Lessons for urban India from the Madhya Pradesh hinterland: A teacher and a health worker were suspended by the village for not showing up for work. It’s time for Right to Information Version 2.0 — a law that forces your city’s officials to do their jobs on time, and be accountable.
"I apologise for being absent from work," the village teacher told the panchayat. "I promise it will not happen again. From now on, I will not take leave without informing the village head."
This is Pinsai village in Madhya Pradesh, where a teacher, an aanganwadi (public crèche) worker and a nurse had been suspended and their wages withheld for repeatedly skipping work.
"We would have lost our jobs if we hadn't apologised," says Tirath Ram, the schoolteacher. "I now make it a point to be in the school for eight hours every day."
Tirath Ram and his colleagues report to the district magistrate, and they knew he was too far away to notice whether they turned up or not.
This remote supervision is a problem that plagues the public healthcare and education systems in rural India.
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But in 2002, the Madhya Pradesh government gave the gram sabha or village council the power to withhold the salaries of certain errant local government officials.
It’s changing the way officials work here — and it’s taking the landmark Right to Information Act a step forward. Where the RTI Act can only tell you why a certain task has not been completed, the village council can now act against delays and negligence.
This model needs to be replicated across the country, through a Right to Accountability law that makes delays and negligence punishable.
The law would provide timeframes and set strict penalties for government officials who fail to deliver public services. The local ward officer, for instance, could be fined Rs 250 per day for every pothole left unfixed in a road for more than two weeks.
Or Rs 300 for every day that trash is not collected.
Applications could be filed individually or through the empowered colony sabhas, to be dealt with by local accountability officers, much as public information officers work under the RTI.
In a country where cities are now home to about 28 per cent of the 1 billion-plus population — and where that number is expected to climb to 50 per cent by 2025 — such a law could provide for colony sabhas or residents’ associations to get in on the ground floor, acting as a sort of monitor.
“If the Accountability Law were made part of the Right to Information Act, the cases could even be heard by the existing information commissions,” says Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, earlier a career bureaucrat.
Such a law could also help tackle corruption, as is being done in Madhya Pradesh. “The number of corruption cases has dropped,” says T.C. Solanki, assistant project officer with Chhindwara zilla parishad (district council) office. “No official dare ask for money because they know the panchayat can take action against them.”
An accountability law is the next logical step after the successful Right to Information (RTI) Act, which made government servants accountable to the people to some extent, agrees Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal, who is running a campaign to have gram sabha-like bodies in urban areas. “It will bring democracy to its rightful owners — the people of India.”
In Madhya Pradesh, the amended panchayat law makes it mandatory for eight kinds of officials to be present at each quarterly village council meeting — the land records clerk, administrative head of the panchayat, teacher, ration shop licensee, nurse, crèche attendant, primary health worker and forest official (in areas with forests).
Each of these public servants must bring with them any records that the council has asked for, and give an account of their work. The council can then question these officials, and take any concerns to the local authorities.
“It is not a bad idea, to ensure a corruption-free, fast delivery mechanism,” says Habibullah. “It could make public servants directly accountable to the people, just like the RTI Act has done, to some extent.”
For 28-year-old Amosa Bai, the semi-literate woman sarpanch or village head of Pinsai, the amended panchayat law has proved that an accountability law could work.
“Students had stopped going to the village’s only primary school. And we had caught the aanganwadi worker taking food meant for our children home to her family,” she says. “After we filed our complaint with the district magistrate, all three were suspended and their salaries withheld. We believe an even stronger law would help us get even better results.”
In the world's largest democracy, direct accountability is still a distant dream. Political leaders are accountable, via elections. But the babus who, in fact, run the government are not.
The villages have the panchayat and village council to keep tabs on local officials. The cities - now home 28 per cent of the population - don't even have that.
Urban local bodies like municipal corporations have no citizen involvement or representation. Complaints about unpaved streets, leaking pipelines and missing streetlights usually go unheard.
A Right to Accountability Law that acts as an extension of the sunshine Right to Information Act.
This law would determine responsibility for various aspects of governance, and affix penalties in the form of fines for delayed action, missed deadlines and negligence.
Thus, the local ward officer could be fined Rs 2,000 for every pothole left unfixed in a road for more than two weeks. Or Rs 1,000 for every day that trash is not collected.
Colony sabhs - the urban equivalent of the village council - could be empowered to act as liaisons between the citizens and the officials. Complaints could also be filed individually, to be dealt with by local accountability officers, much as public information officers work under the RTI.If the Accountability Law were made part of the Right to Information Act, the cases could even be heard by the existing information commissions.
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