INTRODUCTION

  • Absence of transparency and accountability often lead to augmented corruption, nepotism & social exclusion. On the other hand, when a government is open and transparent, there is less opportunity for the authorities to abuse the system for their own personal interests.
  • Openness and transparency are key ingredients to fight corruption & build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of a democracy. Transparency in governance empowers citizens & fosters their participation in public affairs.
  • People are the biggest stakeholder in governance. They have a critical & crucial role to play. Governance must not be restricted only to the government. Rather, society must be included in the process of decision-making, implementation & accountability.
  • The biggest step towards this has been the Right to Information Act 2005, which enabled monitoring, transparency and accountability. The recent National Data Sharing & Accessibility Policy (NDSAP), 2012, which has been designed to promote data sharing, is also a step in the same direction.

 

WHAT TYPE OF GOVERNANCE DOES INDIA NEED?

 

A) Governance which includes TRANSPARENCY

  • Transparency means that the criteria, processes and systems of decision making are openly known to all.
  • For example, the selection of beneficiaries for any government scheme would be based on explicitly known and publicly communicated criteria; it will also be known as to who will apply these criteria, when and how? And, what benefits would accrue to those families and individuals who fit these criteria? When will these benefits accrue, at what costs or mutual obligations?
  • Transparency is necessary for making the system of democratic governance effective; it enables information in the hands of citizens in a manner that they may be able to claim their entitlements.
  • Though transparency is often used interchangeably with access to information, however transparency is a much wider term with information sharing a tool to achieve transparency in governance.
  • Transparency or openness can be said to have three basic components, which are:
    • Participative governance or people’s engagement in decision-making.
    • Access to information or information sharing.
    • Accountability for actions of the government or executive.

B) Governance which includes PARTICIPATION.

  • Participative governance is one of the means to achieve transparency in governance through the bottom up approach. It entails participation of people in decision-making at the grass root level. In the pre-independence period, Gandhi ji’s vision of good governance essentially meant democratic decentralization, which meant power to the Gram Panchayats and people at the lowest level of political hierarchy.
  • The 73rd & 74th amendments, by giving constitutional status to Panchayats and Urban Local bodies, have been the single-most substantial countrywide initiatives that seek to improve transparency in governance through participative form of governance.
  • People now could take part in the issues that affected them directly, thereby having a say in decision-making.
  • However, there exists much scope of improvement, as the framework is yet to achieve its intended potential. The reluctance of government officials, an inadequate framework of financial independence and a general lack of awareness among citizens are the oft-quoted reasons for hampering effective participation of civil society in planning and decision-making.
  • Nevertheless, this is a deep change that can be seen in the efforts these institutions are taking to make governance more accountable & transparent. Following are some of the initiatives in that direction:
    • PRI- The 73rd amendment devolved power to villages, tehsils and districts. It allowed each village to participate in local governance through an elected Panchayat, conferred with constitutional recognition. The Government has been trying to implement capacity-building programs for elected representatives so as to ensure awareness, literacy and capacity for understanding local issues and implementing Government schemes and programs in the most effective manner.
    • Social Audit- There had been concern on news related with social audits being manipulated and existing only on paper. Thus, the idea of a social audit was floated in order to improve checks and balances within the Panchayati Raj Institutions. In 2005, social audits were made statutory through National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), allowing people to directly question elected representatives on a continual basis. Social audit is a very powerful tool for citizens for participation in governance and where the social audit has been genuine and effectively conducted; for e.g., in the case of Andhra Pradesh, as per a report, state-wide social audits found fraud of large amounts resulting in administrative or criminal charges against about 7,000 officials.
    • Urban local bodies- These bodies were meant to allow local communities decide on the usage and charges for basic utilities. However, there is an impression that State Governments continue to dictate matters such as rates of user charges, property tax, octroi etc. with little reference to the ULBs affected by these decisions, which needs to be addressed.
    • Resident Welfare Association & Bhagidari (Participation)- These include state-specific incentives to incorporate the views of society or to devolve the decision-making power for basic civic functions. These initiatives have been applauded for their implementation and intent of engaging common citizens. The Bhagidari scheme of the Delhi government directly involves citizens through RWAs in monthly meetings in order to take responsibility for their areas. These RWAs are also the first point of contact for state utilities while planning changes.

