For Anjali Bhardwaj and her colleagues at the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), the Cabinet nod to The Right of Citizens for Time-Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill marks a significant milestone in their fight for more transparent and accountable governance. The NCPRI co-convenor speaks to Priscilla Jebaraj.
What do you think is most significant about this Bill? Are there any key elements missing?
This legislation has the potential to transform the relationship between the people and the government. It recognises what the most striking lacunae in governance are today. There is simply no effective mechanism for grievance redress at all. When someone is not getting the rights or benefits she is entitled to, and tries to complain about it, it's like a black hole.
This law can change that. What is important is that there will be a clearly defined charter of what a citizen has a right to expect from the government and there is a decentralised structure to file complaints at every level.
We haven't actually seen the version of the bill that was cleared by Cabinet this week, so I cannot comment on that, but the original 2011 bill had some missing elements. One serious flaw was that it did not provide for a district-level grievance redress authority. Yes, there are lower sub-units, and a panchayat-level authority has been provided, but our experience with RTI [Right to Information] has shown that if they do not get what they need at the village level, often people are not willing to go all the way to the state-level headquarters in order to file an appeal. We also felt that people often need help writing up their complaints, and these facilitation centres need to be outside, to be independent of the specific department [from which they need redress]. An information and facilitation centre at the block level would be a single window to help people register, follow-up and track their grievances against any specific departments.
You have been describing this bill as RTI Part II. How do you think grievance redress complements the RTI agenda?
RTI gives people the opportunity to seek information, to seek answers from their government; but people also want to hold their government responsible and this law will enable that. Plenty of RTI questions already deal with issues of grievance — what are their rights and entitlements, what is the obligation of public authorities and have they fulfilled them...this Act will allow them to have their grievances addressed more directly. If it is implemented properly, it will reduce the burden on RTI.
How will the bill prevent corruption? Is it only petty graft that can be curbed, or will it have any impact on major scams as well?
Many of the government's flagship social programmes — NREGA, right to education, rural health, PDS — where there are huge scams, it is because entitlements are not actually reaching the intended beneficiaries. If this Act can ensure that people are not denied benefits, by reducing the arbitrariness, each individual holding the government accountable will help prevent the larger scam. Also, this law provides for the supervising structure to be held accountable…top level scamsters cannot get away so easily.
There have been complaints that some provisions of the bill go against the federal nature of our democracy. Do you think that is true?
We object to the provisions that state that the State commissions would be subordinate to the Central commissions. That not only violates the federal spirit, it will also result in all the appeals against the state commissions pending in the Central commission. The central commission should instead be free to deal with central government services... We think there should be territorial jurisdiction, as in RTI where appeals against State commission verdicts are taken to the High Courts.