There is no Lokpal yet, but the Centre’s Grievance Redressal Bill promises to cut through bureaucracy and corruption that plague government services. The citizen is hoping for a repeat of the RTI Act story.
A year after the UPA came to power in 2004, it brought the Right to Information Act, ushering in a revolution: citizens, for the first time, could access information under the control of public authorities, whether that related to legal entitlements such as food for work, wage employment, basic education and health care, or land records, public works, the PDS or, indeed, how a major government decision was taken. Understandably, there was resistance from the bureaucracy, where knowledge had been power all these years.
The system put in place may not have been perfect, but the new law that opened government to public scrutiny inexorably compelled its departments to become, incrementally, more transparent, accountable and, in the process, the everyday corruption that affected the aam aadmi began to come down.
Now, seven-and-a-half years later, the government intends to bring The Right of Citizens for Time-Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011, to Parliament in an attempt to complete the RTI’s unfinished agenda — as well as relieving it of some of its burden.
Indeed, civil society groups like the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) that played a seminal role in ushering in the RTI are describing the Grievances Bill as RTI-Two.
The Grievances Bill seeks to create a mechanism to ensure the timely delivery of goods and services to citizens: all public authorities will have to publish a Citizens’ Charter detailing the goods and services they provide, along with timelines for delivery. It will permit citizens to file a complaint regarding any grievance related to the charter; the functioning of a public authority; or the violation of a law, policy or scheme.
All public authorities will have to establish information and facilitation centres and appoint officers — right down to the municipality and panchayat level — to redress grievances within 15 days, giving the complainant a written reply on how the grievance is being redressed, as well as an action-taken report.
If a grievance is not redressed within the mandated period, an explanation will have to be sent to the head of department, to whom the aggrieved person, too, can write if a complaint is not addressed satisfactorily within 15 days. The non-redress of grievances can be deemed to be a corrupt practice if prima facie the complaint falls under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
A Central Public Grievance Redressal Commission, as well as State Public Grievance Redressal Commissions will be appointed, and grievance redressal officers will assist citizens filing complaints. Judicial proceedings before the commissions will be under the Indian Penal Code. A penalty at the rate specified from time to time may be levied upon defaulting officers. Disciplinary action, too, will be taken against those found guilty of a mala fide action.
Some provisions in the bill, however, may be challenged by the State governments on the grounds that they violate the federal spirit.
NCPRI co-convener Nikhil Dey said recently that there was a need to tweak the version cleared by the Union Cabinet to prevent the Centre from treading on the States’ toes: the draft bill says every order passed by the proposed Central Public Grievance Redressal Commission must be enforced by the State Commissions, and any citizen aggrieved by a State Commission’s decision may within 30 days appeal to the Central Commission.
The two commissions should be independent, Mr. Dey said, and if anyone had a grievance against a State commission’s decision, she could go to the High Court, and then if a fresh appeal was needed, to the Supreme Court.
He stressed that this was how the State Information Commissions and the Central Information Commission were working. The existing State bills need not be repealed — the new bill will be an additional law.
Anjali Bhardwaj, Mr. Dey’s co-convener on the NCPRI, pointed out that the Act would reduce the burden on the RTI machinery.