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We the People: Deepening Democracy through Transparency and Accountability
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We the People: Deepening Democracy through Transparency and Accountability

pranav jeevan p

Pranav Jeevan P

The Right to Know, the Right to Live

Accountability and transparency from government officials is essential for proper functioning of our democracy. These ideas ensure that power is not concentrated in the hands of a few officials and that they are always answerable to the people, giving the word public ‘servant’ its true sense. Just as RTI (right to information) ensured that transparency flows from the administration to the people, the Accountability Bill would ensure that accountability flows from the administration to the people. It gives people the right to – file complaints, participate in the redress of their complaints, have their complaints redressed within a clear time frame, escalate their complaints in case of unsatisfactory redress through an independent appellate process, and participate in social audits of government schemes and institutions.

Social audit refers to a form of citizen participation that focuses on government performance and accountability. A social audit is a way of measuring, understanding, reporting and ultimately improving the institution’s social and ethical performance, thereby, making public officials accountable for their actions and decisions[1]. It can used as a mechanism of control that citizens can exert on their government officials to ensure that they act transparently, responsibly and effectively. Moreover, social audit can also play a critical role in keeping the community informed about government policies and actions and in articulating citizens’ demands and needs that might not be otherwise transmitted through more regular channels, such as elections. In short, social audit helps measure the consistency between public policy promises and actual results. It can also play a critical role as an anti-corruption tool in providing evidence to expose wrongdoings. It seeks to open up government institutions to people so that they can actively take part in the day-to-day decision making, policy formulation, scrutiny of public projects and implementation of welfare schemes directly, whereby, moving closer to the idea of participatory democracy and democratic decentralization of power where power is now held by people directly than by bureaucrats.

A grass roots organization of Rajasthan, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) have used the concept of the social audit for fighting corruption in the public works since the early 1990s. It all began in 1981 with a strike, led by a Dalit women named Naurti Bai, which gathered 500 minimum wage workers who refused to return to work or accept any payment until their full wages including pending dues were paid[2]. It was also a fight for equal pay for women and resulted in the historic verdict from Supreme Court in 1983 which directed the state to ensure minimum wages be paid to laborers.

“…where a person provides labour or service to another for remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, the labour or service provided by him clearly falls within the meaning of the words ‘forced labour’. if anything less than the minimum wage is paid to him, he can complain of violation of his fundamental right under Article 23 and ask the Court to direct payment of the minimum wage to him…”

MKSS took up this struggle and soon realized that to enforce their economic rights and exercise democratic controls, they needed the right to access the government documents which had been kept away from the people. They began by demanding transparency of financial records of expenditure in the Panchayat. Their demand for transparency, accountability, social audit and redressal (including the return of stolen public money), began with the first Public Hearing the MKSS organized in 1994 by unofficially accessing the documents, as there was no legal right to do so. The contents of these documents were shared and verified with the residents of the area. People came to the public hearing to testify and audit the work executed by their panchayats and government officials. The revelations of the first few public hearings led to an immediate and sharp reaction from government officials, who refused to share information and denied people their right to access such documents[3].After a series of public hearings exposed systemic corruption across Rajasthan, the MKSS began a historic forty-day-long sit in protest to demand the Right to Information. Protestors came from across rural Rajasthan to the city of Beawar. The novelty of this protest was the demand for information, instead of basic needs like food and shelter, by the people. This demand for transparency and democratization of information comes from the realization that their economic, social and political rights are accessible only if information is made available to them and their government is held answerable to them. This realization is a sign of awakening of the democratic spirit in citizens extending beyond the right to vote.

A sustained protest, similar to the recent farmers’ protest, began for the RTI which lasted 3 years. The protest began with support from over one hundred and fifty villages. It was supported by donations of grain from these villages and individuals in Beawar. Nearby vegetable vendors donated to the protestors providing them with food and water. Doctors offered their services. Local people joined in and walked with the rural protestors. The protest was marked by cultural expression including song, theatre and puppetry. Local cadres of trade unions also lent their support. The principles of mutual aid and self-organization were visible throughout these protests[4].

Hum Jaanenge, Hum Jiyenge (We will know, we will live)

Their first set of demands was met in 1997 when the Panchayati Raj Rules were amended by the Government of Rajasthan. In the subsequent public hearings, the elected representatives and officials found guilty of corruption were made to publicly return the money, and ordinary citizens saw how the right to access documents gives them an opening to ask questions and receive answers from those who rule in their name.

