Sumitra Devi, 73, had no other source of income, and was forced to live in penury. This would not have happened, had there been a grievance redressal law. But the much-promised legislation is not likely to be a reality soon
It was a four-year battle between 73-year-old Sumitra Devi and the Delhi government. Her struggle began when the local administration abruptly stopped her monthly widow pension in 2012. Delhi’s department of women and child development provides Rs 1,500 to every poor widow and senior citizen as monthly pension. For Sumitra, a resident of Gol Gumbad Camp, a slum adjacent to upscale Panchsheel Park, it was her only means of survival. The discontinuation of pension forced her to live in penury. What followed was not only her fight to reclaim pension but also for her right to be heard, right to life and dignity.
Clad in a multicolour saree, Sumitra sits on a mattress outside the one-room accommodation of her daughter’s family at the slum colony. She spends most of the day and night lying in the less than two-foot wide gallery besides the room. Sumitra came from her village in Bihar to Delhi “three months before the assassination of Indira Gandhi”. She was accompanied by her elder son. (The younger son still lives at their village. Her two daughters are married and live with their families at this camp.)
As time would unfold, she first lost her eldest son – the bread winner of the family – as he fell from a moving train. “His father was not able to cope with the loss. He went into depression and passed away later,” recounts Sumitra, as tears roll down her cheeks. After her husband’s death, she was on her own. Initially she worked as a domestic worker at a bungalow in the neighbourhood. Sometime later, one of her daughters asked her to move in with her. Her daughter had recently given birth and wanted someone to look after the infant. Sumitra, moreover, regularly received her monthly pension back then – which was the actual reason, a gossipy neighbour says, why the daughter wanted her to move in.
The government initially gave Rs 200 as monthly pension, and the amount was raised to Rs 600 and then Rs 1,500. But something went wrong in 2012 and Sumitra stopped receiving her monthly pension.
This continued for 29 months, between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, her daughter and son-in-law showed her the door. Eventually, she found a place to sleep at a small temple in the same neighbourhood.
In 2012, the women and child development department had asked all beneficiaries to provide details of their bank accounts, in place of their postal accounts, for cash transfer. Sumitra did not know about this change. For a year she made several visits to the post office, but every time she was told that no money was transferred into her account. Frustrated, one day she went to the post office and shouted at the officials. “That’s when a senior official came out and told me that I should get a bank account,” recalls Sumitra.
She went to a Syndicate Bank branch nearby and opened an account. But she didn’t submit her bank account details to the postal department – as nobody told her to do so. After waiting for a month she visited the senior official at the post office, who now asked her to submit the bank account details to the department. He advised her to get in touch with any women organisation working in the Gol Gumbad area. This is when she came across Usha, a local member of Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS), who took up her case and fought all along.
Usha and the SNS team filed an RTI application on June 7, 2013, asking the women and child development department why Sumitra’s pension was stopped. The public information officer (PIO) replied: “Your pension might have been stopped because you might not have presented an application for transfer of your pension account from the post office to the bank.”
Unsatisfied with the answer, Sumitra, with help from SNS, went to the first appellate and the second appellate between July and September 2013. There was no reply. The case was taken to the central information commission (CIC), the highest authority for RTI. After a year of questions and answers, the CIC ruled in favour of Sumitra on September 26, 2014. It directed the department to “pay compensation of Rs 48,500 to the respondent … and inform her within 15 days when payment will be made”. The commission asked the PIO to explain “why maximum penalty cannot be imposed on him for not complying with FAA [first appellate authority] order”. The department, however, refused to comply with the CIC order.
In April 2015, the CIC imposed a penalty of Rs 25,000 on the PIO for non-compliance. In June the Delhi government moved the Delhi high court seeking quashing of the CIC orders. The court ruled in December that the government will have to pay the entire arrears to Sumitra. It was only in February that Sumitra finally received Rs 43,000.
Now, her pension has been resumed. And so has been the offer by her daughter to live with her.
The need for grievance law
Sumitra’s case is just one example of how citizens are forced to take the RTI route to mount pressure on government officials to get their grievances redressed. The unfair treatment from public officials, in the form of delay or denial of services, has become a routine for most Indians. Reasons vary – administrative indifference, ego tussle, commission or omission of some act against the applicant’s interest. The internal administrative enquiries, ordered by the head of department, in such cases are rarely conclusive.
“Those complaints die a natural death. It is like a black hole. The complainants don’t ever get to know what happened to their complaints,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convener, National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), one of the civil society organisations behind the making of the right to information law.
