The delivery of public services in a time-bound manner at the level of States and the Centre, if implemented efficiently, could become a single most revolutionary step imparting relief at the cutting edge level. The citizens, particularly our rural brethren, are shunted from one office to other for procuring documents relating to birth, death, caste, income level and other forms of entitlements. An incognito visit to revenue offices at block and taluk level would highlight the problems and consequent harassment suffered by an average citizen in resolving issues relating to his own land record rights. Evidently, there is significant petty corruption in the delivery of services. Even opening of a bank account is almost a life time achievement. The innumerable information sought by the bank in a complicated application form is beyond an average rural person. Hand holding is the only solution where the touts flourish unchecked.
In the UK, “Putting People First” was a radical departure from the traditional top down approach of the bureaucracy. The cardinal principles were avowed standards of services with a commitment to quality, transparency, information giving, courtesy in the delivery of services and above all, an incentive to exercise a choice whenever necessary to meet the expectations of a common citizen. The objective being to suit the convenience of the user measured in terms of relief offered to the citizen.
More than a dozen states have already enacted laws guaranteeing the delivery of public services within a specified time-frame. Although the lists of public services notified under the Act are not exhaustive, it certainly sets in tune a positive beginning. Based on information given by a few States through an application moved under RTI, the Government of NCT of Delhi, Punjab, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand have notified 44, 67, 84, 124 and 63 services under their respective State Acts. The states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, who were pioneers in enacting such a law, have specific and exhaustive lists as an outcome of periodic review of implementation. Most of the State Acts have a provision for grievance redressal, imposition of fine on erring officials and provision for performance audit.
The majority of citizens are yet not aware of their rights under this Act. In our analysis, it came to light that there were 12,887 cases in Government of NCT of Delhi in 2011 where penalty was leviable and citizens could rightfully claim relief. But the citizens concerned did not make any claim. To help citizens exercise choice wherever possible and raise their voice when necessary to ensure that quality of service is reasonable and timely, it is important to specify delivery standards easily understood by the public. The citizens still suffer under the impression that there is no such legal right available to them for getting high standard time-bound services. The Government of NCT of Delhi as per the information given under RTI processed 93 per cent applications of a total of 4,06,609 applications in 2011 within a specified time. The efficiency in the case of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh in terms of applications processed was 98 and 99 per cent respectively. The success rates in other states could not be evaluated as the Act has been made effective 2012 and the notification of services to be rendered is being continuously expanded. There is a degree of cynicism amongst the citizens regarding such high rate of efficiency. There is an element of disbelief. It emanates from the fact that majority of citizens are not yet aware of the provisions made under the Act regarding the type of services being rendered and the time table for delivery. The notifications are not publicly available and is mostly confined to the website of the department. The states have made very limited publicity regarding their commitment of time-bound delivery of services. Clear information widely shared about processes and procedures to access the services/benefits should be provided with particular reference to the levels at which they can be sought. Moreover, its integration with e-governance is a must. Evidently, the departments would have to provide community internet kiosks for the effective and widespread use of e-governance facility.
In response to widespread demand and mass mobilisation, the Union government tabled a Citizen’s Charter Bill, 2011. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee which submitted its report in August, 2012.
It is now awaiting nod from the Parliament to be declared effective. The Standing Committee had recommended that the charter should clearly specify the function of a public authority, time frame for the delivery and the conditions for entitlements of the goods and services.
The Indian Institute of Public Administration had suggested an over-arching legal framework which would identify services, time-frame for delivery and procedure and avenues of public grievance redressal. The role of NGOs and civil societies at the field level is critical at the initial stage to ensure that the promises given to an average citizen are being fulfilled. In the state of Punjab, the government has constituted the Punjab Right to Services Commission whose responsibility is to ensure proper implementation of the provisions of the Act as well as to facilitate and enlarge the scope of public services within the state. It is expected from the commission that it would recommend additional notifications which would bring more government departments under the ambit of the Act. Further, the commission is required to propose changes in the procedures for service delivery to make them more transparent and citizen-friendly. The commission has over-arching powers to recommend action against the erring government officials. It also enjoys suo moto powers to take up cases of administrative failure and carry out inspections of the offices entrusted with the delivery of services as well as the offices of the appellate authorities.
Both the central and state governments are taking steps to bring about accountability, transparency and sensitivity in the administrative culture. The emphasis on developing public services as a professional, merit-based and accountable instrument of good governance — one which fulfils the promises made and bring information in the performance and delivery of services to citizens is dream yet to come true. However, it is distinctly within the realm of possibility.
N. Misra is ex-Chairman, TRAI and Director, Public Interest Foundation;