Jawabdehi Yatra: After Success of Jan Soochna Portal, a Push for Public Accountability Law
Rajasthan, the state that steered the notable campaign out of which was born the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has hardly lain contented. Two years back, it created a formidable citizen pressure group, which spurred the state government to create the Jan Soochna portal which displays information that ought to be voluntarily disclosed by public authorities under section 4 of the RTI Act, for its 13 departments and 35 government schemes.
Since the last month or so, a visible social movement demanding the passage of a public accountability law, is gaining strength. As Nikhil Dey, who is steering the campaign says, “This law would further empower people with the right to file complaints; participate in the redress of their complaints; have their complaints redressed within a clear time frame; escalate their complaints in case of unsatisfactory redress through an independent appellate process; and participate in social audits of government schemes and institutions.”
The Jawabdehi Yatra by the Soochna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan, as it is termed, began on 21st December from Beawar, where the RTI campaign was born and was to travel through all the 33 districts of Rajasthan, until the Omicron wave halted the rallies. However, it now continues through cyberspace. Citizens have now been asked to file their grievances on the state government’s website (Rajasthan Sampark –http://sampark.rajasthan.gov.in). 
Mr Dey says, “Over 2,500 grievances on various issues that directly affect the common man have been filed so far in all the 33 districts. This way, we are building up pressure to make the government bring in the law.”
The grievance applications range from basic issues of survival such as rations, pensions and work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA) to the most basic services such as electricity, water, roads, education and health.
Assault on RTI activists is another prime reason why the public accountability law is seen as a hope, though, after its implementation, it would need constant monitoring by the non-government organisation (NGO). Mr Dey says, “During the course of the Yatra, the most disturbing incident took place, of Amra Ram, an RTI activist from Barmer district, being brutally and viciously attacked for raising questions and demanding answers on irregular implementation of public schemes. The incident spurred us to ensure incorporation of adequate provisions within the Accountability Bill that would provide protection to all whistle-blowers facing threats and intimidation.’’
So, what is the Rajasthan Public Accountability Bill all about? It has its origins in the legal provisions under the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011 and the Right to Hearing Act of government of Rajasthan. Says Mr Dey, “All this is brought together in an interwoven legal framework. The architecture for this law is similar to the RTI. The objective is to strengthen the robust citizen centric framework so that such a law could, in a true sense of the term, be RTI Part II; taking us from transparency to accountability to the people, within India’s democracy.” The public movement aims to finally see its implementation at the state as well as the Central level.
Confirms Dey, “A government committee on the Bill has submitted its report in February 2020, and the campaign has put the government on notice to have the law enacted in the upcoming budget session. The Abhiyan has spent the last three years in continuous dialogue with the government to sort out people’s issues. While some have been sorted, passing of this law is critical to systematic resolution of problems arising from improper implementation. By making citizens partners in the implementation framework, we are confident that it will help the administration serve the people better and empower people to democratically secure their basic services and entitlements.”
In Maharashtra, social reformer Anna Hazare had campaigned for a long time for public accountability by government babus through a time-bound commitment to address citizen issues.
Thus was born the Government Servants Regulation Of Transfers and Prevention Of Delay In Discharge Of Official Duties. Rajasthan’s endeavour is even more powerful and citizen-centric.
The Rajasthan Public Accountability Bill attempts to lay out a practical framework of accountability to the people.
Architecture for grievance redress
Citizen charters and job charts: Public authorities and officials are required to disclose a statement of their department’s as well as individual obligations and responsibilities for the effective provisioning of public services. This will take place through the notification of citizen charters and individual job charts. All public officials are mandated by their departments and superior authorities to carry out their duties as per the citizen charter and job chart.
Scope of grievance: The citizen can file a grievance on account of a violation of the citizen charter, job chart, failure in the functioning of a public authority in terms of its functions, duties and obligations, violation of a provision as listed in a law, policy, programme, order or scheme of the government.
Registration of grievance: The citizen will be able to register their grievance with a grievance redress officer (GRO) in every public office for every department at the state, district, block and gram panchayat; a helpline; an information and facilitation centre present in every gram panchayat and ward.
The GRO will be the officer who has supervisory control over the officer responsible for the actual execution of the service. For every grievance submitted, the complainant has a right to get a dated acknowledgement receipt immediately.
Time bound action: The GRO is required to complete an inquiry on the grievance submitted and provide a written response and action taken report within 30 days of it being submitted. The Bill mandates for the inquiry to include a physical visit to the site of complaint and interaction with both the complainant and the official concerned. The GRO is required to submit a written response stating the action taken on the grievance submitted, and the recommended penalty or compensation, if any.
Right to hearing: Every complainant has a right to participate in a public hearing (Jan Sunwai) 14 days within the complaint being filed. This will be in an open platform at the block level, chaired by the sub divisional magistrate, where the complainant will present their complaints and departments will publicly present their status/ decision within the given time frame. The forum is to be held at a block level on a fixed day of every week. The forum will provide an opportunity for the complainant and the department to resolve the grievance in a manner that both is, and appears to be, fair. Social audit reports will also be presented in the right to hearing meetings, allowing for the independent monitoring of the redress of issues identified during public audits.
Independent appellate structure: The complainant can appeal the decision of the GRO/ lack of action taken by the GRO to an independent District Grievance Redress Authority (DGRA) which will serve as the first appellate authority under this law. An appeal against the order/ inaction of the DGRA will rest with the State Public Grievance Redress Commission. Both, the DGRA and the Commission will be bodies identified through an independent selection mechanism and will operate independent of the implementing agencies. The DGRA and the Commission will have the authority to impose penalties and award compensation where applicable.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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