A Guarantee without Accountability Right to Public Services

As if involuntarily acting on account of pressures from civil society and various other counters, the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services Bill, 2011 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2011.  It was referred to the Parliamentary Committee in January, 2012.The Committee sent its report in August, 2012.  About a year’s time has elapsed since the representation by the Parliamentary Committee was presented, and still the final version of the Bill, in light of the recommendations of the Committee, has not been tabled in Parliament.  This very important piece of legislation like all other critical bills may not get enacted in the 15th Lok Sabha.  Perhaps, it would require another push from the civil society to impart that sense of urgency at the right quarters.

The States have been pro-active in enacting and adopting the Act, facilitating for justiciable rights- based claim of public services within a specified time bound delivery.  Till now, 17 States have enacted this Act and are in various stages of implementation.   Madhya Pradesh was the pioneer which enacted this law in the year 2010; the year 2011 saw the Act getting adopted by 10 more states (namely Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi); in 2012 four states of Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala and Assam also enacted the Act; whereas Gujarat and Goa have enacted the law only very recently in April and May 2013 respectively and thus have not even notified the first phase of government services covered under the Act yet. And the remaining 12 states which are still to enact this legislation are Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and the seven north-eastern states of Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur.

In order to find out the ground realities of the implementation of the Act in various states, Public Interest Foundation (PIF), a NGO, filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 to all 28 states, asking for basic details of whether this act had been adopted in that particular state, and in case the answer was in affirmative then the rate at which the complaints were being received and processed.  An assessment based on notification of specific services for delivery was undertaken to evaluate if the enactment meant any appreciable improvement in the delivery of services and thus bringing about relief at the cutting edge level.

Most of the replies received to the RTI query shared only the details of whether this Act had been enacted by the State Government or not, and the number of services notified under the Act till date. The number of services covered range from 153 in Rajasthan to 13 in Uttar Pradesh.  Certification on health, birth, death, SC/ST status; issuance of BPL/APL ration cards; state-aided pension provision of various kind; power department and driving licences are some of the other services which have popularly been covered by most states for time-bound delivery. Other important basic public services yet to be covered uniformly by other states are services like labour -rights guarantees and coverage of Urban Development Department for property related settlement of various kinds like property transfer certificate, no objection certificate for building construction etc.

However a careful reading of the replies together shows up distinctly that notification of essential services is incomplete in most of the States. Majority of the States have left out the subjects of land revenue, land record, police administration, rend control, power supply and administration in decentralized local bodies.  The farmers face maximum harassment while seeking justice from the revenue courts.  There are ways of manipulating information to suppress records of frequent adjournment and delayed justice.  The same is the story of police stations in terms of registration of FIRs, speedy police intervention in cases of atrocities towards Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.  The complaint of wrong billing and erratic power supply is endemic.

Another important feature and conclusion is that the system has not attained critical mass.  The citizens are not aware of their rights and there is no hand-holding procedure to cut the red tape.  Some of the states like Madhya Pradesh in denying information on monitoring practices went on to the extent of stating that under RTI replies it is not possible to furnish such information which is not already present with them in an collated form as a part of their usual record-keeping exercise. But a careful reading of the Rules accompanying this Act clearly states the requirement as well as provides the standardized format for record keeping of all complaints registered, time prescribed as well as taken to handle the case, and the final status of the complaint to be maintained on a regular basis separately by designated officer, first appellate authority as well as the second appellate authority. Even the pending Central legislation Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievance Bill, 2011, underlining this need for strict monitoring , in its Chapter X on ‘Reporting of Grievance Redressal by Public Authority’ of the Bill under section 46 (1) clearly states that, ‘Every public authority shall ensure that every Grievance Redressal Officer keeps a record of complaints made to it or appeal therein and the decisions on such complaints and appeals.’

Out of 28 states only four states shared monitoring records on number of cases received and disposed under the Act since conception. Moreover the monitoring data reveals only a very sketchy picture with no basis for conclusive analysis. Delhi and Karnataka both despite having provisions for punishing of erring public officials in case of delays beyond sanctioned time in handling of complaints have 3.6 lakhs delayed cases with no penalty imposed on defaulting officer in case of Delhi; and around 7.4 lakh cases pending beyond the sanctioned time with merely 06 officers brought to book in case of Karnataka.

Monitoring exercise of the implementation of this Act at ground level forms an important aspect of this Act, without which there would be no built-in accountability, and thus no way of knowing whether this highly acclaimed public welfare oriented Act is actually bringing about that change in the lives of the common man, which was the most important goal and promise of this very Act.

The Central legislation if passed without any further delay can provide that reference framework for the states to emulate underlining the importance for incorporation of in-built mechanism for monitoring of the rights guaranteed under the Act. Moreover, this record regarding the smooth functioning and the delivery of the promises made under the Act should be open to public scrutiny by being placed in the public domain. Infact the truth of the matter is that this very important enactment has yet to become part of district administration in the country, which can be achieved only when e-governance is adopted both at the level of request for services as well as its final delivery. For without this in-built mechanism for monitoring and accountability, there is a pertinent danger of this Act doing nothing more than a lip service to welcome change that it had envisioned and claimed to bring to the lives of the common citizenry.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF and Tannu Singh, Research Associate, PIF

(This article was published in The New Indian Express on 26th August, 2013)