India celebrates its 59th Republic Day on the 26th January. We reproduce an article by Sandeep Pandey (The Indian Express) 2 August 2007. Pandey is a Lucknow-based social activist and a Magsaysay awardee.
The Right to Information (RTI) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Acts are considered to be two of the most progressive pieces of legislation in recent times. They are seen as a much required corrective in an atmosphere where the government is considered to be coming increasingly under the influence of international financial institutions/corporations and getting more and more indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people.
Take the RTI Act. Meant to create more transparency and accountability in governance, it has for the first time provided an opportunity to ordinary people to intervene in political and administrative decision-making. Politicians and bureaucrats have, thus far, considered it their prerogative to keep information secret. What is not widely recognised is that this mindset characterises not just secretaries and under-secretaries but those who man the lowest tier of government. For instance, in January 2003, the gram pradhans of Ambedkar villages and two MLAs (including a minister in the then Mayawati government) unanimously passed a resolution calling for the jailing of anyone demanding income-expenditure details from the Gram Panchayat Bharawan of Hardoi district, Uttar Pradesh, or for holding dhar na to push for their claims. As people’s representatives, they argued, they enjoyed a privileged position and were above providing a statement of accounts for public funds.
Before the RTI Act came into force, officials would humiliate citizens who asked for information and sometimes even threatened them. In their arrogance they did not even bother to do basic book-keeping. The first statement of accounts for the Bharawan Gram Panchayat, which was given to the people by the block development officer (BDO), did not carry any entries under expenditure. When asked about it, the officer explained that that was how accounts have been kept all those years. This was confirmed by the District Rural Development Agency, where employees confessed that once funds left their office, they did not bother to follow up on any details of how they were spent – the assumption was that the funds disbursed were spent for the intended purpose. In a detail of accounts the Bharawan Block Panchayat obtained using the RTI Act, it was discovered that the desilting of a canal was shown to have been performed for more than Rs 3 lakh when no work was done at all.
The RTI Act has made a difference to this situation of complete unaccountability. Today, if an ordinary villager goes to an office with an application seeking information under the RTI Act, she would be treated with respect, offered tea and asked about her problem. Officials would promise to address her problem in a bid to convince her to withdraw her application. Although officials try their best to evade accountability, there is a realisation that they cannot continue to function like they used to. This is good news for democracy. The BDO of Behender block in Hardoi recently confessed that it is only since people have started asking for information that the office has been compelled to keep books.
The NREGA goes a step further and secures the legal right of the people of a gram sabha to conduct social audits of work being performed under the NREGA. This is the first acknowledgement by the government that it requires people’s help in tackling an imperfect system. Earlier, one could only complain if one suspected a misappropriation of funds and then it was up to the authorities to institute an inquiry. Now ordinary citizens have the right to all data pertaining to the workings of the NREGA and must receive it within 15 days of their application. They can then place the records before the villagers for physical verification. The social audits conducted at various places in the country under the NREGA have uncovered numerous discrepancies, ranging from fake names in muster rolls to the fact that facilities for workers are not provided for. Labourers are at last getting their dues in most places where the NREGA is in force.
Today, there is a need to build on the newly instilled sense of confidence among the great majority of rural north India that the RTI and NREG legislation has engendered. At least people can now discern the contours of a functioning democracy. But we need to build on the fact that people no longer need to be at the mercy of bureaucrats or politicians. They should now be involved in the process of decision-making and planning, even as social audits are extended to cover all schemes and government offices.