How many times have you petitioned a government department, for a ration card or a house site patta and encountered only stony silence? In spite of giant advances such as e-mail, web-based submission of forms and leaps in productivity achieved through mobile communications, our government machinery exists in a time warp.
The Right to Information Act, 2005 has brought about some change, and those who are aware of the potential of the law often use it to good effect. While awareness of the RTI Act is growing, what is not so widely known is that there is another tool in the citizen’s kit to make the government accountable. That is a Government Order directing bureaucrats to acknowledge and address all grievance petitions submitted personally to the department concerned, in a time-bound manner.
The order dates back to the Administrative Reforms Committee headed by Justice A.K. Rajan, which resulted in the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department issuing an order two years ago. That order, G.O. (MS) No. 24 of the P and A.R., Department dated February 17, 2010 (available here) requires all government departments to acknowledge every letter or petition received from the public within a stipulated time. If you look up the related G.O. No. 114 of 2006, this means: acknowledge the petition immediately, or within a maximum of three days. Equally important, the maximum time allowed for redress of a grievance is two months.
The Tamil Nadu government has accepted the Justice A.K. Rajan panel’s recommendation, and laid down that if a file is not cleared within the stipulated period, and there is no officially sanctioned delay, it will be presumed that there is an “ulterior motive” on the part of the staff concerned (the committee actually recommended that it should be treated as a demand for illegal gratification by the employee and departmental action initiated).
Imagine what this means for all the services that the government has to deliver. Topping the list of grievances is corruption involving the issue of certificates and papers at the Revenue, Civil Supplies, Registration and Transport departments, besides services to be rendered by government-supervised agencies including local bodies, water and electricity supply and so on. Applied vigorously, such orders could reverse pervasive bribery and sloth. What is more, the RTI Act is available to pursue the fate of grievance applications, prising open obstinate or corrupt doors.
But is it all really that simple? The erstwhile DMK government did not do much to make the G.O. Nos. 114 and 24 actually deliver. There is little evidence to show that its successor has galvanised official machinery say, by opening Vigilance police desks in highly corrupt departments to pursue the “ulterior motive” mentioned in the G.O. Citizen bodies, such as residents’ welfare associations, have not pursued the possibilities vigorously either. Few associations are familiar with the working of the RTI Act, although there are exceptions. The bigger question is, why shouldn’t it be easier to petition the government in the first place? After all, the Income Tax department has demonstrated how to use a spreadsheet to submit data in a standardised format. and generate an acknowledgement. Using web-based forms should be an option for state government services.
The more immediate issue is whether all government departments can be compelled to take the state orders on reform seriously, until major changes now awaiting legislation in Parliament – such as the Citizen’s Right to Grievance Redress Bill – become law.