Every Saturday morning Srinivasan, a retired revenue officer, and Ganesh, also a retired government employee, sit in a tiny room in one of the old buildings in a narrow lane of Bazaar Road in Saidapet. For the entire day, they sit there, receiving grievances and applications from the citizens who throng to the office from Chennai and surrounding areas.
This is the office space of Satta Panchayat Iyakkam (SPI), where the SPI has been conducting their Saturday grievance redressal sessions over the last five years. These grievance meetings primarily focus on assisting people in availing government services and to help them fight the cases of bribe and red tapism.
While Srinivasan has been diligently helping and guiding people in getting their work done every Saturday since the programme was launched in August 2013, Ganesh is relatively new to the team. On one such Saturday, when I was at the camp office, I found both of them busy talking to people in queue, who were seeking help to get various issues resolved.
Just another Saturday morning at SPI
Raji, a resident of Chennai was seated before Ganesh asking for his advice on how to pursue a hit and run case. Raji while driving his car in the city in the first week of August was hit by a SUV. Though he filed a complaint at the Chromepet police station, the police refused to file a FIR.
“Despite the CCTV camera footage of the accident, the police refused to file a FIR. They easily let the culprit leave the police station without making a proper enquiry. I am here at Satta Panchayat, eager to know how I can proceed with the case. All I need is justice,” he says.
The conversation between Ganesh and Raji continues. Ganesh suggests Raji submit a complaint to the city police commissioner as a first step. “If they do not respond, then SPI will step in. We will call the concerned police station and ask them why they aren’t filing the FIR,” Ganesh tells.
Meanwhile, in the next desk, Srinivasan, the veteran revenue officer is handling a property-related case. Two youngsters have come all the way from Kallakurichi to do a follow-up on a case of “theft of a government pond” in their village.
One of them, Vivek, describes how a land grabber in his village has filled up a pond in government property in his village with mud and has converted it into an agriculture field. “All this happened right before our eyes and we want the pond back in its original shape,” he urges.
A ray of hope for the troubled
What makes people like Vivek travel for four hours from a small town in Kallakurichi to Chennai and seek the assistance of SPI? “It is people’s faith on us that we help them solve their problems,” says a proud Srinivasan.
Citizens who approach the Saturday camps of SPI come here with the hope that their problem will be solved or they will receive a guiding light at the least.
It is not just Srinivasan and Ganesh who assist people during Saturday camps. A few other retired government officials, and retired clerical staff too, join them now and then. The Saturday camps are normally organised from 10 am to 5 pm and a team of advocates joins the camp in the afternoon to provide legal assistance to those who are in need of it. On the day of my visit, M Pichandi, a retired head surveyor had volunteered to guide people on survey-related matters.
What kind of cases do they mostly hear of? In reply to my question, Srinivasan says a majority of the problems are related to revenue and property related issues, followed by corruption, bribery and red tapism in government schemes reaching the poor, and also police inaction.
“But that is not all. We often get cases related to social problems, especially of alcohol abuse and marital discord. I sometimes play the role of a counsellor too,” Srinivasan laughs.
People working for SPI know well the disastrous impact that alcohol consumption has had on society in Tamil Nadu and have actively campaigned for the closure of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) shops. Senthil Arumugam, General Secretary of SPI says they frequently get calls and complaints on their helpline (7667-100-100) from women in Chennai as well as from nearby villages, demanding the closure of some liquor shop near their houses.
“We do our best to pursue such complaints and have succeeded in closing at least 25-30 liquor shops,” Senthil tells me.
What has made these Saturday camps so successful?
“It is because we have created an impact on citizens as well as on the government departments,” says Ganesh, sitting behind the desk even as he deals with a complaint.
“Staff and officers in government offices take our calls seriously, for they know that we accept only genuine cases. They immediately respond to our calls most of the time and get the work done,” he adds.
In cases where the officials fail to respond, SPI advises people to approach the court and assists them in legal battle.
“Of 100 cases we receive, 30 to 40 per cent of the cases are usually solved immediately while the remaining 60 per cent take time,” Srinivasan observes.
However, Senthil Arumugam says it is not just about following up till the case is solved, it’s also about guiding people to take the next step. “I can confidently say that we extend help to people take the next step in at least 70-75 per cent of the cases. Often people do not inform us once the issue is solved,” he says.
The rewards of social service
Interestingly, both Srinivasan and Ganesh who have been diligently serving people, vouch for the fact that the kind of satisfaction that they get in helping people through this forum is much more than what they derived as government employees.
“I felt suffocated when I was in the system to see how people struggled in the face of injustice. But then I was not in a position to raise my voice against the bureaucracy and the government. Here at Satta Panchayat I can help people as much as I can without any barriers,” Ganesh who opted for voluntary retirement from his government job says.
Reiterating the same sentiment, Srinivasan says the kind of work satisfaction that he has got in last five years is much higher than what he got during his 30 years of government service. “As a deputy collector of revenue, I had certain restrictions to what I could do. I couldn’t go out of my way to help people. But now I can guide them without bothering about the linits that higher authorities have set for me,” he says.
He recalls instances of police officers getting transferred or suspended as a result of SPI pursuing the complaints of non-booking of cases. “It’s a good thing, you know,” he says.
As the day gets over, I leave the camp with some more good news for citizens. After five years, these camps will no longer be restricted to Saturdays anymore. Come September, and the camps will be held everyday at the SPI office in Bazaar Road, says Srinivasan.