C) GOVERNANCE where government itself shares Information with its citizen.

  • At the International level, Right to Information and its aspects find articulation as a human right in most important basic human rights documents, namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • The Supreme Court of India in Secretary Ministry of I&B vs. Cricket Association of Bengal, 1995 judgment stated that article 19 of the constitution, i.e. freedom of speech & expression, includes the right to acquire information and to disseminate it as well. Therefore, Right to Information is a fundamental right of every citizen of India.
  • In the initial years after independence, the executive functioned with considerable autonomy. But common people have been increasingly asserting their voice demanding accountability from the executive.
  • People today want to know the nitty-gritty of governance & policy making rather than being a silent spectator & receiver of the government policies.
  • Accordingly, the Indian parliament passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2002. It put an obligation upon public authorities to furnish such information “wherever asked” for. However, the Bill did not provide for the government making information public, without a request. This Act was severely criticized for permitting too many exemptions. There were no penalties for not complying with a request for information. This Act, consequently, never came into “effective” force because of the lacunae in its draft. Subsequently, the “Right to Information Act” (RTI) was passed in 2005.

 

RIGHT TO INFORMATION- RTI, 2005

RTI Act empowers the citizen of India to seek information from a public authority, thus facilitating transparency & accountability of government & its auxiliaries.

  • Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a “public authority” (a body of Government or “instrumentality of State”), which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days.
  • The Act requires every public authority to computerize their records for wide dissemination and to “proactively” publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally (e. disclosure of information with respect to functioning of the government must be a rule rather than an exception & must be provided proactively, without asking for it).
  • It applies to all States and Union Territories of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which has its own J&K RTI Act in force.
  • It replaces the erstwhile Freedom of Information Act, 2002.
  • Department of Personnel & Training has been made the Nodal Department for the RTI implementation at the Central level.
  • As per the Act, Information Commissions are expected to issue orders/directions to the Public Authorities to carry out their duties as per the mandate of the Act.

 

 

 

DOWNSIDE OF SHARING OF INFORMATION

  • Freedom brings with it added responsibility as well. That is why our constitution also incorporated Fundamental duties along with Fundamental rights to the citizens. Though it is true that the Right to Information is a strong instrument in hands of common people to fight corruption & mis-governance, however it must be used with caution & should be used only when getting information through this channel is the last resort.
  • An increase in non-serious applications creates unnecessary burden on bureaucratic machinery which is already poorly staffed.
  • Also, information can be used by anti- social elements to create disharmony in the state of affairs of the country & create a sense of mistrust & despair among the stakeholders towards the state of affairs of the country, which can be very discouraging & harmful for the country in the long run.
  • Thus, adequate checks & balances need to be built to ensure that this right or the information got by exercising the right is not misused to attack the integrity & sovereignty of the Nation in any sense.

 

CHALLENGES BEING FACED IN IMPLEMENTATION OF RTI ACT

A.Low public awareness.

Section 26 of the RTI Act states that the concerned Government may develop and organize educational programs to advance the understanding of the public, especially disadvantaged communities, regarding how to exercise the rights contemplated under the Act.

  • However, as per the survey it was revealed that only 15% of the respondents were aware of the RTI Act. During the awareness survey, it was also observed that the major sources of this awareness were mass media channels like television channels, newspapers etc. & word of mouth.
  • It was further observed that awareness level is low among the disadvantaged communities like women, rural population & socially backward caste like SC/ST/OBCs.

