Nikhil Dey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Excerpts From An Interview

The government has tabled the Citizens Charter and Grievance Redressal Bill in Parliament. What do you think about it?
The Bill in Parliament is a great breakthrough and a really historic opportunity to push through a very progressive and crucial piece of legislation that will change the quality of our democracy in unimaginably positive ways. It is not a magic wand but a huge first step. It will mobilise many more people than even the RTI did and will force our administration face to face with the people not just in a million but a billion ways. People don’t have a full sense yet of how much this legislation has granted and our fingers are crossed that the bulk of it goes through, so we can concentrate on just getting a few necessary correctives pushed in.

Team Anna is vociferously opposed to this Grievance Redressal Bill and insists the mechanism should be under the Lokpal. Why do you feel their approach won’t work?
What people don’t seem to realise is that if we get the Jan Lokpal Bill, we are basically going to get a very powerful police and head towards becoming a police State. Even if we assume all of it works to perfection, what it will essentially do is triple our police stations from 13,500 to 40,000. You can imagine the number of staff that will require and just ask yourself why would Lokpal officers — or what will essentially be CBI officers at grassroots levels, with all the attendant powers that comes with that post — be any different from any other police station? Unfortunately, what could have been a very strong and focussed conception of curbing big ticket corruption — pushing to create a sharp CBI freed of government control — has instead ballooned into a campaign for an unfeasible catch-all institution.

People at a grievance redressal manch in Jaipur
Waiting for justice, People at a grievance redressal manch in Jaipur

But to answer your question, our basic objection to clubbing corruption and grievance under the Lokpal is that the two are very different things and need different approaches. Team Anna has got trapped into one very big mix-up. They are saying that every case of non-delivery of service basically has an act of corruption behind it; that government functionaries don’t deliver services because they want a bribe. Let’s accept their premise to be true for a moment and place all the citizens charters under the Lokpal so they can investigate such crimes. The problem is crime has certain standards. There is a legal definition under the CrPC Act and you have to be able to prove it. Now in investigating that crime, the Lokpal cannot also double up as a redress authority because by its very nature it is a police office, a criminal investigative agency. (Tomorrow if you want to say the Lokpal must also perform medical operations or drive buses, that’s a different question. If that were true, why would we need district collectors, just SPs would have been enough.) Anyway, they are saying they will find out the corruption behind these omissions or if there is repeated violation, they will deem it corruption. I can understand a vigilance machinery within a department being empowered to do that but how a police force can do it is beyond my understanding.

Also, even after you have gone through the laborious process of proving a crime, it still has to go to the judiciary. Do you know the CBI has 10,000 cases it has finished investigating that are still pending in court? Team Anna says the Lokpal will create special fast-track courts to take on the new cases. How many special judges will you need for that, where will you draw them from? But set aside all those challenges. Even if you assume a best-case scenario of everything working really well, the Lokpal may manage to put a whole bunch of people in jail, and there may be some confiscations, but people’s essential work will not get done. Punishment is not delivery. In an allegation of corruption, you have to prove the corruption; whereas in a case of grievance, from the moment you don’t get something you are entitled to, you are already an aggrieved party. So just ask yourself who in their right mind in this country will go to a police or Lokpal thana and write an FIR, give three witnesses, and go to court to get a ration card, passport, telephone connection or electricity bill? Why would they?

The Citizens Charter is set to mobilise more people than what RTI did
People power, The Citizens Charter is set to mobilise more people than what RTI did, Photo: Tushar Mane

This is why we are saying that the Citizens Charters and grievance should be under a separate institution. Logic requires one to separate them. And this is why we feel, with a few amendments, the current Bill is very robust. If any actual act or allegation of corruption does come up related to any delivery of public service or grievance, we have absolutely no objection to that complaint being investigated by the Lokpal, Lokayukta or any designated authority. In that sense, we are not opposed to the grievance redressal having links with the Lokpal. We are not even saying don’t have the Lokpal as the premier institution fighting corruption. But if they insist that grievances must be placed under the Lokpal altogether, we would call it fundamentalism.

Isn’t it true that both Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have been open to placing the citizens charters and grievance redressal mechanism under a separate institution? Why has Team Anna changed that position?
Yes, by and large, we were in agreement on a lot of this, so I don’t understand why they have changed their tune and are so vociferously against it now. Even the Sense of the House statement had said the issue of citizens charters has to be addressed; it did not specifically say it had to rest under the Lokpal. Besides, even if one quibbled that it did say that, isn’t it more important that a well-thought out and robust structure be created rather than insist on the fine print of the statement? The bottomline of the Sense of the House, the bottomline of Arvind, Prashant, Anna, or us is to deliver to the people. So why such polarisation? Putting grievance under the Lokpal will make both collapse. In fact, I worry that people who actually have cause to fear the coming of the Lokpal would jump at this opportunity to put it all in one basket and say, let’s watch the fun. Let the Lokpal derail itself and implode. Apart from that, it will be a real loss to this country if the Grievance Redressal Bill gets stalled now in the continuing crossfire of the Lokpal debate.

If MGNREGA workers don’t get their wages on time, they will be entitled to compensation
Relief in sight, If MGNREGA workers don’t get their wages on time, they will be entitled to compensation Photo: Vijay Pandey

So how do you read the citizens charters and grievance redressal landscape? What has this Bill got right?
The Citizens Charters enumerates citizens’ rights across many departments and is a very important step towards better governance. It lays out what every citizen can expect and demand from every government department and in what time frame. Many state governments, in fact, have already gone ahead with passing Delivery of Public Services Acts. But there is a conceptual difference between charters and grievance. In listing what it will do, by implication, the charters exclude everything else. Now you may have a legitimate grievance that falls outside the purview of the charter. So charters will strengthen your hand in some circumstances and weaken you in others. Grievance redressal, on the other hand, flows from the idea that if any citizen has any complaint about the system, that complaint must be heard, addressed and replied to. It may turn out that the complaint was not feasible or not within the power of the government to act on but there still has to be a sunwayi-karowayi (hearing-given, action-taken) process. That is the basic premise of government. The real crisis of government today is not just that it has become corrupt but that it’s become deaf to ordinary citizens. This Bill goes a long way in correcting that.

