The abominable behaviour of a set of parliamentarians on February 13 was not an aberration. The 15th Lok Sabha is coming to the end of a full term, with the dubious distinction of being the least productive, the most adjourned, and the least legislative Parliament in the history of India. The legislative files of the Lok Sabha show that the first Lok Sabha spent 1,844 hours on legislative business, while this one has spent just 276 hours. The first Parliament passed 333 Bills; this one has failed to pass even half that number. The PRS Legislative Service has charted the productivity of all 15, and demonstrated that at 63%, this Lok Sabha is 25% less productive than any other so far. Of course, the last (winter) session has a grand figure of 5% productivity setting new records in terrible ways.
This Parliament has 130 pending Bills, and the failure to legislate ensures the continued stagnation and maladministration of the country with almost no recourse available to its people. The incalculable loss and harm done to the country can be illustrated through the potential loss of not enacting even two of the 74 pending Bills that would lapse at the end of this Lok Sabha — the grievance redress, and whistleblower protection Bills.
For decades, Indian citizens have suffered the denial of basic services. Chronic inefficiency and petty corruption have taken away even the most basic human rights such as food, water, electricity, to name a few. The experience of attempting to file or chase a complaint has only added insult to injury as an insensitive bureaucracy has been able to ignore complaints with impunity. The so-called free market has merged comfortably with a colonial administration, and a feudal power structure to keep all delivery systems opaque, insensitive, extractive and exploitative.
The right to information (RTI) campaign has started to bring about the winds of change. Led by the poorest of the poor fighting for survival, it asked basic and straightforward questions of people in positions of power. Many years of struggle, and meticulous work have allowed us to give meaning to loosely used terms like transparency and accountability. The RTI campaign has not only helped expose corruption and arbitrariness with proof — it has led to an energetic and informed demand for accountability and change.
During the height of the Lokpal debate, a group of young people fighting Dalit atrocities in their villages in Bhilwara district provided a five-point set of principles that powerfully defines what a citizen-centric accountability law should contain: 1) Jankari (information) People must know everything. 2) Sunwai (hearing) because the first step of demanding accountability is to get a hearing and an acknowledgment. 3) Karyavahi (time-bound action) because most complaints go unaddressed in the absence of a mandatory time limit. 4) Bhagidari (participation) because the process is important, and most investigations or inquiries take place far removed from the complainant, and finally 5) Suraksha (protection) because most complainants fighting injustice are vulnerable, and are often the first to be attacked. Many in this group had used the RTI, and they understood that like with the RTI law, people must be empowered in accountability laws as well.
The grievance redress (GR) Bill is a step in that direction. It identifies the roles and responsibilities of every public functionary. It creates mechanisms to file complaints and procure dated receipts, through proximate physical offices at the panchayat level, and alternative remote mechanisms like helplines and web-based portals. It holds supervisors responsible for conducting a participatory inquiry, giving a written answer in time, and ensuring redress to anyone denied an entitlement.
Accountability is fixed through an RTI like architecture with penalties and compensation for non-compliance. The GR Bill is RTI part 2, which could help us improve delivery, demand accountability, and provide a platform through which citizens can gain citizenship.
People fighting ethical battles from within, and outside the system need protection. It has become a question of life and death. RTI users have formulated questions that have so fundamentally undermined vested interests, that more than 30 of them have been killed since 2011. Even this has not deterred others from continuing to demand a more transparent and accountable system. Some public officials have also shown that they will not allow the law to be twisted, and will expose any wrongdoing, even at great risk to themselves. Many continue to be harassed, transferred, attacked, and even killed while the whistleblower protection Bill awaits passage.
Ten years ago Satyendra Dubey was killed after writing a classic whistleblower letter to the prime minister. His family asks for justice through passage of a law that is 10 years delayed. It will not bring Dubey back, but they hope the law will help in saving the lives of others like him.
These are only two of the 130 pending legislations. Some of them are admittedly contentious. But there are many others for which all political parties have expressed their support. Some relate to empowering the most marginalised sections of our society and economy. A ‘Lok Sansad’ coalition has been formed asking Parliament to function and pass consensus Bills such as the street vendors Bill, the disability rights Bill, the SC/ST atrocities Act amendment Bill, the grievance redress Bill, and the whistleblower protection Bill.
All parties claim to support these Bills. Can the 15th Lok Sabha do something to redeem itself in its last days? Enactment of the GR law is a part of Parliament’s composite promise to the nation through the ‘sense of the house’ resolution during the Lokpal debate.
Nevertheless, if parliamentarians don’t act together, it might lapse in a few days. Will our parliamentarians overcome narrow political interests, and pass the laws they claim to support?
Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists
The views expressed by the authors are personal