The efforts made by appropriate Governments and Public Authorities have been restricted to publishing of rules and FAQs on websites. These efforts have not been helpful in generating mass awareness of the RTI Act. As compared to RTI Act, the common citizens (and disadvantaged communities) are significantly more aware of other Government schemes focused on socio-economic development.

B.Constraints or complications in filing complaints

  1. Non- “availability” of User Guides for information seekers: 52% of the citizens surveyed requested availability of a user guide/manual at all the Public Authorities.
    Lack of user guides results in substantial efforts on the part of the information seeker to gather knowledge about the process for submitting an RTI request. This often sends them away from making use of their right to information.
  2. Inconvenient payment channels for offline RTI application submission:
    • It was found in the survey that in the absence of clear guidelines and instructions, public authorities have chosen a subset of the allowed payment channels.
    • It was noted in the survey, that majority of PIOs used cash and demand drafts, which causes inconvenience to citizens. Further, collection of fees through cash necessitates the presence of the applicant in the State, whereas the Act does not provide for any such
    • Also, survey revealed that submission of applications through the PIO’s office is the most prevalent submission channel, therefore “proper signage” with the location details and availability time of the PIOs is crucial.
    • However, 85% of the information seekers said that no signage was present to locate the concerned PIO. It leads to multiple visits to be made to the PIO office for submission of an RTI application.

C.Lack of assistance in filing the application by the PIOs- In a country where literacy rate is as low as 77%, it is imperative for the authorities to assist people in exercising their right but that is not the case as found by the survey.

  • This reveals that process of RTI application submission has not been designed keeping in view the needs and convenience of the citizens.

D.Standard forms for RTI application & PIO’s Replies- While the Act does not necessitate having a standard application form, there are significant advantages of using a standard form for an RTI application:

  • The standard form helps in getting basic information which helps the PIOs (Public Information Officer) in providing the requisite information and contacting the applicant for communication required.
  • If basic information is available, it is helpful for the Public Authority to identify the nature of frequent information requests so that it can be provided as a Suo-moto disclosure
  • Only 2 states i.e. Maharashtra & Orissa have prescribed a standard form.

E.Issues related to information being provided.

  • Poor quality of information provided: Majority of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with the quality of information, being provided in response to their application which is most of the times incomplete & inaccurate.
  • Some applications require the PIOs to do a collation and analysis of data for past 10 years or more. However, 89% of the PIOs said that they did not use the provision for inspection of records.
  • Failure to provide information within 30 days due to inadequate record management procedures with the Public Authorities. This situation is further aggravated due to non-availability of trained PIOs and the enabling infrastructure (computers, scanners, internet connectivity, photocopiers).
  • There is lack of any electronic document management system in any of the Departments. Majority of the PIOs surveyed do not even maintain the list of RTI applications electronically.
  • Low Motivation Levels among PIOs

 

NATIONAL DATA SHARING & ACCESSIBILITY POLICY (NDSAP), 2012

  • There are various ministries, organizations & institutions of Government of India, who collect huge amount of data related to their respective fields using public funds.
  • Most of the times, this data is not accessible to the civil society. However, the data collected or developed through public investments, when made publicly available, their potential value could be more fully realized, & would enable rational debate, better decision making and use, in meeting civil society needs.
  • It is for this reason that NDSAP policy was designed & got approval from the cabinet in 2012. Department of Science & Technology would be serving the nodal functions of coordination and monitoring of policy through close collaboration with all Central Ministries and the Department of Information Technology.

Objectives:

  • It aims to empower citizens to access information owned by the Government in human- as well as machine readable forms, permitting wider accessibility and use of public data and information, keeping in view the broad guidelines delineated in the RTI Act, 2005.
  • The policy is applicable to all sharable, non-sensitive data, generated using public funds by ministries, departments, subordinate offices, organizations and agencies of the Government of India.

