In June 2014, the Modi government set out to change how the government worked. At that time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in a meeting of Union Secretaries about “reforming the public service delivery system and bridging the governance deficit” by introducing “self-certification” in place of “affidavits”. That event revealed his enthusiasm and commitment to improving the ease of citizen-state interactions. However, there is little public evidence after that, of the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances systematically following up with government departments to allow self-attestation of documents and to reduce the use of affidavits.
Mr. Modi displayed the same initiative in convincing the public to embrace Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) reforms. He was successful in reframing technocratic goals in populist terms, thereby enhancing DBT reforms’ public legitimacy. Schemes such as Ujjwala demonstrated his government’s adeptness at translating ‘good governance’ into popular politics by expanding market access to cooking gas in rural areas.
The reliance on centralised technology solutions as part of DBT reforms has enhanced the effectiveness and efficiency in the operations of government agencies and their private partners. But the absence of concerted efforts towards reorganising the government’s internal processes to improve the ease of identification, authentication, and verification of policy targets creates risks for the long-term viability of the expansion of such digitalised welfare. The hardships for policy targets arise because each of DBT’s inter-linked service conditionalities, such as mobile connectivity, banking, and LPG distribution, spanning many policy domains creates its unique set of hurdles. Each conditionality effectively operates as a sieve that filters out those who are unable to fulfil the compliance requirements. The legitimacy derived from such welfare expansion can potentially diminish if those who are meant to benefit from such digitalised welfare policies exit those social programmes in the long run, due to the intractable nature of the programme’s compliance barriers.
Similarly, in the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, the tyranny of administrative rule-making combined with centralised, technology-driven administrative processing has created public discontent. Predictably, after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed, public anger spilled over into the streets even before the detailed implementation guidelines were put in place. Much of the political opposition is against the exclusion categories within the letter of the law. However, it is also fuelled by widespread public concerns about rules determining the category of ‘doubtful citizens’, the horrors of paperwork, repeated visits to offices, the fear of political misuse of data, and the administrative discretion engendered by the law’s vast scope.
Thus, Mr. Modi’s challenges are two-pronged. The first is to address the law’s exclusion categories and the second is to reduce public resentment against the IT-driven bureaucracy that, instead of reorganising internal processes to utilise previously submitted citizen data to the government effectively, may likely ask the entire Indian population to resubmit documents to prove their citizenship against the presumption of guilt. However, these protests present an opportunity for Mr. Modi to renew his stalled agenda of making bureaucracy more responsive to the rising expectations of public service quality from its citizens.
Such a reform necessitates laying down the legal accountability frameworks that secure bureaucratic commitment towards the exercise of state power within the constraints of due process of law, especially in matters concerning individual liberties. The demands for a citizen charter, and law for public grievances redress during the Anna agitation, were an early popular expression of this aspiration. The recent protests present an opportunity for Mr. Modi to seize back the reform narrative by proactively laying down a new Magna Carta that imbues democratic principles within the processes of governance.
The Once-Only Principle
The European Union countries, as part of the 2017 Tallinn Declaration on e-Government, have come together to enact the ‘The Once-Only Principle (TOOP)’. The EU’s Single Digital Gateway Regulation marks an important step towards making governments more responsive to concerns about privacy, the hardships faced by vulnerable social groups, and the lack of proportionality in the policy design for digitalising government. TOOP aims to remove unnecessary administrative burdens on citizens by mandating that citizens are not required to provide the same information more than once to the government. TOOP requires the enacting of the legal and implementation framework that fully realises the individual liberties already bestowed by the Constitution and reiterated by the Supreme Court. However, laying down a legal framework and an implementation pathway for TOOP in India is only possible with a firm and earnest political leadership.
With its vast majority, this government can easily pass legislation mandating the time-bound implementation of TOOP in India. Adopting such a global best practice will provide the bureaucracy with the vision and direction to strengthen in a time-bound manner the internal processes within government agencies and the coordination within existing Digital India initiatives. Under this law, the government first presents the full details of all the information which is already available with it to the citizen. It then requests that the individual verify and correct any errors, by providing multiple, non-coercive opportunities to furnish only further information or additional documents as necessary.
Further, this requires, as in the case of EU countries, that the Indian government should pass long-pending laws concerning privacy and administrative procedures that are already mandated by the Supreme Court. Such a framework will help to minimise the scope for abuse of excessive bureaucratic discretion that comes with arbitrary rule-making. It will also mitigate growing public apprehension about the permission-less use of personal information by government and private agencies.
The Magna Carta, agreed to in 1215, was the first step in a long-drawn-out journey towards a rights-based democracy. But it led to equal treatment before the law and individual rights becoming the bedrock principles of modern democracies. Similarly, TOOP can set India on a time-bound path towards fulfilling the promise of a procedural rights-based democracy by elevating the rule-of-law standards for everyday governance to match other advanced democracies. Many credit the Congress for deepening democracy’s franchise and scope by establishing a liberal Constitution and implementing rights-based laws that secured some substantive rights (employment guarantee and food rations) and procedural rights (right to know). By enacting TOOP, Mr. Modi can lay claim to having made those rights substantial rather than merely symbolic.
Srinivas Yerramsetti is a researcher of public administration and policy