March 10, 2013

From Transparency to Accountability

Right to Hearing Camp: Taal Panchayat, Rajsamand District, Rajasthan, 27/12/12


A fictional tragicomedy play, could not have been scripted better. The narrative arising from the implementation of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) in Rajsamand District, demonstrates how easily even the absurd can become acceptable.

In a recently held Jan Sunwai (Public Hearing) conducted by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the Rajsamand District administration, in Saroth Panchayat on 27th December 2012, Pratap Singh, Puran Singh, Raju Singh and Mithu Singh brought their uninstalled electricity meters and switchboards to the public hearing bundled in sacks, although official records show they have receiving electricity from February 2010, September 2009,  February 2010 and March 2008 respectively and have been consistently billed for their imagined usage of electricity.

Chaina Ram sits in his kaccha house in Kaalgun village, in Taal panchayat, Rajasthan with outstanding electricity bills in his name for twenty five thousand rupees. This despite the fact that Chain Ram’s house has never had electricity!

In another Sunwai held in Bhim, Rajasthan in November 2011, many people testified to being billed without having an electricity connection; having connections but not receiving any bills; having poles installed but no meters on them; being given a meter but no electricity connection…

The RGGVY is a central government flagship electricity scheme assigned with the important task of bringing electricity to every village and hamlet across India. More specifically, it guarantees every Below Poverty Line household a free electricity connection, the material and labour costs for installing this connection and a complimentary CFL bulb.

In an earlier Jan Sunwai in Barkheda and Jhamdi Gram Panchayat, Bharatpur District, in January 2012, people brought the CFL bulbs in their unopened cardboard packaging, as these were distributed to them the night before the public meeting. In fact, CFL bulbs seem to have been ‘swallowed’ by the contractors across the state.  Fact is stranger than fiction, but there is a certain logic to it all. A CFL light bulb that costs a little over Rs 100 is not worth fighting for as far as the individual BPL beneficiary goes. But for the corrupt the numbers add up : 44,000 RGGVY  connections in Rajsamand District amount to over  Rs 40 lakh mopped up from Rajsamand in light bulbs alone!

Throughout these public hearings, when asked why they have not registered complaints against this gross non-delivery, the repeated refrain was “kitne baar shikayat kiya hai, hamaara kaun sunta hai?” (we have complained so many times;  who listens to us?). The RGGVY story is a snapshot of just one out of the countless vital interactions of the citizen with government. In the recently held grievance redress camps people brought complaints related to the PDS, the BPL list, rural housing, the MGNREGA and other rural development programmes, fluoride in drinking water, schools and aanganwadis, and many other petitions and complaints. Beyond the testimonies of abject failure in delivery, testimonies from  the people themselves is the best feedback a system could ask for in order to correct itself. Provided there is a willingness to acknowledge the complaint, and act on it. This is where political and administrative will is so important. The huge turnout in the grievance redress camps also reflects the crying need for a uniform framework of grievance redress that empowers the applicant, is decentralized, accessible and inclusive. What are the components of such a framework?

An effective grievance redress system would begin by easily registering a complaint, and immediately providing the complainant with a dated receipt.  The complainant must be given an opportunity for a hearing in an open forum, and provided with a ‘speaking order’ within a stipulated time frame. There must be an opportunity for an appeal to an independent commission at the district level, who at the end of a time bound open hearing process must be empowered to impose penalties on the concerned government official, and provide compensation to the citizen wherever it is justified.

The non-delivery of essential services is recognized by all, including planners, policy experts and most significantly by the intended beneficiaries. Unfortunately, the public discourse by policy makers concentrates largely on technical interventions like cash transfers and biometrics via UID (Unique Identification Number) to solve problems with leakages and inefficiency. Consultative and participatory processes with citizens, point to a causality of the different failures in the delivery of public services: the arbitrary use of power in decision making; lack of transparency in procedures and systems; poor awareness amongst users of the services; and most importantly, the absence of accountability of public officials to citizens. That all of these can be wholly corrected by bringing about a technological intervention at the end point of delivery, is na├»ve and diversionary. Instead of attempting to correct existing structures through which Government programmes are implemented, the premise of these ‘reforms’ have been to bypass these very structures. The assumption is that replacing ‘inefficient and corrupt’ lower level functionaries with technology (mostly through private service providers), would ensure the prevention of bias at the point of delivery. Given this context we examine two legislations, the Grievance Redress Bill and the Electronic Services Delivery Bill and attempt to point out the huge potential for genuine reform if the wider architecture of grievance redress is recognized, and technology to be seen as an aide rather than a substitute for political will and governance.

