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The devil lies in the details

In a democracy, political accountability can only be determined by stated intent matched against real action, writes Aruna Roy.

india Updated: Jul 13, 2009 21:10 IST
Aruna Roy

In a democracy, political accountability can only be determined by stated intent matched against real action.

First, we need a benchmark like the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), which will help reflect the mandate of the people, against which performance can be evaluated. The NCMP facilitated the passage of landmark legislations like the RTI and NREGA(National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which have paid dividends and begun to impact governance and poverty in tangible ways.

But while a manifesto is important, it does not cover all the parameters of democratic responsibility. Legislation by itself is also not enough. The Government must ensure implementation. The adage, "the devil lies in the details" is vital to both policy and delivery of service.

Before the NREGA was passed by India's 14th Lok Sabha, critics consistently harped on corruption and leakages, citing arguments not so much against providing work for the poor, but the chronic inability of the delivery system to function. But all too often, deliberate mal-intent masquerades as incompetence.

We produce a dichotomy of well-conceived and progressive policy and laws, contradicted by its divorce from action. Consistency between intent and action is the essence of political accountability.

The RTI Act properly implemented is enough to begin a process where wheels of accountability are set in motion. But the delivery of services also depends critically on the measure of disclosure and easy access to all relevant and complete information. What is required, then, is pro-active disclosure and transparent governance.

Unfortunately, having passed a very fine piece of legislation in 2005, the government has been ambivalent on its proper implementation. The Presidential address a few days ago contained a statement of intent to amend the RTI law- "to strengthen disclosure." Ironically, the details of the proposed amendments remain shrouded in secrecy. Section four of the RTI Act, which comprehensively deals with proactive disclosure requirements, is still to be properly implemented.

Pro-active disclosure is the biggest deterrent to corruption and inefficiency. If the Ministry of Rural Development can place all NREGA expenditure including details of individual transactions on its website, there is no excuse for non-disclosure of every financial - and every other - transaction in all Ministries. Information downloaded from these websites can then be disseminated through boards, walls, publications and broadcasts - creating a Janta Information System (JIS), so that citizens can help monitor service delivery, and expenditure. We do not need amendments, but resolute implementation.

There are many other legislative and policy initiatives that are required to strengthen accountability. Public grievance and redressal mechanisms, a Whistleblowers Act, Lok Pal legislation, and electoral reform, are some of the important measures in process.

What matters most however, is the political will to act.

Aruna Roy is a social and political activist. She is a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana and a Ramon Magsaysay Award winner.