Kamal Manjhi, the Dalit ward member from Darbhanga we encountered in the previous chapter, was in a quandary. He was a ward member, an elected representative. Yet, no one – not the mukhiya, who was not a Dalit, nor the BDO, nor the district officials – seemed to pay much heed to his concerns. The mukhiya simply refused to release funds to implement piped water projects in Manjhi’s ward.

Desperate for some relief, Manjhi decided to complain against the state. It was only recently he had heard of the BPGRA or, as it was colloquially known, Jan Shikayat (literally, “People’s Complaint”). Manjhi, being a member of the local state himself, was no ordinary “jan”. He was a ward member, an officer of the state. Nevertheless, Manjhi decided to file a complaint against the local state.

To do this, he took two buses to reach the subdivisional headquarters, stood in the queue like every aam aadmi, common man, with a grievance in front of the Jan Shikayat office.

Once his complaint was filed, he waited. Within weeks, Manjhi was called for the first of three hearings. He took those two buses once more and landed up at the grievance redressal office. Manjhi met with the grievance redressal officer and explained his predicament. The officer listened patiently and said he would be called again.

The call duly came, and this time around, Manjhi entered the public grievance officer’s chamber to find himself face-to-face with his adversaries, the mukhiya and the BDO. “Sabke saamne humne poora samasya bataaya” (I explained the whole situation in front of everyone), Manjhi said. The grievance redressal officer listened to his impassioned pleas and his opponents’ responses.

He asked them all to come back in a few weeks’ time. On the occasion of third and final hearing, the grievance redressal officer read out his order in the presence of both parties. The order, written in stiff officialese, mandated that the mukhiya and the BDO transfer funds to Manjhi’s ward. In Manjhi’s words, this was akin to a chain reaction: “When the BDO was pressurised by the officer, he, in turn, pressurised the mukhiya and money was transferred to my ward.”

In weeks, his ward, comprising the poorest and most discriminated households, saw water gushing through freshly laid pipes and new drains being built. It was a glorious incongruity: a member of the state had repurposed a citizen’s forum to make one arm of the state twist another into action.

In describing his experiences, Manjhi saved his best words for the grievance redressal officer: “He was an extremely nice man, not too old. Maybe in his forties. I went with a specific request and the system – and this officer, in particular – really helped me...I am very impressed with the system. I don’t remember the officer’s full name, but he was some Jha.” The Jhas are Maithil Brahmins, among the most privileged castes in Bihar.

The grievance redressal system had allowed the Dalit ward member Manjhi to transcend not merely administrative hierarchies, but also that of caste, in more ways than one.

Over 8.5 lakh complaints have been filed under the BPGRA since its launch in 2016. These complaints have spawned across forty-four bureaucratic departments, spanning virtually every aspect of government functioning. The complainants were diverse, their grievances ranging from the mundane to the grave: a certain Pathak, a Brahmin from Patna, complained about squatters. It was bad enough that their jhopdis, huts, encroached upon public roads, Pathak said, but worse still, his puritanical sensibilities were offended by their public consumption of meat.

Kavi Ranjan, a Dalit youth from Bhojpur, complained about a common problem in this era of digital transfers: data-entry errors. His post-matriculation scholarship was transferred to the wrong bank account, one that differed from his by a single digit. Deep Narayan Paswan complained that the mukhiya of his village had released only half the funds allocated under a scheme to help BPL families conduct funerals. A woman I spoke to had complained that she lost her young son to a freak accident featuring a dangling live wire. She wanted compensation.

In 2018, we ran a survey of 1,047 randomly sampled complainants from across Bihar. A third of the complainants said their grievances had been resolved. Curiously, many more – close to 75 per cent of the respondents – were satisfied with the BPGRA, rating their experience as either “good”, “very good” or “excellent”. As one complainant told us: “The BDO was forced to come and speak with us at the hearing and he was even scolded by the grievance redressal officer in front of me! My complaint was not fully resolved. And I know the two of them – the BDO and the grievance redressal officer – may go and have chai afterwards, but I was very satisfied with the entire experience.”

An apathetic state had put on a gentler face and listened. This intent was reflected elsewhere too: when I had gone to meet Seema Kumari, the grievance redressal officer in Patna, I was surprised by the unusually large, bright hoardings beckoning passers-by. They announced that one was in the vicinity of a grievance redressal office and walked readers through the process of filing complaints.

As I entered the office complex, I saw two orderly queues outside: one was to register complaints; the second, equally long one, was for a window that asked: “May I Help You?”

The counter’s main function was to help complainants convert their verbal complaints into written ones. More strangely for a government office – where waiting and standing usually went hand in hand – there were seats for complainants to sit in while they awaited their turn.

The state had listened, and had even gone a little further: it had also begun to make amends. A third –33 per cent – of the complaints being redressed may seem like a small number, but it compares favourably with other contexts from around the world. It is also a remarkable achievement for a state like Bihar, where, even fifteen years ago, the bureaucracy was entirely emaciated, the state was in the midst of a crisis of law and order and incapable of spending its own resources.

Last Among Equals: Power, Caste and Politics in Bihar’s Villages

Excerpted with permission from Last Among Equals: Power, Caste and Politics in Bihar’s Villages, MR Sharan, Context.