Nationwide frustration arising from large-scale corruption by people in authority erupted in a wave of protests two years ago. Legislative remedies proposed as a response to public anger, such as the Lokpal and the Lokayuktas in all States, have still not become a reality. Adding to the aam aadmi’s sense of outrage, another important legislation that aims at ending administrative gridlock and corruption has run into political troubles. The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011, can potentially empower citizens, erase the feeling of impunity among public authorities and bring in accountability. This the Bill seeks to achieve by requiring institutions, including companies with statutory obligations, to specify the services to be provided under a citizens’ charter, fix a time-limit for delivery, and crucially, levy penalties and award compensation through a redress mechanism for wilful default. The Bill seeks to do for delivery of public goods and services what the Right to Information Act has done for access to official data and documents. Such a forward-looking effort to put the onus of service on the official machinery should not be held hostage to narrow politics.
The major political argument being raised against the Grievance Redressal Bill is that it affects the federal scheme of legislative power of the States, by prescribing a system that is not in consonance with the Constitution. That question has been addressed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in its report on the Bill, with the observation that both Parliament and legislatures have the power to legislate, under Article 246 (2) on matters in the concurrent list; the Centre only wants to bring in a law to address ‘actionable wrongs,’ which is in the list. Also, citizens must enjoy rights relating to public services that are comparable to private providers covered by the Consumer Protection Act. Opposition to the proposed law from parties such as the BJP therefore rings hollow, particularly when citizen-friendly and more comprehensive State laws on time-bound services are not available. In fact, the Standing Committee makes the valid point that the time-limit of 30 days to provide a service need not be uniform, since speedier relief is often possible. It is beyond debate that bottlenecks in the processing of passports, revenue records, house plan approvals, transport and trade licences, and municipal services, to name just a few, have created a corrupt system that endlessly harasses the citizen. Political parties that opportunistically oppose the Bill are obstructing genuine reform.