Government Grievance Bill – Revisiting the basic framework

Filed under Prevention of Corruption

National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) has observed that the draft Bill will be ineffective in providing relief to weaker sections of society.  While no one can have any issue with the objectives and expectations of the said NGO, perhaps, it has overlooked the structural issues of this draft Bill.  An obituary, published in the London Times for Common Sense is relevant to this controversy – “Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies and reliable strategies”.

Six States, namely, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Delhi have already enacted their respective State level legislation streamlining the procedure for the delivery of public services as a well recognized right of every citizen of the State.  Many other States like Uttarakhand are also moving fast towards adoption of a State level legislation on the same subject. Taking note and moving in synergy with these positive developments in the States, it is advisable to confine this present Central Bill guaranteeing the delivery of public services to citizens with reference to the Centre without extending its domain of powers and functioning to the States, district, municipality and panchayats.

A model advisory outlining the essential characters to be a part of all State laws guaranteeing the delivery of public services may be issued by the Centre acting as a guideline for all States to enact/amend their respective State bills in the light of the same.

Moving ahead in-sync with the federal character of the Indian polity and thus confining the purview of this Bill to the Centre, while encouraging State level legislation on Right to Public Services in each of the States, would go a long way in avoiding any conflicts between the Centre and the State on the subject matter specified.

The nomenclature of the Bill should emphasize on the essential character of ‘right to public services’ rather than highlighting the grievance redressal aspect which arises only in the case of delay or denial of such public services as is being demanded.  Therefore, the Bill should appropriately be called the ‘Citizens’ Right to Public Services’ rather that the ‘Citizens Right to Grievance Redressal Bill’ as it would rightly call  attention to the citizen’s right to public services as a legally enforceable right without putting undue stress or encouraging an atmosphere of filing grievance.

A single window at the district level for the activities of the Central and State Governments is not workable.  Let us not create new bureaucracy in the name of Jan Lokpal Bill and Government Grievance Bill.  The downside in terms of financial burden and HR issues are self evident.  The functions and responsibilities and the nature of services emanating from the jurisdiction of Centre and State are very different.  There are many departments which function in certain vertical group.  It would be a retrogate step to centralize all the functions and responsibilities at any single appellate point.  It would also blur the line of control.  NCPRI comments regarding in-house appellate structure at first and second level of appeal is bit harsh. The nature of grievance in terms of delivery of services can be both serious and may be as light as procedural delay.  Therefore, the responsibility already entrusted to the recognized hierarchy must not be taken away under some impression of interested party.  In majority of the cases, the appellate authorities are not likely to suffer from the conflict of interest.  The draft Bill has a provision for a Central appellate authority.  That should take care of serious defaults.  For the sake of clarity, it is reiterated that such an appellate authority would be different for the Central Act and the State Act on the subject of public services.

There are few specific provisions in the Bill which need to be further debated.  The definition of complaint mentioned in the draft Bill should not cover issues of violation relating to law, policy, programme etc.  This takes away the specificity and introduces a law of ambiguity to the definition of complaints related to non-delivery of public services.  There is very high probability that the nature of these complaints would be too wide and thus move much beyond the required category of those related to non-delivery of public services in a time bound stipulated manner.  Lack of specificity in the definition of complaints can lead to unwarranted number of complaints which cannot be handled at this level of governance thereby leading to high pendency rate of unresolved complaints which may ultimately adversely affect the overall functioning and the efficiency of the institution.

Non-government organizations substantially funded by government, or other companies holding government approved license for supply of certain goods or services do not appropriately qualify for being legislated under this Bill as the scope would extend beyond the delivery of essential public service.  This Bill should limit its scope to include only those companies which are directly and clearly entrusted with the delivery of specified goods/services in the citizens’ charter.  Non-deletion of the specified provisions would lead to unnecessary widening of the scope of this legislation without any proportionate benefit.  This Bill should limit its scope to include only those companies which are directly and clearly entrusted with the delivery of specified goods/services in the citizens’ charter.

The Head of the Department (HOD) of every Public Authority does not have the sanctioned executive powers and the required administrative machinery to look into or to initiate proceedings in cases involving serious corrupt practices for further action. Moreover, there already exists specialized machineries at both central and state level to oversee, try and penalize such grave acts of corruption.  Therefore, in order to avoid confusion and to introduce specificity, simplicity and efficiency in the functioning of the system it is advisable to limit the role and the power of the HOD to only referring such cases of corrupt practices to appropriate bodies already in existence which are competent to take cognizance of such corrupt practice for further action.

The draft bill must also contain provisions for human resource management especially towards creating a culture of excellence in public services.  Creating a results-oriented work culture in government offices should be an avowed policy goal.

The Delhi model has made the provisions of the Act a part of the service conditions for government servants.  In other words, it has made responsive and accountable governance as the benchmark for service delivery and administrative action.

In addition, many State laws enshrining the right to public services have certain progressive provisions.  These include: offering financial compensation to aggrieved citizens from the lump-sum penalty or fine amount charged per day on non-complaint officials responsible for delay or failure in the delivery of services, fixing administrative accountability by fines and penalizing non-compliant and negligent officials through a deduction in their salary, and linking performance under case disposal with overall performance audit initiating disciplinary action against erring officials.  These could be appropriately reflected in the draft Bill.

The provision for online monitoring of goods, services and grievance redressal should be a part of the natural evolution of this kind of public service delivery system.  Online monitoring facility for goods, services and grievance redressal would not only increase the accountability and accessibility of the service delivery system for the aggrieved common man but will also go a long way in decreasing the work load on the public authority coming in the form of follow-up queries.

(This article has been published in New Indian Express and Sunday Standard, to read here)

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