The Right of Citizens to Timely Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill’ (referred to as the Grievance Redress (GR) Bill here onwards), aims at providing a statutory framework for time bound redressal of grievances of citizens arising from the non-delivery or unsatisfactory delivery of public services. This is one of the reform measures currently under consideration that holds the most promise. The Bill is slotted for discussion in the Upper House of Parliament, having been studied by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice which offered very useful comments on the Bill in August 2012.

Without going into a clause by clause analysis of the Bill, it is possible to briefly discuss the reasons why its passage should be accorded the highest priority by the entire spectrum of decision makers, if improvement in delivery of public services is a genuine priority. The Bill aims to meet the stated obligation of redressal of grievances by establishing the following non negotiables: building a comprehensive awareness of entitlements; outlining the functions and obligations of functionaries in each Government Department among citizens through the codification of Citizen Charters; facilitation of citizens in the filing of their grievances by providing them with multiple modes of registering grievances; time bound redressal of grievances; ensuring that majority of the grievances are redressed at the District Level by a) allowing the supervisory official in the Department – the Grievance Redress Officer(GRO) an opportunity to redress the grievance, and b) setting up of an Independent Designated Appellate Authority at the District Level outside the departmental structure to hear complaints against the GRO; levying of penalty on erring officials and awarding of compensation to those aggrieved, as a reparative measure. In one of the most positive interventions made by this legislation, the Bill has expanded the definition of a service provider beyond regular Government Departments, to include NGOs substantially financed by the Government; companies supplying goods and services on account of a license and all bodies constituted by an MoU between the Government and any private entity, to come within the legislative reach of this Bill. This is of particular significance, given the trend of services typically performed by the Government like provision of healthcare, nutritional meals to school children, telecom network etc, being “outsourced” or “contracted” to third parties. It would have for instance, helped citizens of Rajsamand deal with the Electricity Department, and the Contractor while the RGGVY was being implemented. 

 The Bill works towards strengthening the concept of transparency and accountability in the realm of basic governance. This is ensured in two ways. First, by mandating that the Government and its agencies pro-actively state and disclose their obligations and duties in delivering basic services to people, and second , by providing citizens with legitimate means of holding Government functionaries accountable for not delivering on their stated responsibilities. This Bill subjects the State and its functionaries to greater norms of transparency, and attempts to create an effective channel of primary accountability of officials to the people.
The Electronic Service Delivery Bill ( ESD), states in its ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ its intent to “make all Government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realize the basic needs of the common man.”  However, closer examination of its content and framework shows a strong dissonance between the requirements of an actual average citizen and the provision offered by this Bill.  The most glaring inconsistency of the bill is that though it mandates the transition of all services of public authorities at the Central and State level to be delivered via the electronic mode, unless otherwise specified, it makes no provision for simultaneous provision of the same services through the current manual mode.  Hence, this bill essentially envisages the phasing out of all manual modes of delivery of services like issuing caste certificates, BPL cards, MNREGA job card, pensions, railway tickets etc, assuming a seamless linear transition of services from a physical portal to an electronic one.

While the convenience and streamlining of certain services being provided electronically is not contested, making this transition mandatory, is not only impractical, but will cause more harm than benefit. A quick look at figures provided by the Department of Telecommunication, during the course of examination of Demands for Grants 2012-13 to the Standing Committee examining the Electronic Service Delivery Bill indicates as much. There are 13.54 million broadband connections in the country, making the broadband penetration a mere 1.44% for the entire population. The total number of e-transactions across states in one month, as of 30 June 2012, is only 641.77 lakhs. In terms of relative proportion to a population of 1 billion, this is not an encouraging reflection by any standards. Leaving aside the required demands on minimum infrastructure to support this Bill, the roll out requires minimum computer literacy among citizens to access the services.

It is important to note that, the ESD Bill seeks to deliver these services electronically for ‘some’ payment. Even though this is mandated as ‘nominal’, the fact remains that a service which a citizen is right now receiving for free, like issuing of a ration card, will have to be subsequently paid for. Further, the access to these services for those citizens not having private access to electronic modes such as personal internet facilities will be through Common Service Centres (CSC), kiosks, internet cafes etc. The existing thin spread of personal internet connectivity will result in an added burden on the existing CSCs, thus opening up the route for private internet cafes to charge far more than nominal rates to provide a service. This financial burden on the average poor citizen, not to mention further harassment and inconvenience must be flagged before the passage of such a legislation. Most importantly, the ESD fails to take into consideration the power imbalances and the lack of space for citizens in the current accountability structures.

