An on-ground examination of the much-touted gaon baithaks in Mahoba district, Uttar Pradesh

In what seems to be an attempt at inclusive governance, the UP government has ordered for regular open baithaks to be conducted in villages and towns across the state.

Khabar Lahariya August 30, 2018 19:52:34 IST

An open meeting has recently left a village in Uttar Pradesh buzzing with discontentment. Held a day after Independence Day, an open meeting was held in Atarpatha village of Mahoba district, led by the village pradhan as well the Village Development Officer. It was one among a routine series of meetings that have been ordered to be held by the state government so as to keep up with the ground realities of rural life, with the designated authorities lending a sympathetic ear to actual problems. But even as the baithak, as it’s called, concluded in Atarpatha, it only left behind a village full of disgruntled folks.

We caught up with the residents of the village in the wake of the baithak, after the dust had all settled back into comfortable grooves, all of whom complained that the presiding officers were unreceptive and insensitive to their issues, and constantly asked them to shut up when they tried to bring forth and discuss their grievances. A dejected Pancha said, “When we tried to complain, they told us to sit down. Who has the strength or the will to argue with them?”

In what seems to be an attempt at inclusive governance, the UP government has ordered for regular open baithaks to be conducted in villages and towns across the state. While the ostensible aim of these open meetings is to provide a platform for local people to air their grievances directly to higher-level officers, they are also being used to spread awareness about maternal health schemes, educational policies and other rural welfare programmes initiated by the government. Perhaps it is the balance between the ‘jan-sunvaai’ aspect and the awareness drive aspect with an obvious eye on the 2019 elections that is lending the exercise the friction.

A stress that is telling on the presiding officers who, Atarpatha residents insisted, were not only insensitive and unwilling to hear them out, but also downright rude. An infuriated Kalicharan said, “The officers are to blame, the gram panchayat is to blame, the secretary is to blame! No one wants to listen to us. Some toilet will be made here, some other building constructed there. But they never care to hear our problems, what we want. I ran after them for over a month and a half, I even went to Delhi – but now, I am tired.”

What the baithaks do achieve though is a momentary state of cleanliness, but even this became a reason for disgruntlement as far as Atarpatha was concerned. They claimed that excessive time and energy was dedicated to thesaaf-safai” of the village so as to appease the visiting Village Development Officer, while the substance of the meeting itself was not given any importance. What infuriated them further is that thorough cleaning became an agenda point as soon as an official visit was on the cards, while the village awaits basic cleaning drives on a daily basis, else. Jai Singh, looking fed up, punctured through the pretence, “Today, the cleaning was top notch. It had to be, because they have to put on a show for the (Village Development) Officer. Who cares about cleanliness otherwise?”

The open baithaks are part of a concentrated effort by the incumbent BJP government to increase outreach and get more face time with the public in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections next year. The party even came under fire for its controversial Dalit “outreach” strategy involving mandatory visits to and eating meals in Dalit homes – when one BJP minister chose to order in from the local halwai instead. While burgeoning on with the election efforts, PM Modi and BJP party chief Amit Shah held a personal meeting with the Chief Ministers and Deputy Chief Ministers of all the BJP-ruled states – where the primary agenda was to be the strategy going forward, with a particular focus on increasing awareness about the beneficial schemes launched by the Modi government.

Given our country’s poor performance in overall human development – ranked 131 in the world as per the UN – increased public participation at the ground level can go a long way in improving living standards. But the reality seems to revolve around poorly executed baithaks that are failing to address the needs of the villagers or solve the problems that plague their lives at the ground level. On the contrary, there have been reports of villagers being physically assaulted by officers at these meetings, such as the case of a woman in Hamirpur district whose eyes were seriously injured at the hands of the pradhan at one such meeting.

In such a scenario, it is no wonder that people like Umraav, another resident of Atarpatha village, has no hope left when he says, “I got nothing out of the meeting. The officers simply come, give us a lecture and leave. They keep saying our demands will be met, but I have never seen that happening. These meetings are nothing but a façade.”

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