs. While the government provides data on families living below the poverty line that could be eligible for local resources, the GSs are required to have these lists ratified by those attending the meeting. Citizens can directly challenge the data in “a forum where public discourse shapes the meaning of poverty, discrimination and affirmative action.”