Thursday, August 03, 2017

The promise to ensure responsive governance : Kathyayini Chamaraj

Deccan Herald: Bangalore: Thursday, August 03, 2017.
Do women who fail to get their 7 kg per head ration every month or those who do not receive their Rs 500 widow pension have any recourse to timely and assured grievance redressal close to their homes? Or do they have to run from ration shop to food office or from post office to tahsildar’s office in endless cycles with no assurance of a positive result, until they resign themselves to the non-delivery of a rightful entitlement?
Creating a legal framework for “Ensuring Responsive Governance” is one of the promises in the Bengaluru Declaration made by the state government at the end of the three-day International Conference in commemoration of Dr Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary.
The very same legal framework encapsulated in a “Draft Accountability Bill” was discussed at a consultation with NGOs by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in Bengaluru, a day after the Declaration. The bill is based on six principles gleaned from discussions with grassroots communities in Rajasthan: ‘jankari’ (information), ‘sunwai’ (personal hearing), ‘karyawahi’ (time-bound action), ‘bhagidari’ (participation), ‘suraksha’ (protection) and ‘janata ka manch’ (collective platform).
Very often, the poor are not aware of their entitlements or whom they should contact if th­ey are denied rightful services. Component 1 of the bill hence calls for citizens’ charters and job charts of officials, timelines, norms for service delivery etc.
Though these are already requirements under suo motu disclosures mandated under Section 4 of Right to Information (RTI) Act, these are vaguely drafted and not codified. A recent research reveals that of a total 3,000 RTI applications, 67% pertained to requests for information that should have been proactively disclosed under the RTI Act.
When fresh laws or policies are proposed, there is currently no system of seeking citizens’ views on the proposals. Hence, Component 2 of the bill suggests a system for this, which would enable governments to assess citizens’ reactions and prevent later protests. Such a provision for “pre-legislative consultation” already exists in a Central Government Order of 2013, which requires citizens’ suggestions to be publicised online along with the reasons for their acceptance or rejection, before submitting them to the Cabinet.
Even when citizens’ charters are framed, these are often not shared in a manner accessible to citizens at the grassroots level. Component 3 of the bill mandates this. In some panchayats of Rajasthan, for instance, details of applicants and the list of beneficiaries for subsidised housing are painted on panchayat walls.
Anganwadi walls display the number of beneficiary children and the number of days food was supplied to them. A ‘Digital Dialogue’ is in progress in Rajasthan to determine content and mode of disclosure of information in the public domain for several departments.
Information centres
To avoid citizens running from pillar to post to get informa­tion or grievances redressed, Infor­mation and Facilitation Centres at gram panchayat and block level are envisaged under Component 4 of the bill, on the lines of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) Sahayta Kendras, which make workers aware of entitlements, help them fill and submit job card and demand applications, file complaints, conduct social audits and public hearings, determine reasons for wage delay etc.
Any violation of a law, guideline, citizens’ charter and job chart is defined as a grievance under Component 5. The grievance redressal protocol calls for a Grievance Redress Officer in every office, who acknowledges all grievances with a dated receipt and a written response within 21 days.
Many elected representatives shy away from responding to grievances in public fora, prefer­ring citizens to appear individually as supplicants seeking patro­nage. Under Component 6 every complainant/petitioner will have the right to a personal hearing within 15 days of filing his/her complaint at a public platform at the block level, chaired by the sub-divisional magistrate.
This is already happening under Rajasthan’s Right to Hearing Act. If the complainant is unsatisfied with the response, he/she can appeal to an independent District Grievance Redress Authority, outside government control, and file a second appeal with the State Public Grievance Redress Commission.
Recognising that accountability of officials has to shift down­wards to the community rather than vertically to higher officials, Component 6 requires social audits to be conducted by citizens like in MGNREGA. The Comptroller and Auditor General has spelt out Social Auditing Standards in a first-ever exercise in the world which the Supreme Court has ordered to be followed under the National Food Security Act.
Component 7 of the bill mandates penalties to be recovered from officials found guilty of non-delivery of services and compensation awarded to citizens. Component 8 requires 1% of the budget of every social sector programme to be put aside for these citizen-centric mechanisms.
This Comprehensive Accountability Bill is ‘Right to Information-Part II’. But if the Karnataka government really had the will to put this legal mechanism in place, why did it not do so during the last four years? Or can it deliver on this promise in the last year of its tenure? Or is this only meant to serve as a manifesto item for the next election?
(The writer is executive trustee of CIVIC-Bangalore)