Creating people’s platforms (public hearings) where citizens can publicly challenge officials on the difference between promises and reality

Women gather for a public meeting

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) researches local government records, records interviews and organizes public hearings in India to expose acts of corruption.

In India, corrupt officials and rural elites can manipulate development schemes to their own advantage. This prevents projects from benefiting the poor and perpetuates poverty and social inequality.

MKSS activists and area residents investigate allegations of corruption in villages or districts, often at the initiative of local residents who feel they have been cheated or abused. At the village council or at higher levels of gov­ernment they request copies of relevant official records. Most often, despite a legal entitlement, the process of obtaining the required information is a struggle with many hurdles. For example, in the state of Rajasthan, MKSS mobilized villagers from several districts, staged sit-ins and generated publicity about the public right to information. As a result, a law was passed that comples officials to provide, upon request and at a nominal price, copies of documents on any sphere of government activity, including development programs, public resources and expenditures. This also sparked a national right-to-information movement that has led to the passage of similar laws in several other states and to a Freedom of Infor­mation Bill in the national parliament. Once MKSS has obtained the official accounts, the organization cross-checks them through site visits and interviews with villagers.

MKSS then holds public hearings that are attended by hundreds of villagers to present their findings. Organizers invite the press, gov­ernment officials and those suspected of corruption. MKSS activists, most of whom are from the area, read and explain the official documents claiming, for instance, that a certain health clinic was built in the village, or that laborers in a construction project were paid a certain amount. These documents are then contrasted with actual events. Activists present the results of their research and attending villagers provide their own testimony. The hearings last several hours, as organizers review one development project or instance of corruption after another. More recently, public hearings have also been organized around the operations of a local hospital and the public health system and around the functioning of food security schemes and the public distribution system.

While the impact on transparency and accountability issues has been dramatic, the effects on follow-up official action have been mixed. A few officials have been arrested and government investigations have started to move forward. In some villages the corrupt local officials attending the hearings have voluntarily agreed, when faced with the evidence, to cooperate with the investigations and even return the funds. Usually, however, MKSS activ­ists must follow the public hearings with continued agitation and pressure in order to ensure official action.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

Although labor-intensive, this tactic is a highly effective way to get entire communities involved in human rights and to expose official corruption. Comparing government records with empirical evidence can clearly demonstrate when funds or other resources are not being used appropriately. However, in order for the tactic to succeed, MKSS first needed both access to government records and the willing participation of the communities in question. If MKSS had not eventually been able to access official documents, no comparison would have been possible. Likewise, if community members had not requested help, it may have been difficult to get them to agree to participate in the interviews and public hearings. In some countries, such political mobilization could be dangerous. Yet as MKSS found, a willing population makes a big difference. Even public hearings about funding allocations, usually a dry, technical topic, drew big crowds. 

It may be unrealistic for an organization to expect significant political change from a tactic such as this one. MKSS's success in advocating for a new right-to-information law may not be replicable elsewhere, and local politicians resisted change even after the public hearings. Nevertheless, this tactic may have important results in the future, since it indicates to politicians and other officials that corruption will be uncovered and will not be tolerated. They may think twice the next time they are charged with executing a government project.