In 2014, the NCPRI conducted a national study, analysing RTI applications to ascertain how many are purely information-based queries and how many are grievance related. The team analysed 5,000 applications. “A very large percentage of those are related to grievance redress – people not getting ration and pension, among others,” explains Bhardwaj.
In the absence of a grievance law, people are forced to file RTI applications. They actually do not seek any information through RTI, but seek answers and resolutions to their queries.
And what kind of questions people ask in their RTI applications in the absence of a grievance redressal law? “One, people want to know how much ration or subsidy they were supposed to get, who was supposed to deliver, what action would be taken against the officials if they file a complaint. The applicants want to seek a response to their complaints,” says Bhardwaj.
Her team found that 16 percent were “literally grievances”. A major chunk, about 50 to 60 percent, was indirect grievance redress. “An example of such an application would be ‘I have not got my pension. Who is responsible for it?’ This is why, in many ways, we call the grievance redressal legislation RTI part two,” adds Bhardwaj.
Four to six million RTI applications are filed every year. This is the highest number globally – reaffirming lack of transparency and accountability in governance.
Understanding the grievance redressal bill
What is a Citizens Charter?
A document declaring the functioning, obligations, duties, commitments of a public authority for providing goods and services effectively and efficiently with acceptable levels of standards, time limits and designation of public servants for delivery and grievance redress.
How do you define a complaint?
It means a complaint filed by a citizen regarding any grievance relating to, or arising out of, any failure in the delivery of goods or rendering of service pursuant to the citizens charter, or in the functioning of a public authority, or any violation of any law, policy programme, order or scheme but does not include grievance relating to the service matters of a public servant whether serving or retired.
What is the procedure to file a complaint as defined under the grievance bill, 2011?
The applicant has to file a complaint to the grievance redress officer of the respective department. The complaint has to be acknowledged within two days of receiving and it has to be remedied within 30 days. Every complaint which has not been redressed within 30 days will be forwarded to a higher designated authority, with details of complainant, nature of complaint, and reasons for non-redressal of complaints.
What is the procedure to go for an appeal?
The complainant can approach the designated authority within 30 days of the expiry of duration of application disposal at the GRO level. The authority has to respond within 30 days. If the applicant is not satisfied, she or he can go to the state grievance redress commission within 30 days of the expiry of duration at the first appellate level. The commission will have to respond within 60 days. If the applicant still feels unsatisfied, he can file an application to central grievance commission within 30 days of expiry of duration at the state grievance commission level. The central commission will have to respond within 60 days.
Will penalty be imposed on erring officials?
The designate authority, state public grievance redressal commission or central public grievance redressal commission may impose a lump sum penalty which may extend up to '50,000, against designated official responsible for delivery of goods and services. That amount could be given to the applicant as compensation if the appellate authority may deem fit.
What is the composition of the public grievance commission at the state and central level and how will the chief commissioner be appointed at both levels?
State and central commissions will have a chief commissioner. The number of commissioners would not exceed 10 and out of this one each shall represent scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and women. The chief public grievance redress commissioner and central public grievance redress commissioners shall be appointed by the president of India on the recommendation of a committee consisting of a) the PM, the chairperson of the committee; b) the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha; and c) a sitting judge of the supreme court to be nominated by the chief justice. The committee at the state level will have similar composition for the appointment of chief commissioner and commissioners.
“In most countries it [the transparency law] is being used by the journalists and the elite. Here it is being used by the poor, marginalised, because they are most dependent on services and the services don’t come to them,” she says. “The grievance redressal mechanism doesn’t work. When they file complaints nothing happens. So they file an RTI.”
A brief history
The first step towards fixing bureaucratic accountability in service delivery was taken with the introduction of the Citizens Charter in 1997. It was, however, voluntary in nature. In order to improve public service delivery, a service excellence model called ‘Sevottam’ was initiated in 2005 by the prime minister’s office (PMO) to give a new thrust to the implementation of the Charter. Two years later, the government introduced the Centralised Public Grievance Redress and Monitoring System (CPGRAMS), a web-based portal for lodging complaints. These initiatives, nevertheless, had limited success, in dealing with wide-scale corruption in the lower levels of bureaucracy.
The 2011 anti-corruption movement, led by social activist Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, mobilised people for a strong legislation against corruption. It was then that civil society activists demanded two separate laws: one to set up a Lokpal or ombudsman to curb big-ticket corruption and the other to deal with public grievances arising from lower level corruption.
