Hearing the marginalized: How Indian Jan Sunwais help the voiceless speak, learn and act

© IGRS JanSunwai-collective-intelligence-democracy

Quick facts


Read this if you

  • Seek inspiration about new ways to promote transparency and accountability in governance and ensure effective delivery of public services.
  • allow ordinary citizens with limited access to power to express their grievances with public administration.
  • want to understand how carefully prepared and moderated confrontation can lead to better solutions.
  • understand the role that emotions play in participatory processes
    Manage the tension between positive and negative emotions.


Policy making steps


Stéphanie Tawa Lama
Research fellow, CNRS, at Latts Universite Paris-East

Related ressources


When citizens of one of India’s poorest regions realised they were facing widespread corruption from the very scheme supposed to guarantee them a minimum wage, they chose to push back in a very public way. 

Named jan sunwai, these special kind of public hearings allow citizens with limited power to express their grievances towards a public administration. Scaled to the Rajahstan region and then India, the approach has proven to be successful. It has been picked up and adapted by other organisations on a variety of subjects, from access to healthcare, to municipal budgets, and violence towards discriminated castes. 

They have helped solve cases directly, have encouraged bureaucrats to pay greater attention to the needs of citizens, however, in some cases civil servants have sought to prevent the organization of jan sunwais in order to not be exposed to public scrutiny.

How they solved it

Local activists devised the formula in order to address the issue of local corruption. Jan sunwais enable the most marginalized to claim what is their right in front of representatives of the state, by giving them a platform that shows that their grievances are shared by others, and that gives them a safe space for sharing their concerns.

Key methods and concepts

A jan sunwai is a public hearing, part community meeting, part court hearing. Its length varies from a few hours to a few days. 

It brings together administrators and beneficiaries of a public scheme. The dialogue is organized by facilitators from civil society organizations. It is moderated by a small group of experts sympathetic to the cause. 

The public session marks the culmination of a long preparatory process whereby facilitators collect and document cases of violation of people’s rights, identify emblematic cases and train the concerned families to speak in public. 

On the day, a festive introduction creates an atmosphere of trust, hope and even pride (song, dance…). Then, the aggrieved parties testify how they were wronged. The relevant public official then replies. The moderators help clarify facts, explain what should have been done and request corrective action. Emotion work: a jan sunwai generates the required emotional energy as a result of the “emotion work” that underlies it. 

As Stéphanie Tawa Lama explains, “jan sunwais illustrate how the organizers attempt to channel emotions such as fear, resentment, and anger, which might hamper the discussion, while stoking emotions such as confidence, courage and hope, which are likely to stimulate the exchange.” The hearings help bring public officials with citizens’ true feelings and realities. This is what allows them to mobilize participants and trigger effective change. “It is thus an example of empowering participation.”

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