Forget the euphoria of the Anna movement. The government is surreptitiously reneging on all promises of empowering citizens to fight corruption
It was in 2011 that the demand for an effective anti-corruption and grievance redress legislative framework gripped the nation. Five years hence people of the country are still awaiting the instruments of accountability that they had so vociferously sought – the Lokpal Act, the Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) law and a legislation to redress grievances of people.
The task of the BJP that took over the reins in May 2014 was clearly cut out – effectively implement the Lokpal and the WBP laws that were enacted in early 2014 and immediately reintroduce the grievance redress (GR) bill, which had lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha, and ensure its quick passage in parliament.
Unfortunately, the current government has reneged on its poll promises of fighting corruption and ensuring proper delivery of services to people. The Lokpal law enacted on January 1, 2014 and the WBP law enacted on May 9, 2014 are both stuck in legislative quagmire with no signs of implementation – the government has moved amendments in parliament to dilute both the laws. The GR bill has been wholly abandoned.
Lack of effective grievance redress mechanism
Of the three laws, the grievance redress legislation held the most transformative potential for common people as it sought to empower them to tackle the fundamental problem plaguing governance in India – that of poor delivery of services and entitlements. While there are several rights-based legislations and government schemes, including the MGNREGA, Forest Rights Act, Right to Education Act, National Food Security Act, pension schemes and scholarship schemes, yet millions of people are unable to access their rights under these, as complaints related to problems in implementation remain unaddressed.
Providing a legal framework for grievance redressal was a commitment made in the sense of house resolution passed unanimously in parliament in August 2011. The ‘Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011’, which was introduced in parliament in 2011, provided a comprehensive grievance redress mechanism to ensure the delivery of public services, social sector entitlements and the accountability of delivery systems. It obligated public authorities to enumerate all the services, goods and entitlements they are supposed to deliver to people in the form of enforceable citizen charters. The bill provided a decentralised, people-friendly and time-bound process of registering and redressing complaints. It also gave powers to the appellate bodies to penalise erring officials and compensate complainants.
During the debate on the Lokpal bill, MPs from various parties spoke in support of the GR bill. They included Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad (BJP), Rahul Gandhi and Kapil Sibal (INC), KN Balagopal and Sitaram Yechury (CPM), MP Achuthan (CPI) and Shivanand Tiwari (JD-U). The bill, which had the support of MPs across party lines and was also deliberated upon by an all-party standing committee, unfortunately lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
The Modi government repeatedly stated its commitment to reintroduce and pass the GR bill. In fact, the PMO stated that passing the bill was “part of immediate thrust areas of the government” and the minister of state in the PMO repeatedly stated in parliament that the government was “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.”
In March 2016, however, the government clearly reneged on its commitment to bring in a statutory framework for time-bound and effective redressal of grievances. In response to a question in parliament, the minister stated that the government had prepared a scheme known as The Delivery of Services and Grievances Redressal Scheme, making no reference to a GR law. No information on the said scheme is available in the public domain and, in fact, queries under the RTI Act about the scheme have been stonewalled.
The lack of an effective mechanism for redressal of complaints assumes even greater significance given the pending amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), which seek to criminalise all bribe-giving. In the absence of an effective GR legislation to ensure proper delivery of rights and services to citizens, millions of people across the country are forced to pay bribes to get even their legal entitlements. If the amendments to the PCA are brought in without a statutory framework for grievance redressal, it would lead to a double wrong, as people who are forced to pay bribes to access what is legally theirs would also be criminalised and could face up to seven years in prison!
The absence of a legislative framework to deal with everyday grievances – non-receipt of pensions, poor delivery of rations, broken roads, poor sanitation and drainage, non-availability of adequate water, etc. – has led to demands in states for a GR law. A broad-based campaign consisting of civil society groups and networks has come together to demand an effective grievance redressal legislation for Delhi, with similar efforts underway in Rajasthan.
No protection for whistleblowers
The 2003 murder of Satyendra Dubey, an engineer on the golden quadrilateral project who blew the whistle on corruption in highway construction, led to demands for a mechanism to protect whistleblowers. In 2014, more than a decade later, the WBP Act was passed on the last day of the 15th Lok Sabha, when families of whistleblowers and activists of NCPRI held street protests for over 20 days. The WBP Act provides for the protection of identity of whistleblowers and safeguards against their victimisation.
Regrettably, instead of promulgating rules to operationalise the WBP law, the BJP-led NDA government has moved an amendment bill in parliament which seeks to severely dilute the Act. The amendments seek to remove safeguards available to whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Further, disclosures containing information which relates to commercial confidence, security of the country, competitive position of a third party, etc. will not be inquired into unless the information has been obtained under the RTI Act. The amendment bill completely ignores the predicament of government servants who come across evidence of wrongdoing in the normal course of their working and do not need to file applications under the RTI Act to access information.
The current status of the WBP amendment bill is not clear. The debate on the bill in the Rajya Sabha proposing to refer it to a select committee was not concluded, yet on April 28, 2016 the minister concerned, in reply to a question in parliament, stated that the amendment bill had been sent to a select committee.
In the meantime, scores of whistleblowers who exposed big-ticket scams like Vyapam continue to be victimised and murdered across the country.
An unending wait for the Lokpal
The fate of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act (LL Act), enacted by parliament and notified in the gazette in January 2014, is no different. An amendment was required to the LL Act to ensure that in the absence of a recognised leader of opposition, the leader of the single largest party in opposition is included in the selection panel for appointing the Lokpal. Instead of moving the single amendment and quickly appointing members of the Lokpal, the government has moved several amendments to the Act. The amendment bill was deliberated upon by a parliamentary standing committee and is currently pending before the Lok Sabha.
Among other issues, the amendments seek to dilute the Lokpal Act by exempting bureaucrats from declaring assets and liabilities of their spouses and dependent children. This is especially problematic since it is widely acknowledged that ill-gotten wealth is often held in the name of the spouse or dependents of a public servant in a bid to escape scrutiny.
The lack of political will to put in place a strong accountability framework is not limited to the central government. The track record of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, which grew out of India Against Corruption – the group that demanded the passage of the Lokpal law, is no better. The Lokpal law passed by the Delhi legislative assembly is not adequately independent of the government and the AAP has failed to provide relief to the people of Delhi whose grievances continue to languish. It is amply clear that no government is sincere about implementing laws meant to ensure its own accountability. The only hope, perhaps, lies in a strong people’s movement for ensuring passage and effective implementation of accountability laws.
Bhardwaj and Johri work on issues of transparency and accountability and are associated with Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information.