Benefits:

  • Ready access to government owned data would enable more extensive use of a valuable public resource for the benefit of the community.
  • By sharing data, the need for separate bodies to collect the same data will be avoided resulting in significant cost savings in data collection.
  • By adopting common standards for the collection and transfer of data, integration of individual data sets may be feasible.
  • The identification of owners for the principal data sets provides information to users to identify those responsible for implementation of prioritized data collection programs and development of data standards.
  • Data and information facilitate making important decisions without incurring repetitive costs. Ready access to existing valuable data is essential for many decision-making tasks such as protecting the environment, development planning, managing assets, improving living conditions, national security and controlling disasters.

 

LEVERAGING E-GOVERNANCE FOR A BETTER REACH & TRANSPARENCY

  1. Social Media and its ever-growing reach.
    • Social media is fast emerging as the untainted voice of the citizens and will be the people’s platform to transform their interface with the government & change the power equations.
    • This is the reason why most political parties have already started campaigning through their social media handles.
    • The civic and metropolitan authorities have started using social media in order to interact with the public. In some cases, feedback from the public is sought for minor changes in localities. Delhi and Bangalore have taken the lead in such efforts. The Delhi and Bangalore Police are active on Twitter and Facebook.
    • The ministry of external affairs under leadership of Smt. Sushma swaraj transformed the lives of thousands by acknowledging their grievances through twitter and facebook.
    • The Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s Facebook page accumulated more than 1500 complaints, most of which were resolved on priority.
    • Recently in March 2013, Planning Commission went social. The idea was to involve civil society in formulation of the plan.
  1. National e-governance plan- The program encourages all Government departments and ministries to manage their internal process electronically creating almost paperless departments.
    • The objective is to make all Government services available to citizens through online access. It is still work-in-progress but a lack of a firm deadline means, every department is proceeding at its own pace. Since effective co-ordination is lacking, even the departments that adopt electronic processes cannot be fully efficient until other related departments reach the same level, as it will hinder inter departmental coordination & communication.
    • However, there are a few success stories including e-filing of income tax returns and land record management systems. The success of e-filing of income tax returns can be gauged by the significant year-on-year increase in the number of citizens and users who have adopted the system.
  1. Electronic delivery of services bill- The EDS Bill aims to create a law that will enable departments to offer facilities to citizens in an electronic format, barring a few exceptions where physical delivery is essential.
    • The draft EDS Bill draws certain similarities to the RTI in terms of the penalty mechanism to be imposed on erring officials. It is expected to significantly contribute to transparency and improved governance.
    • The Bill effectively proposes better delivery of services with minimal human interface, and by cutting human interface would cause reduced opportunity for corruption

 

ACCOUNTABILITY MECHANISMS FOR A TRANSPARENT GOVERNANCE

  1. Public procurement bill- The Bill has codified the basic tenets of public procurement and places statutory obligations on procuring entities and bidders to comply with these norms.
    • Currently, the public procurement process ails from inadequate and severely fragmented administrative rules, which lack legal force. The codification of the process laying down broad principles to be adhered to is itself a positive point. The intent of the bill is as follows: –
      • Ensure efficient and transparent process.
      • Increase competition.
      • Reduce corruption.
      • Ensure fair and equitable treatment to participants.
      • Ensure consistency between quality and the bid price.
    • The Bill also proposes different degrees of penalties asper the severity of an offence such as taking gratification in respect of procurement, interference with the process, making frivolous or malicious complaints and abetment of offences.
    • It excludes from its ambit procurements which are less than INR 5 million, procurements for the purpose of national security and emergency procurements made for disaster management
  1. Performance management division-
    • The Central Government started this division to track and incentivize improved outcomes of ministerial decisions. It lays down clear guidelines for officials in all ministries for tracking performance, based on results.
    • The tendency to delay decision-making needs to be curbed leading to faster resolution. This will help every decision to reach its logical conclusion much faster
    • Such themes are increasingly being adopted across states in programs like Guaranteed Services Delivery Act wherein any delay in service delivery by a Government official beyond the specified time limit is penalized. This is similar to the provision in the RTI Act and has been adopted in states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

 

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