Whose law is it – theirs or ours?

A campaign in Rajasthan underlines the need for a law that will empower citizens to seek answers from bureaucrats and improve governance

pratap

Pratap Vikram Singh | August 3, 2016 | Jaipur


#MKSS   #Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan   #Lokpal   #Citizens Charter   #right to information   #RTI   #grievance redressal bill  
At the ‘jawabdehi yatra’ in Rajasthan, Aruna Roy’s voice echoed, “Jungle humara hai. Pani humara hai. Zameen humari hai. Humne bheja tha aapko rakhwali karne ke liye. Aur aap khazaane loot rahe ho. Par ab malik sawal karega.” (The forest is ours. The water is ours. The land is ours. We sent you, the public representatives, to keep a watch. Instead, you started looting. Now we, the masters, will question you.)
At the ‘jawabdehi yatra’ in Rajasthan, Aruna Roy’s voice echoed, “Jungle humara hai. Pani humara hai. Zameen humari hai. Humne bheja tha aapko rakhwali karne ke liye. Aur aap khazaane loot rahe ho. Par ab malik sawal karega.” (The forest is ours. The water is ours. The land is ours. We sent you, the public representatives, to keep a watch. Instead, you started looting. Now we, the masters, will question you.)

Bhanwarlal belongs to a dalit family in Nimora village in Bassi tehsil of Jaipur. The village is dominated by brahmins, baniyas and khatris; it has only a handful of dalit families. Nimora has only one place of worship – Lord Balaji temple. But Bhanwarlal is denied entry in this temple because of his caste. 

In order to end this bias, in September 2003, the 30-year-old along with his father and two brothers built a Hanuman temple in the village for dalits. But the construction of the temple offended the upper castes. They called a meeting of village elders and imposed a fine of Rs 21,000 on Bhanwarlal’s family. The family was even threatened of dire consequences. 
 
Bhanwarlal and his family lodged two police complaints – one in 2003 and other in 2005. But the police took no action. “They refused to admit the case, calling it a forgery, and instead of hearing out our plea, charged us with sections 214 and 182 of the IPC,” recollects Bhanwarlal. 
 
Frustrated with police inaction, Bhanwarlal’s family approached a lower court in 2004. But the court rejected their case. The family then moved a sessions court in 2007, but to no avail. The family continues to receive death threats from the upper-caste people in their village. They were even forced to shut down the temple. 
 
Had the police acted responsibly all this could have been avoided. [The conviction rate in cases registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is less than two percent.] Till date there is no legal framework to fix accountability of government functionaries: be it a policeman, doctor, teacher, ration dealer, administrator or an elected representative. There is no law which could deter officials against non-performance and irresponsible action. 
 
The poor is always at the receiving end in a system lacking accountability and answerability. In the last two years, the Rajasthan government has arbitrarily deleted the names of lakhs of women, elderly citizens and rural workers from computerised databases of various social security schemes, according to a civil rights groups working in the state. 
 
A movement started by Aruna Roy and her colleagues Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh provides a glint of hope. Since December, the co-founders of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) travelled across 33 districts of the state collecting grievances and carrying out a series of public hearings to make people, especially the poor, aware of the need for a ‘jawabdehi kanoon’ (accountability law). They have prepared a draft legislation which would fix accountability of public officials, promote citizen participation and have an independent grievance redress commission, which would penalise and punish officials in case of non-compliance.
 
In June I visited one of the public hearings organised by Suchna Rozgar Abhiyan (a broader coalition of civil rights groups headed by the MKSS) volunteers in Jaipur. The gathering comprised of the elderly poor and widows who have stopped receiving their monthly pension, dalit families who have been socially and institutionally discriminated, MNREGA workers who haven’t received wages for over two years, and silicosis patients who never got the treatment and rehabilitation money, among others.
 
It was a hot and humid day at Shaheed Smarak Park where a few hundred people sat beneath a thin cloth-roof listening to Roy. It resembled a classroom. In a few lines the septuagenarian civil servant turned social activist explained the relation between taxpayers and the government to the audience. “Kanoon humara, aapka” (law is yours and mine), she chanted, to which the crowd responded, “Nahi kisi ke baap ka” (it is not a privately-owned thing).
 
Most of the attendees were people who had filed their grievances during the ‘jawabdehi yatra’ (accountability journey to 33 districts between December and March) and had come all the way to Jaipur to the dharna, with a hope of timely redressal. 
 
In a span of three months, the volunteers registered 9,297 grievances. One such complainant who was present at the public hearing was an 80-year-old resident of Kada village in Kishangarh tehsil (Ajmer). Deep Kawar has not received her monthly pension for over a year. A widow and a mother of three, she lives alone. “My eldest son has TB, he doesn’t earn. The other two sons earn but they have separated and live with their wives and children,” she says.
 
Until April 2015, she received a monthly pension of Rs 500. She has made several rounds of government offices in last one year but her pension has not been resumed. At present, Kawar’s youngest son pays for her ration and daily expenses. “He hasn’t told his wife about this,” she adds.
 
Kawar is not alone. “Out of the total 68 lakh pensioners in Rajasthan, the state government has stopped pensions of 10 lakh beneficiaries,” says Dey of MKSS. Out of these 10 lakh, 2,95,194 pensioners have been declared dead, according to data obtained from the social justice department by the MKSS. But when MKSS queried about the ‘dead’ pensioners in Kushalpura panchayat in Rajsamand it found that 22 of them were still alive and not receiving pension. 
 