The department of personnel and training (DoPT) drafted the first version of ‘The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011’ and introduced it in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2011. The bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee headed by Shantaram Naik on January 13, 2012, that submitted its report on August 28, 2012.
In one of its most significant recommendations, the committee supported a comprehensive definition of ‘complaint’ – not just limited to services mentioned in the Citizens Charter but also violation of any law, policy, scheme and order, among others, by a public authority – as stated in the 2011 version of the bill.
The report said, “The committee is of the firm opinion that issues related to violation of law, policy, scheme, etc. are vital and the same cannot be kept outside the purview of the grievance redress mechanism.”
It means if officials at a government school, hospital, police station or any other government body deny services to people, they can be held accountable for their action/inaction.
“The parliamentary committee, to our joy, gave a more maximalist position than we did. Politicians across party lines supported the legislation,” says Bhardwaj of the NCPRI.
In 2011 there was a sense of house resolution – when the whole movement for Lokpal was at its peak. “The MPs said they were taking a resolution to pass a Lokpal and a grievance redressal law.”
During the debate on Lokpal in both the houses in December 2013, BJP leaders including Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Ravi Shankar Prasad unanimously voiced their support to the grievance redressal bill. “There is no political dispute on this law. It will enhance the quality of administration. That’s why it should be soon enlisted on Lok Sabha’s agenda and then brought to this house to be passed,” Arun Jaitley said in the Rajya Sabha on December 17, 2013.
The noble intentions apart, the bill could not be passed due to parliamentary disruptions, and it lapsed with the dissolution of Lok Sabha in 2014.
Apparently, the new government was very much alive to the need for a grievance redressal legislation. A PMO communication sent to the DoPT and department of administrative reforms and public grievances, dated June 24, 2014, highlights two “immediate thrust areas” of the government. One was passing of Citizens Grievances Bill and second was amendments in the Prevention of Corruption Act. However, there was not much progress in parliament in actually legislating the laws.
Between May 2014 and March 2016, at least eight questions were posed to the government about the grievance redressal bill in the two houses by MPs including those from the BJP. In response to the questions in parliament in February and March 2015, Jitendra Singh, minister of state for personnel and training, reiterated, “The government is committed to bringing in a legislation for ensuring effective redressal of grievances of citizens related to non-delivery of entitled goods and services by the government. However, at this stage, no realistic time frame can be indicated for introduction of such a bill in the parliament.”
In March 2016, out of the blue, the government suddenly changed its tune in parliament. The proposed law was dropped and in its place came a proposal of a mere scheme. Minister Jitendra Singh said that the government is concerned about the grievance redress and so it is bringing a scheme. “For this purpose, a scheme knows as Delivery of Services and Grievances Redressal Scheme, 2015 has been prepared,” the minister told parliament. A scheme, of course, can be changed by the government. It is not a law which gives citizens a justiciable right. With ‘right’ one can go to court.
According to an official working with the department of administrative reforms and public grievances, the government will introduce a grievance redressal scheme before the year-end. Asked about the scope of complaint defined under the proposed scheme, the official said that the complaint will be confined to duties and actions carried out by public officials under the Citizens Charter of the respective department. The scope of a complaint doesn’t go beyond a Citizens Charter – which is in contrast to the comprehensive definition of a complaint as stated under the grievance redressal bill 2011.
According to measures proposed in the draft bill, the process of getting a grievance redressed was to be made easy. Complaints automatically get escalated at higher levels at the end of a specified time, that is, 15 days. It is not incumbent on the applicant to take the application to higher levels in case a public authority fails to provide redressal. The automatic escalation feature has not been provided under the RTI.
“As laws go, this was fairly drafted. It had a time-bound system and system of penalty if grievance redress officer failed to provide service in time. The penalty amount was kept at Rs 50,000,” says Bhardwaj. The complaints could be done by SMS or helpline number. So it was that easy to file a complaint. “For us it would have been as significant a law as RTI is,” she adds.
But Yamini Aiyar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, and director of its Accountability Initiative, says that we need to move beyond legislation. Had law been the solution to every problem, all government schemes would have been implemented in a better manner.
To make state responsive, there is a need for a much more detailed and in-depth approach towards administrative reforms, she adds. “While I appreciate the need for a grievance law, it will not yield desired outcome in the absence of a wider administrative reform.”
Chakshu Roy, head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research, though believes that a law would empower people, but it has to be backed by “strong willingness” from the government. “The government needs to carry out massive sensitisation campaigns to generate awareness. Having a law is simply the first step,” he says.
(The article appears in August 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)