Other States

16-year-long struggle to make government offices accountable pays off in Odisha

When a letter addressed to a government functionary is not acknowledged, the State will treat it as misconduct.

When letters to government offices go missing, the most common excuse used by public authorities is that they did not receive any such letter. But now, denying acknowledgement to any application by the general public will be treated as official misconduct in Odisha.

The State’s General Administration and Public Grievance Department (GAPGD), in a recent letter to all Department heads, Revenue Divisional Commissioners and District Collectors, reminded them of their responsibility to furnish acknowledgement when members of the general public wrote to them.

Discharge of duty

“In case any official supposed to give acknowledgement, during discharge of his or her duties, refuses to give acknowledgement, such conduct may be treated as misconduct and suitable action will be initiated,” the letter says.

This transformation in official dealings has not come about by itself. It is the result of one man’s 16-year-long struggle to hold the administration accountable. Meet Baghambar Patnaik, a septuagenarian Dalit rights activist, who single-handedly ensured the implementation of the Right To Acknowledgement in the State.

In 2004, the Puri district administration had denied receiving a letter from Mr. Patnaik, who was working on the issue of bonded labour issue. He smelt foul play and was of the firm view that the administration had played mischief and wilfully misplaced his application. On a subsequent occasion, the activist demanded acknowledgement of his letter, submitted at the office of the District Magistrate. The office refused to do so.

Similar situation

Mr. Patnaik found similar situations prevailing in almost all offices and public authorities. He knocked at the doors of the Lokpal, seeking a general direction for all offices to acknowledge receiving letters or documents. The Lokpal deemed that applications not kept in the concerned file, or lost, being the cause of maladministration, issued directions to offices to provide stamped slips containing diary numbers on receipt of applications, letters or documents from the general public. It forced the government to come up with a guideline.

To ensure that the Lokpal’s direction, and subsequent guidelines issued by the government, reached line departments, he kept filing hundreds of Right to Information (RTI) applications at State and District level offices, seeking to know if applications from the general public were acknowledged. This created pressure on departments for the issue of instructions to field level offices.

‘Important step’

“The right to acknowledgement is an important step in achieving transparency in administration. Without any proof of submission of the document, one cannot pursue one’s case,” said Mr. Patnaik.

However, over the years, complacency set in, with the administration again refusing to acknowledge the applications it received. Mr. Patnaik was not one to stay quiet. He again moved the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC), which directed the State government to implement the Right To Acknowledgement in all offices.

In the wake of the OHRC’s stricture, the GAPGD issued a stern warning to treat refusal of acknowledgement as official misconduct.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 1:09:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/16-year-long-struggle-to-make-government-offices-accountable-pays-off-in-odisha/article30783368.ece

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