This is just one instance of one panchayat. MKSS is yet to review other such cases in other panchayats and districts. According to Kamal of MKSS, the organisation has obtained data for a few other districts from the social justice department and would do physical verification soon. 
 
The largest numbers of grievances collected by Suchna Rozgar Abhiyan volunteers are related to ration. Under the food security law, the state has covered 69 percent of the population. But the civil rights groups claim that the eligible beneficiaries could be over 80 percent as a similar proportion of the state’s population lives below Rs 20 per day per person, as pointed out by the Arjun Sengupta report (2005) of the planning commission. As a result of the gap between the two figures, 1.41 crore ration cards have been cancelled, claims MKSS. 
 
“When eligible beneficiaries go to the SDM [sub-district magistrate] with their complaint, who has the power to add or delete beneficiary names, they are told that their names can’t be added unless the names of the same number of people are deleted from the beneficiary list so as to maintain the 69 percent mark,” reveals Kamal.
 
The proposed law
So what exactly is the law and how is it going to help the people? Rajasthan Bhaagidari, Jawaabdehi aur Saamajik Ankekshan Bill, 2016, prepared by Suchna Rozgar Abhiyan volunteers, is a comprehensive legal framework, which calls for the formulation of a Citizens Charter, enlisting goods and services provided by every department, in consultation with people.  
 
It provides for creation of a ‘janata information system’ (and not the management information system intended for use of only government officials), which would cover all the transactions – financial and other – of the department  and will be available online to all. 
 
An integral part of the framework is sketching a job chart of all public officials, outlining their roles and responsibilities, including their location, timing, hours of work, functions to be carried out, supervisory and implementation responsibilities and means of complaining against violations, among others. 
The draft mandates pre-legislative consultation, to seek views of citizens and assimilate them for the proposed policy and legislation. 
 
It also mandates setting up a social audit directorate to enable and support citizens in carrying out periodic audits of all government programmes, departments and functionaries in their area. 
 
The proposed law provides for a weekly public hearing, chaired by an SDM and appointment of grievance redress officers in every department and setting up of an independent state grievance redress commission on the lines of the state information commission. It also provides for penalty and compensation.
 
The draft prepared by the Suchana Rozgar Abhiyan has assimilated experiences gained through implementation of accountability and service delivery laws by the Rajasthan government over last five years. 
 
In 2011, the state government brought Rajasthan Guaranteed Delivery of Public Services Act, 2011, for time-bound delivery of services. The law defined certain services and the stipulated time for their delivery. The law was confined to the services listed by the departments. 
 
A year later, the government introduced another law, the Right to Hearing Act, 2012, which provided grievance redressal at panchayat and block levels within 21 days of submission of the complaint. In case of non-redressal in the given period, the applicant could go to the appellate authorities and fight his or her case there. Between 2012 and 2014, there were hardly any cases which went to the appellate. 
 
In June 2014, when Vasundhara Raje became CM, the state government virtually shelved public hearings and replaced it with an online system of public grievances – sampark.rajasthan.gov.in. According to the Abhiyan volunteers, the system, at its best, is ineffective and ambiguous. 
 
State of Sampark 
Out of the total grievances registered during the jawabdehi yatra, 6,481 have been uploaded on the Sampark portal. Of these, 5,605 have been declared as ‘disposed’. To verify whether complaints have been addressed, the volunteers called 1,500 applicants on their cell phones and found that at least 1,200 people were either partly satisfied or completely unsatisfied with the redressal. 
 
“I will give you an example. In Barmer, a villager filed a complaint about lack of water supply. After a month, his case was declared ‘disposed’ on the Sampark portal. In response, the officials advised the applicant to get water from a water tank which was two kilometres far from his home,” explains Shishir Purohit of the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). DEF is helping MKSS with registering and monitoring complaints.
 
The ration-supply related grievances usually fetch a standard response (redressal, in the state government’s vocabulary) on the Sampark portal: “Directed the dealer to provide ration.” It is not surprising that these orders are rarely followed by the dealers, says Kamal.   
 
“Grievance redressal is too complex to be made completely online, without any human interaction,” states Shankar Singh of MKSS. He explains this by citing a public hearing in a village several years ago. A few villagers were given power metres by the administration despite the unavailability of electricity in the village. Within a few months the villagers with power meters started receiving electricity bills. Outraged, the villagers went to the local electricity department office. But the officials snubbed them saying, “If you consume electricity, then who will pay for it?”
 
A few months after this incident a public hearing took place at the block level. The district magistrate along with executive engineer of the electricity department was present there. When the villagers narrated their incident, the DM got furious and sought an explanation from the executive engineer. The district administration head immediately ordered cancellation of all the bills and set up an enquiry into the matter. “Can you imagine if this is possible online?” asks Singh. That’s why there is a need for a law for bureaucratic accountability, he adds. 
 
According to the government data, the portal since its inception in June 2014 has received eight lakh complaints. The government, however, found only 40 percent of the complaints ‘eligible’ and provided relief in those cases. The remaining 60 percent of the cases were rejected, says Shakti Singh Rathore, joint secretary, state department of administrative reforms. “These cases are rejected either because they are beyond budgetary provisions, or they are related to a case which is already in court or they are not covered under certain rules,” he adds. 
 
Since the introduction of Sampark the government has hardly organised any public hearing. Rathore, however, finds the demand for a law on accountability “superficial”. “There is already so much accountability in the system. I don’t think there is anything worthwhile in the demand for a legal framework,” he says. 
pratap@governancenow.com
(The article appears in August 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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