Near the Jhelum, that runs through Srinagar, is an office building which lies desolate as staff members come in one by one on a lazy winter morning. The electricity goes off, as it frequently does after the government shifts to Jammu until spring and people mutter about slow Wi-Fi. This is the office of the Chief Minister’s grievance cell.
Although the body was created in 2009, its pace and presence in the news has significantly increased after the appointment of Tassaduq Mufti as coordinator this May. Along with the presence of the CM’s brother (Mufti) came a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which members claim has streamlined the process and enhanced engagement with people. “We used to get 30-40 complaints a day but now the number has increased to 200-300,” said Deepak Bangroo of the cell’s Complaint Handling Team (CHT).
Most complaints reach the cell through its online portal along with contributions from a telephone helpline, letters and various social media accounts. There are also those who visit the office directly. In the grievance cell’s WhatsApp groups can be found media reports shared by members to take sou motu cognizance. Bad press and complaints on social media are causes for worry. “Everyone can see the complaints so if we respond well, it sends a good message,” said Aniket Choudhary, who works at the grievance cell.
The grievances range from those about big construction projects to personalised ones, the cell once received a query about ‘How to become the Chief Minister’. People have talked of bad services in restaurants, disrespectful cops, bickering neighbours, “But most problems have to do with everyday issues, health, education, roads, electricity,” said a young woman who handles calls. Sometimes callers can be angry but “I remain calm and explain the procedure to them, people listen,” she said.
Complaints are forwarded to the CHT where they are differentiated according to the government departments they concern. The cell writes to relevant departments and members insist that problems are not considered as ‘resolved’ just by virtue of being forwarded. They explain that there are two follow ups with officials after which a summon is issued. “We also call the complainants to know whether they are satisfied,” said Choudhary.
The cell has a research wing where patterns of different problems are assessed, causes identified and reports prepared to influence long-term policy change. Several young people avail the three-month internships offered by the cell. At present, there are at least seven working in various capacities for the cell. “It is very human to want to be heard, I think what people like is that we are listening,” said Falak Muneer, an intern from the University of Kashmir. When asked about the obstacles she faces, she said that the people she deals with lack patience sometimes.
However, not everything goes as per plan and proposition. For 79-year-old Bansi Lal Balwal of Udhampur, patience may be running out. He has registered grievances on various issues including a commercial complex in his residential area which he alleges is encroaching. “I have filed more than 120 complaints but they just ask us to write to different departments,” he said. Lal explained that several of his complaint numbers have been blocked, and many have been marked as ‘Disposed’ even through action was not taken. Cases like Balwal’s raise a question on the cell’s claim that it is running at a success rate of about 93%. This ‘success’ is measured by the percentage of complaints disposed.
Yet in the eyes of its members, the cell remains an efficient body. They mention that some bureaucrats are not too happy about the cell taking up problems in their departments. “I’ve seen how officers twist complaints and serve them back to people, they are not used to being held accountable,” said Shoaib Noor, Under Secretary in the cell.
At the same time, when asked about making the status of complaints public, a member responded by saying, “We cannot do that because people will have a lot of expectations, also many of the complaints are personal in nature.” Noor agreed that the number of complaints for different departments can be made public to ensure transparency.
What remains clear is that the number of registered grievances is increasing and to be able to keep up with them, the state needs additional solutions.