My tryst with citizen's charter

s-krishnan

S Krishnan | September 3, 2013



All public services are paid for by individual citizens, either directly or indirectly, through taxes. Therefore, they have every right to expect high quality service. That’s why citizen’s charter is important. We have seen nearly two decades of struggle towards implementation of the citizen’s charter.

Till 1996, the citizen’s charter was unknown to government departments in India. You would come across instances where public was unable to get answers to complaints.

In my last assignment I served as member, finance, department of posts, and additional secretary to the ministry of finance. Around this time, I got a call from a friend, PN Luthra, who retired as secretary, social justice. After retirement, Luthra had settled down in Defence Colony, New Delhi. During those days, such was the apartment construction in the colonies that the gas cylinder was kept outside the kitchen, in a cage. One day Luthra’s gas cylinder was stolen. He lodged a complaint at the nearest police station about the missing cylinder and went to the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) asking them to issue him a new cylinder. The IOC asked for copies of the FIR undetected certificate (UC). Police said it would take time to issue the UC.

When Luthra informed me about the incident, I was upset because he had a valid consumer number; still the IOC did not re-issue a cylinder. I knew someone in the IOC and got the things done. He told me, “I retired as secretary, social welfare, from the government and yet I faced difficulty for getting a cylinder. What about the common man?” This left a long-lasting impression on me.

I retired in 1991. I was in touch with HD Shourie, who was leading the Common Cause, a Delhi-based NGO. I was known to him since he was a secretary in the government of India. He regarded me as knowledgeable on the rules and regulations of the government department. I told him that I wanted to work for the common man. He asked me to attend a meeting of a consumer research organisation, which is part of the Common Cause, in Ahmedabad. The subject of the discussion was postal tariff. I made a presentation in the forum. Shourie and Manubhai Shah, a leading consumer activist who attended the meeting, were pleased with my presentation. He then asked me to join the consumer movement. The Common Cause had formed a new organisation called consumer coordination council (CCC), a coalition of different consumer forums, funded by a German Foundation called Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF).

I joined as advisor to the CCC. One of the first documents I came across in the dusty files of the office was a white paper on the citizen’s charter submitted by John Major in the British parliament in July 1991. I was so impressed by what I read that I said, “We must have a citizen’s charter for our own country.” In a brain-storming session of the consumer forum in 1994, I brought the citizen’s charter to the notice of the entire group. Initially, no one was keen on this issue. I made a presentation on the matter. The members got convinced and asked me to prepare a note on the subject.

The FNF agreed to look after the entire expenses. It was early days of computers and emails in India. I had to learn computer.

I decided to prepare a pamphlet on the citizen’s charter. Soon, I designed a pamphlet. Twenty-thousand pamphlets were printed in English. Twice as many post cards were procured from the postal department. Our campaign was to make the citizen’s charter a reality by August 1997, as a gift on the golden jubilee celebrations of Independence.

Our hard work bore some fruits as the ministry of consumer affairs and public distribution accepted the adoption of the citizen’s charter in June 1996. The CCC requested the ministry to adopt it as a state policy. We made the same request to the then prime minister, HD Deve Gowda.

In the pamphlet, there was a postcard attached to it. One of them was addressed to the PM. We had written to people asking them to post the card to the PMO if they felt the charter was important for them. We also sent a notebook on the subject to every member of parliament, chief ministers, chief secretaries and district collectors and even to news media, libraries, high court and supreme court judges. As a result of the hectic postcard campaign, several people started taking interest. Among the parliamentarians, the only response I got was from the then leader of opposition, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He wrote me a letter supporting the campaign.

Soon, thousands of letters reached the PM’s office. A woman then working as joint secretary in the PMO knew me. She asked me about the postcards. I told her that it was people’s wish for a citizen’s charter. The CCC was planning to organise a conference on the charter in December 1996. It was agreed that Deve Gowda would attend the conference as the chief guest.

Finally, the first ever national seminar on the citizen’s charter was organised on December 7 and 8, 1996. Deve Gowda gave consent to join as the chief guest for the programme. I was asked to prepare a speech for him. Unfortunately, it was a period of political uncertainty, and due to some development, the PM was unable to join it. His speech was read out by the then minister of information and broadcasting – CM Ibrahim. One of the paragraphs of the statement said, “The citizen’s charter will be adopted as a national policy and a core group would be set up to see how it should be implemented.” That was a small achievement for our organisation.

The government started working on the issue. In May 1997, the government discussed the issue at the administrative staff college, Mussoorie. My pamphlet was also part of the discussion. Later, a decision was taken by the government to form a core group of secretaries who would look into the implementation of the citizen’s charter. The secretary, personnel, was the head of the core group. The cabinet secretary had formed the core group and chaired the first meeting. I was included as a member.

