The people of West Bengal appear to be quite contented with how the country is being governed. They have hardly ever availed themselves of their “inherent right” to bring grievances to the parliamentary committee on petitions, formed in 1999 to receive and redress citizens’ grievances. The state assemblies also have such committees, and at both levels, their members are nominated by the speaker from the political parties. Ministers cannot be nominated. The most recent review of the working of these committees shows that West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura have made very few petitions, while Tamil Nadu has recorded about 17,000 grievances. These grievances are examined by the committees and forwarded, with recommendations, to the relevant authorities.
The low level of petitioning in the three leftist states is certainly quite striking. One might expect communist governments to inculcate in the people a habit of active participation in governance. But poor awareness of the existence of such a right and of such committees indicates two things. First, it speaks of the failure of such democratic bodies in India to actually make themselves visible and accessible to the people. The Indian state has thrilled to the potentials of e-governance. But such innovations have in no way improved the levels of communication and consciousness in these matters. These committees, and the people’s rights they represent, are unknown to most Indians, and the means of bringing grievances to them — writing or e-mail— are out of bounds for the majority of the population because of illiteracy, poverty and general backwardness. Central and state governments will have to devise other means of reaching the people with these services. Second, the habits of criticism, intervention and bringing grievances, of exercising one’s right to do all this in a democratic polity, are also a matter of public education and awareness. The Indian democracy still needs to confront the demons of feudal compliance, endurance or sheer indifference to create a body of citizens that is politically active, in the broadest sense of the term.