Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Render the Account

Render the Account
By Narendra Luther

Tom Paine, the English revolutionary and thinker of the 18th century says in his celebrated book Rights of Man, that Government is the badge of man’s lost innocence. It is a necessary evil for civilized existence.

But safeguards have to be provided against the arbitrary exercise of power by government to maintain civilized existence.

No taxation without representation is an old axiom of democracy. That is to ensure that no unjust or unnecessary tax is imposed on the citizens. That is half the job. The other half is to ensure that the money collected from the citizens is spent properly for the purpose for which it is raised. In other words, the propriety of expenditure also needs to be ensured.

Citizen and the Government

To scrutinizes the utilization of public funds by the Government, our Constitution has created the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. His findings are placed before the Public Accounts Committee. All instances of irregularities and improprieties and recommendations thereon by the Committee are placed before the legislature for appropriate remedial and punitive action against the delinquent authorities. While this is good, these reports are in the nature of a post-mortem and are useful largely for the future.

Secondly, given the party system of government, the elected representatives may overlook the infractions of the administration depending upon their party affiliations. Also, in the plethora of technicalities, the average citizen cannot grasp what is happening. Many people have therefore argued that we should supplement the present system of accountability of administration to elected representatives with direct and ongoing scrutiny by the people. That would ensure that mischief is nipped in the bud.

Information is Power

For such a scrutiny, relevant data and information are necessary. It has been said aptly that information is power. That power lies with the bureaucracy and it is loath to share it with others. As the French semiologist, Jean Baudrillard says in his book, Cool Memories, ‘Information can tell us everything. It has all the answers. But they are answers to questions we have not asked’.

For any scheme of empowering people, therefore, access to information is the first crucial step. It will discourage arbitrary action on the part of the bureaucracy and protect the citizens’ basic right to due process and equal protection of the law. It will also reduce corruption within government institutions and enhance integrity amongst public functionaries.

The question of enacting legislation to provide access to information has assumed importance come up in the last decade or so. According to Privacy International, 51 countries had such comprehensive Freedom of Information laws in place in April 2003. In India, similar legislation has been passed in some states to enable citizens to access information from government officials.

Information provides the transparency necessary for ensuring accountability. UNDP defines accountability ‘as the requirement that officials answer to stakeholders on the disposal of their powers and duties, act on criticisms or requirements made of them and accept (some) responsibility for failure, incompetence or deceit.’

Citizen’s Charter

An offshoot of the right to information is the Citizen’s Charter. According to article 21(2) of the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country’. Citizen’s Charter enlightens the citizens about their rights and how they can secure them. In case public officials fail to provide specific public services, they have to pay prescribed penalties. In India, Andhra Pradesh was perhaps the first state to adopt the concept when it issued its ‘Vision 2020’ document in 1999. Following upon that, some departments and public utilities issued their own Citizen’s Charters. The latest to do so is the Police. However, penalties for failure to provide specific services by public servants have not been indicated in some of the charters.

Civil Society Initiatives

By himself, an average citizen lacks adequate knowledge and resources to take up individual and collective grievances with the government. That is more so due to illiteracy and poverty of a vast section of our populace. So, a number of social action groups have come up in different states to take up public issues. They have pioneered the concept of generating valid and potent information to contest and challenge discretionary abuses and to expose corruption. A good example of that is the work of an NGO – the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Through the medium of 'public hearings' to demand public accountability, the Sangathan has been quite successful in bringing about transparency of development expenditure; accountability of officials; redress of grievances; and legitimization of social or public audit. The Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore has organized public interaction with official of the Municipal Corporation on provisions in the budget and their utilization. In Andhra Pradesh, the Lok Satta has taken up a number of issues in this regard. Its latest initiative is to mobilize public opinion to confer empowerment on the local bodies provided in the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution, which have not yet become a reality.

Consumer’s Rights

It is not only with regard to government that transparency and the right to information is important. Similar transparency is important in regard to other institutions and organizations which serve social needs. We are all consumers of products and services. We need to be assured of their quality. We need to be protected from unscrupulous trade practices of manufacturers and suppliers of goods and services. ‘Goods once sold will not be taken back’ is a motto encountered everywhere in our country. Such a stipulation does not exist anywhere in the western countries. There, consumer is really the king. The Consumer Protection Act was enacted by the Parliament in 1986 and amended in 1993. Under it, National and State Councils and District Forums have been established for the redress of the grievances of the consumers. The concept of accountability has thus been extended to private organizations in manufacture, trade and commerce also.

Rights of Investor

The third aspect of accountability is with regard to the world of shares. Every entrepreneur borrows from public financial institutions and the public direct through public issues. As user of public funds, he is accountable for their proper utilization. The need for accountability in that field has also been felt particularly after some scams rocked the market. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has taken a number of steps to promote sound corporate governance. However much remains to be done. The non-official directors do not get to know about much of the day-to day working of companies. Yet, under law they are responsible for all the acts of the company. The shareholders get only one opportunity in a year to ask questions and they are easily disposed of. A specific and clear delegation of authority from the board to the executive directors needs to be provided for.
Our freedom has many aspects. They all need to be secured in order to ensure continuance of our civilized existence. Therein lies the importance of multifaceted accountability.

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