When I met PK Dave, lieutenant governor, Delhi, in 1997, I asked him why the state government did not implement the citizen’s charter. When I showed him the pamphlet, he got up from the chair and shook my hand. He asked me to prepare it in Hindi. Then I translated the citizen’s charter in nine languages, including Hindi. We made 9,000 copies — one thousand for each of the nine states to be sent to the collectors, chief secretaries and chief ministers.

It is an irony that when Vajpayee became the PM, he did not take the matter seriously. His office asked me to prepare the Hindi version of the citizen’s charter and told me that Vajpayee would announce about it from the ramparts of the Red Fort. But, it did not happen. I do not know where it got dropped.

But work started on this issue. The department of administrative reforms and public grievances was designated as the nodal agency to monitor implementation of the citizen’s charter in government departments. I was appointed as a consultant. We formed the model charters. Earlier, there was no department to deal with citizens’ complaints in the ministries. There was no proper receipt of the letter, documentation or any follow-up. I went to all the ministries and departments. We suggested that at the entrance, all the information related to ministries should be available. It was also decided that every ministries would have a grievance cell and an officer looking after it.

Now I come to essentials of the citizen’s charter. There are five basic principles of it. First, transparency — from top to bottom. Second, accountability of all, from top to bottom. Then, availability of adequate information in a language understandable to the common man. Declare, standard of services, which means I should know if I go to a bank how much time it will take for the draft to be prepared. Lastly, an effective grievance redressal mechanism. If these five are implemented, citizens will get their due and we would be able to put an effective administration in place.

Our effort brought visibility, as several departments adopted the citizen’s charter towards the end of the 1990s.

The New Delhi municipal council made a good view of the citizen’s charter. It adopted a bottom-up approach. Though, most of the organisation had a top-down approach. I had a difficulty with the Indian railways on the issue. When I sold this idea to the railways, the executive director, public relations, said that they dealt with passengers and not citizens. It looked like they were working with the mindset of the 19th century. After a lot of discussions, I was able to convince him. They adopted the citizen’s charter. It had an effect up to certain extent as some train timings were changed and a lot of friendly things happened.

Similarly, we faced problems with the Delhi development authority (DDA). Shourie and I had gone to meet the DDA vice chairman. In the 1990s, the organisation had a very bad reputation. They were very reluctant in implementing the citizen’s charter. Jokingly, HD Shourie gave a veiled threat to the DDA vice chairman. “If you do not accept citizen’s charter, then we would print advertisement in the newspaper that everyone who had complained against the DDA must come to common cause. We would show them how many complaints were received and the DDA had done nothing.” The trick worked. Eventually, after some pressure, they also came up with the citizen’s charter. They came up with one tag line, “This organisation does not accept bribe.” It is still there in the DDA office.

Till now, there are 500 charters prepared. But in reality, it has not made much impact. Why? Firstly, it is not legally enforceable, it is voluntary. Secondly, there is no feedback to find out what is happening. In Britain, the government moved beyond the citizen’s charter by linking this with performance. They gave charter marks. If you perform very well, you get charter marks. If your performance is exemplary then you get more, but if you perform less then you get less pay.

When the fifth pay commission was constituted, I presented the case of linking employees’ performance with the citizen’s charter. Nobody paid heed to this. The concept was unknown. Nobody thought that it would be a fair assessment in India. I know how the confidential report (CR) is written, as I have also served in the department.

How should a citizen’s charter be applied? A computerised acknowledgement must go with every letter saying your letter is received. Who will deal with the issue, must be mentioned. Secondly, every citizen’s letter must be answered in three or six months. Thirdly, every person who is a government official must have a name badge because the man who sits behind the counter thinks that he is the king. It will establish credibility of the government.

We continued to put in efforts till the early 2000s. It is still on my radar. I am disappointed the way it has been dealt with.

I appeared before the committee on Lokpal when Abhishek Manu Singhvi was chairing it in 2011. I pointed out that the citizen’s charter should be part of the Lokpal bill. At least there should be legal backing was my contention.

I was given impression that the citizen’s charter is not part of the Lokpal bill, it would come separately. Thus, a bill was introduced in parliament. In March, the cabinet passed the Right of Citizens for Time-Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011. The bill envisages penalty of up to Rs 50,000 against a government official failing to provide his or her duties.

The journey of the citizen’s charter is tumultuous. Earlier, it was not implemented in the full spirit. Now the cabinet has passed it. But it still remains to be seen if it would be implemented fully or be approached half-heartedly. That is a big question.

(As told to Trithesh Nandan)

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