Fixing the ‘right’ to public services

The states and the Centre recently skirmished over federalism, following contentious legislation like the Lok Pal Bill, the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and a proposed amendment of the Railway Protection Force Act, 1957. Now, the Centre is planning to step into troubled waters once again by transgressing the federal structure of governance through its draft bill on the right to public services and grievance redressal.

The Central Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievance Bill, 2011 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2011. It has been referred to the Standing Committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice.

The present draft militates against India’s federal character by seeking to enforce cutting-edge public services from the state governments through Central diktat. In the Bill’s statement of objects and reasons, it has been argued that an over-arching structure is necessary, as the impact of various legislations by state governments has been diffused and limited. But it is difficult to appreciate that the rights-based approach being adopted by state governments in their various Acts has no or little merit, especially given the fact that while the Centre still drags its feet on the Right to Public Services bill, 15 states have already either enacted such a Right or have Bills at the proposal stage.

The main objective of this Central Bill is to regularise, simplify and make more transparent the receipt, by the common man, of public services as a right. Yet services due from state governments are very different from those the Centre is tasked with providing. Thus, it is very important that this Central Bill should abstain from strictly laying down rules for the delivery of services which fall within the purview of state governments.

Having the states adopt a similar bill on their own motivation will show up as a huge advantage in terms of ownership as well as the arrangement for the financial obligations the legislation will entail. In addition, 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; this can act as a guideline for all states.

Some other critical issues that require attention in this Central draft are its coverage, the appellate body (and links with a Lok Pal), an over-emphasis on uniformity, motivational-orientation, and financial viability.

Over-burdening the system from the very beginning, in terms of too many complaints due to excessive service coverage, or in terms of complications involved as a result of spreading the system’s coverage to all levels of government (like panchayats, blocks, municipalities etc.) through one integrated act, would impact its efficiency and transparency.

Rather than forming a parallel bulky system of grievance redressal, fixing the final accountability with the head of department of each public office, backing it up with a penalty for non-compliance, will prove to be an important catalyst for this system to function efficiently.

Moreover, the involvement of a Lok Pal/Lok Ayukta should be restricted only to forwarding of those cases where a case of corruption is being built out of some grievance. The intermixing of the roles of the Lok Pal/Lok Ayukta with the delivery of public services listed out in the citizens’ charter will only lead to jurisdictional conflicts.

All the various tiers of government are linked organically, and differ greatly in nature. Each level of government should be allowed the flexibility to work out finer procedural details on its own. An excessive emphasis on procedural and functional uniformity across levels threatens to take away the efficiency and dynamism that this institutional reform hopes to achieve.

Motivation-orientation towards the adoption of this Act, created through a culture of performance-related incentives, rewards and promotion will help create an environment in which attitudes change — which in turn will ensure the sustainability of the reform. Finally, the financial viability of the new system’s operations over time, both at the level of the Centre and the states, needs to be accounted for separately, as these are going to be important factors impacting its administrative workability.

If adopted without disrupting the federal nature of our governance, this Bill will mark a significant step forward, especially given that it assigns a large role to grievance redressal born out of complaints about any quantitative/qualitative aspect of public-service delivery. It is important to remember that, if the right to service encompasses only the timely delivery of services and penalties for non-compliance, then it leaves out a significant aspect for citizens’ welfare — the power to approach an appropriate authority about the quality of the service they have received.

Establishment of empowered commissions at both the Centre and the states, vested with whatever oversight powers are appropriate, would go a long way towards transforming the modus operandi of public service delivery. The power of these commissions should be broad-based to include the ability to recommend additional changes in the procedures for service delivery to make them more transparent and citizen-friendly.

(This article was published in Business Standard on 8th April, 2012)