The Grievance Redress Bill could perhaps be seen in the tradition of legislation that seeks to shift channels of accountability from a ‘senior’ in the official hierarchy to the people themselves. It therefore makes a much welcome statement on the responsibility of the State towards its citizens. Stepping away from a passive ‘State and its beneficiary’ paradigm, the Bill, at the minimum level, provides a framework for citizens to challenge officialdom when it doesn’t deliver what it is meant to. It seeks to transfer power from those who govern, to those who are governed. This is quite unlike the hubris of the ESD Bill which first seeks to mandatorily bring everything all services under its cover and then make particular exclusions, which is quite misplaced with the reality of an average citizenry toiling to claim her/his rights. If the ESD were to provide additional facilitation through electronic service delivery, by making the department accountable for its responsibilities, it could bring the advantages of Information Technology to help meet the real needs of democratic governance.

It is therefore worth considering the recommendation of the Standing Committee examining the Grievance Redress Bill, that the ESD Bill be integrated within the purview of the GR Bill. The GR Bill addresses every citizen in the country and not simply citizens with access to electronic modes of service delivery. Secondly, the Grievance Redress bill details a clear procedure within bureaucracy if a grievance is not addressed. This includes a Grievance Redress Officer, the Head of Department, an independent District Authority and State and Central Commissions. In comparison, the ESD Bill simply details grievances arising out of two situations; non-availability of service in electronic mode, and deficiency in delivery of electronic service. There is no provision for representation before an independent non-partisan commission, and redressal is pursued within the boundaries of the concerned department. Instead of putting human beings at the centre of reform, technology is seen as the elimination of the human element making delivery seamless, effortless and perfect. Technology, must be placed within a framework of reform, and not be seen on its own as sufficient reform. In our current structure, even having technology integrated properly, requires avenues for citizen centered Grievance Redress.  In some ways, having a strong Grievance Redress Bill would complement the more efficient roll out of the ESD Bill.

Like the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Grievance Redress Bill seeks to use the existing bureaucratic structure, and mandate and streamline processes that already exist. In fact, a significant proportion of RTIs are filed to ask about the non-delivery of a state service (irregular pensions, maintenance of roads, non functioning street lights etc.) Information sought, is most used for seeking redress and action. Thus, the RTI has also by proxy, been doing the work of a much needed grievance redress system. The GR Bill has the potential to not just compliment the RTI, but also be the next generation reform that takes us form transparency, to accountability to the citizen.

The lessons that have emerged from the GR camps in Rajasthan that need to be incorporated into the GR law, are 1) the need for a single window in every Gram Panchayat to receive complaints and petitions and issue dated receipts, 2) the need to build mandatory platforms where open public hearings can take place. The Rajasthan Right to Hearing Act provides for compulsory weekly public hearings at the Panchayat and Block level which can be incorporated into the GR Bill to make it more citizen friendly, and incorporate ‘collective grievance redress’ platforms. 

Even the most perfectly crafted legislation cannot guarantee greater empowerment of the people, on its own. Empowerment cannot be devolved through provisions and clauses. It must be won. That is essentially why this Bill offers some hope. Instead of promising the moon, the Bill very simply, opens up Government implementation structures for scrutiny, and attempts to fix individual responsibility on the official and the supervisory structure. Through this legislative framework, people have been given the right to question functionaries on account of non-delivery and subsequently subject them to punitive measures if proven that non delivery was the result of willful neglect. For the first time, a Bill has been designed that also holds the ‘supervisors’ responsible for failure of delivery, and not sorting out grievances in a given time frame.

For those of us who do not depend on the state delivery structures for survival – for our food, wages or pensions, it is perhaps initially difficult to grasp the enormity of this proposed structure. If passed and implemented effectively, this grievance redress structure will be another hard won step in the direction of making government structures accountable to its poorest citizens. The next time Chaina Ram receives a bill for electricity he has not consumed, he will know that filing a complaint with a dated receipt, will make it mandatory for the supervisory officials of the electricity department to address his situation within a given time frame, or else face consequences, where currently there are none. This Bill is an effort to move from the ‘tragedy’ of our governance delivery to a documentary of positive change.

-By
Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi and Rakshita Swamy
Associated with the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information
(NCPRI)

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