New India Government Disappoints on Transparency

16 September 2014

By Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri

The writers are social activists working on issues of transparency and accountability in governance. This commentary first appeared Sept. 12 in Indian Express. Achhe din, meaning good days, are coming was the slogan of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 Indian general election, coined by BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

For a government that won office on the plank of fighting corruption and promising ‘‘achhe din’’ to citizens disgruntled by poor service delivery, one would have thought putting in place an effective anti-corruption and grievance redressal framework would be a top priority. However, after 100 days of being in power, the Modi sarkar’s report card on transparency and accountability disappoints.

It is well established that openness in government functioning is a prerequisite for good governance. One of the key accomplishments of the UPA was the enactment of the RTI Act. However, its implementation remained lackadaisical and left much to be desired. When Team Modi promised transparent and accountable governance in its inimitable style, through impossible-to-miss advertisements in every newspaper, a natural expectation was that the transparency regime in the country would be strengthened.

Unfortunately, in the first 100 days of the Modi government, there is no perceptible improvement in the implementation of the RTI Act. On the contrary, for the first time since its constitution in 2005, the Central Information Commission (CIC) is headless. The post of the chief information commissioner, which fell vacant on August 22, has not yet been filled. This has serious ramifications, since the RTI Act envisages a critical role for the chief information commissioner, including superintendence, management and direction of the affairs of the CIC. In the absence of the chief, the functioning of the CIC is seriously impaired and the decisions given in the interim could be challenged in court.

Currently, close to 25,000 appeals and complaints are pending with the CIC and people have to wait for months, sometimes even years, for their cases to be heard. Not appointing a chief information commissioner is resulting in increasing the backlog of cases and greater delays for those who are denied information and are already frustrated by the long wait for justice. Information commissions are the adjudicators under the RTI law — if they do not function properly, it results in the violation of the critical right to information of ordinary citizens, who need it to hold their government accountable.

The 100 days also witnessed a positive development — the government revised the rules for the appointment of the anti-corruption ombudsman, the Lokpal. The Modi government has amended the UPA’s regressive rules and removed the problematic provision that empowered the Central government to shortlist candidates from which the search committee could recommend names to the selection committee. That provision had drawn the ire of the eminent jurists, Fali Nariman and Justice K.T. Thomas, who resigned from the search committee, stating that it had been rendered redundant as the rules did not allow the members to independently single out deserving persons who could be appointed to the Lokpal.

However, the new government has failed to address the most regressive provision in the rules, which effectively ensures that the non-judicial members of the Lokpal will comprise almost exclusively of bureaucrats. This implies that the Lokpal will join the long list of institutions in the country that, instead of being led by men and women who are most competent for the job, have actually become post-retirement slots for civil servants. Leaders of the BJP, including Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, who are now senior ministers in the Modi administration, had made statements on the floor of the House, and rightly so, that the mere passage of the Lokpal law will not rid the country of corruption and maladministration. During the debate on the Lokpal in Parliament, they stressed the need for an effective whistleblower protection and grievance redressal law. In fact, in February, Parliament, with active support of BJP legislators, passed the Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) Bill.

This gave many people reason to believe that a new dispensation under the BJP would be serious about promptly framing proper rules to operationalise the WBP Act and put in place an effective mechanism for redressing grievances. However, even after 100 days and several attacks on whistleblowers, no rules for the WBP Act are in sight.

On the contrary, in July, while responding to a question in the Lok Sabha on the safety of whistleblowers, the concerned minister did not even mention the WBP Act. The transfer of Sanjiv Chaturvedi, the former chief vigilance officer of AIIMS, by the new government was also widely seen as a move to victimise a whistleblower.

Finally, the performance of the government, in terms of achieving its electoral promise of delivering basic amenities to citizens, can be judged by whether it has put in place an effective mechanism for time-bound delivery of services and grievance redressal. Only a robust grievance redressal mechanism, which holds government functionaries accountable for failure to deliver services in a time-bound manner, can protect people from the menace of everyday petty corruption and inefficiency, due to which they are denied their basic rights and entitlements like rations, pensions, healthcare and education.

Unfortunately, there has been no perceptible effort so far by the new government to put in place a strong system for resolving complaints. Also, the government has not reintroduced the 2011 grievance redressal bill in Parliament, which had lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. Undoubtedly, the mission to deliver good governance cannot be expected to be achieved in 100 days, but decisive action on these critical issues would certainly show the government’s commitment to fulfilling its pledge of ensuring transparent and accountable governance.

 

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