‘Putting the grievance redressal mechanism under the ambit of the Lokpal will make both collapse’

We recently did four grievance registration camps in Delhi and more than a 1,000 people turned up. They were complaining about ration cards, getting kids into school, demanding girls’ toilets in schools. But 90 percent of their grievances — even for the most ordinary things — did not fall under the Delhi Public Services Delivery Bill. This is why we need both the citizens charters and a wider concept of governmental obligation. The current Bill tabled in Parliament has a broad enough and good enough definition to cover much of this landscape. Some really radical definitions of public authority have come through in the Bill. Now one billion citizens can go and demand better delivery and action for themselves. The power has been put in their hands.

You said the Bill still needs a few correctives to make it really robust.
Yes, currently the Bill makes provision for a grievance redressal officer in every government department. We feel this will create unnecessary multiplicity and duplication; also the standard will never be the same and being within the same department, the complaint centre will not be independent. Our MGNREGA experience has taught us that for someone, putting in an application is the biggest hurdle. So what we are suggesting is to have a single platform or Janata Sahitya Kendra at every block. We have 6,000 blocks in the country and most of these already have spanking new Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras, complete with computers and phone lines. Also, every welfare scheme — the MGNREGA, health, education, now food — already has existing officers. We are saying rationalise all this existing infrastructure and manpower into one single platform or window. This will be free of any department; it will just take a citizen’s application or complaint, register it, and give dated receipt, then track the movement of the complaint. Any citizen can then track the fate of their grievance over the phone or online through this office.

One massive lesson the Lokpal has missed, which the RTI taught us, is you don’t need to create a new bureaucracy. Just use the existing structure and put an oversight mechanism over it. We did not create a single new PIO. But just putting independent Information Commissions over them has created a revolution. The RTI is not working perfectly but it is working incredibly well. Once this complaint has been made, the grievance redressal officer in every department will have to give speaking orders and file action-taken reports. If things are not resolved, they will have to escalate to the district level. This is where we feel the government Bill has made a mistake. It has jumped straight from within the department to the State Commission. This missing rung will be a big stumbling block. The State Commission is at too much of a remove from ordinary people and if that’s the only platform of appeal, it will derail the redressal mechanism. So we would like the phrase ‘designated authority’ to have just three more words added to it: “at the district level”.

‘One massive lesson the Lokpal has missed, which the RTI taught us, is you don’t need to create a new bureaucracy’

The third aspect we are pushing for is to have a provision for at least a minimum penalty and compensation. The intention is to goad and cajole the system to perform. If you are not getting your wages or ration or gas on time, it will not help you to just land an erring officer in jail. You also need your work to be done. Further, you are suffering a loss because your job was not done on time, hence we are saying the citizen must be compensated, either by the system of the functionary concerned. It’s a gentle thing, within the norms of justice. As it currently stands, the government Bill has made provision for compensation, but it has tied the idea of penalties and compensation together. We want to separate it. We want it to be worth people’s while to follow up on their grievance and ensure accountability. In a sense, this decentralises power and puts it in the people’s hands rather than seek to create a crack force that will sort all your troubles for you.

Finally, we feel the most effective way of dealing with petty corruption is again to decentralise it. For this, one of the best mechanisms is the public social audit. This is a brand new idea, which is a byproduct of the RTI movement and is one of the most heartening rays of hope to emerge out of India. To give you perspective on this, the CBI, with all the powers at its disposal and having investigated scams worth many thousands of crores, has recovered only about 20 odd crores in the past year-and-a-half. In Andhra Pradesh, social audits of the MGNREGA have recovered Rs 33 crore in the same time period by being able to act and follow through on tiny little sums. This scheme works in partnership with the Andhra government and in the past 2-3 years, more than three-and-a-half lakh complaints have been registered and almost a 1,00,000 people have been trained to volunteer for these audits. After two such audits, they are experts — they can ask all the relevant questions, whether they are inspecting a school or a water scheme. So a huge democratic human resource is being built and this is a great example of what is possible. We are also moving towards the creation of mobile courts that can deal quickly and effectively with petty corruption.

For the rest, where the scale of corruption is higher, one can always file one’s complaints about corruption to the Lokpal.

A final question. One of the big sticking points between the government and Team Anna has been the selection process for all these institutions. On this count, I think their reasoning is fairly sound. Does this Bill also have a good selection process? And were there some design defects in the RTI’s selection criteria for the Information Commissioners?
Yes there was. In the RTI commissions the selection was by the prime minister, a member of the Cabinet and the Leader of the Opposition. This gave the government too much of a say. In this Bill, it’s the PM, Leader of the Opposition and representatives of the Chief Justice. Prashant feels they will still all get hand in glove and suggested a different composition but by then our draft had already gone and it was too late. Still, we feel this one will be fairly safe because it also incorporates the concept of a search committee. There is also reservation for one woman, one SC and one ST in the apex grievance commission comprising 11 members. This is the first time we have reservation in a constitutional authority. My argument is that this reservation is justified because if we cannot find even one woman and one SC and one ST on merit for these posts, we all might as well pack up and go home. We can safely say everything has failed in these 60 years.

But to come back to the point where we began — this Bill in Parliament is potent with possibilities. We must make a collective push for it to go through. Just a few changes in it will bring it to a threshold level to trigger real and revolutionary change.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.