In a democracy, without the right to know, there can be no real right to exercise power by the people and make the Government and State machinery accountable to them. It is the beginning of decentralization of power from the bureaucrats and politicians and giving it directly to the people. The Constitution of India acknowledges that the people of India are sovereign and they are entitled to this power to exercise their sovereignty, and participate in governance, therefore, the people must have the right to know.

The people of Dungarpur district of Rajasthan and Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh have collectively organized such social audits to prevent mass corruption under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). A World Bank study investigated the effect of the social audit on the level of public awareness about NREGA, its effect on implementation, and its efficacy as a grievance redressal mechanism. This study found that the public awareness about the NREGA increased from about 30 per cent before the social audit to about 99 per cent after the social audit. Further, the efficacy of NREGA implementation increased from an average of about 60 per cent to about 97 per cent and the effectiveness of the social audit as a grievance redressal mechanism was measured to be around 80 per cent[5][6].

Accountability refers to the obligation ofthe public officials on the usage of public resources and answerability for failure in fulfilling the required objectives. It can be used by the people to gain information on how their tax money is used for their welfare, claim their constitutional rights and hold officials accountable for arbitrary use or misuse of their power and corruption. The Transparency and Social Accountability Bill confers the Right on every individual citizen to time bound delivery of goods and services, Right to Hearing and Social Audit, and redressal of grievances within a short time. It requires every public authority to publish a Citizens’ Charter with information on the category of goods supplied and services it provides, the time within which such goods and services be provided and the name and addresses of individuals responsible for the delivery of goods or rendering of services. Citizens will have the right to audit expenditure of all social sector programmes through social audits.

The Citizens’ Charter will be updated every year after holding public consultation. Every public authority or public servant shall have a “Job Chart” specifying his role, responsibility, powers, duties, functions, service conditions and performance records which will be available in the public domain. New Information centers will be opened in district, block and panchayat level for efficient and effective delivery of services and monitoring of grievance redress. All information regarding fund allocation, expenditure, financial and technical sanctions of works, estimates, reports, progress, bills, audit reports, and proceedings of meetings will be put in public domain and broadcasted in media. The Transparency and Accountability Commission will have proper representation of women, SC, ST and minorities at all levels. It also directs the commission to provide proper compensation to the complainant from the salary of the public official who is failing to deliver goods and services which they are entitled to. The bill also puts the burden of proof to establish delivery of the service on the public official rather than on the citizen. The architecture for this law is similar to the RTI. The design builds upon the Indian experience post the RTI era, to strengthen the robust citizen centric framework so that such a law could in a true sense of the term, be an RTI Part-2, taking us from transparency to accountability to the people, within India’s democracy.

Even though the RTI was not perfect and it was filled with planned loopholes and exemptions to deny sharing information, it made people realise the power they can attain by gaining information. The legislative and bureaucratic manipulations to weaken RTI prove that information is power, and the ones who have it are unwilling to share it with people. But the very fact that governments are grudgingly forced to enact such laws show that governments cannot keep denying the people’s right to know nor can they avoid listening to them when they demand it through massive self-organized democratic protests such as RTI and farmers’ protests. We should reproduce these principles of participatory democracy through actively pushing for legislations like the Accountability bill through massive protests and continue the process of social auditing by encouraging more public participation.

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References

[1] E. R. 1, “What is Social Audit?,” Europe-Georgia Institute, 13 December 2020. [Online]. Available: https://egi.ge/en/what-is-social-audit/.
[2] “Naurti Bai,” Civil Society, 29 August 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.civilsocietyonline.com/mega-hall-of-fame/super-sarpanch-naurti-bai/.
[3] “STRUGGLE FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO INFORMATION,” Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, [Online]. Available: http://mkssindia.org/struggle-for-peoples-right-to-information/.
[4] N. D. a. S. S. ARUNA ROY, “Demanding accountability,” India seminar, January 1997. [Online]. Available: https://www.india-seminar.com/2001/500/500%20aruna%20roy%20et%20al.htm.
[5] Y. Aiyar and S. Samji, “Transparency and Accountability in NREGA – A Case Study of Andhra Pradesh,” Accountability Initiative, pp. 17-23, 2009.
[6] A. Pokharel, Y. Aiyar and S. Samji, “Social Audits: from ignorance to awareness. The AP experience,” World Bank, 2008.

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Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.

 

 

 

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