Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The idea of Citizen’s charter is great…..but it needs to be practical

Many hopes have been pinned on the citizen’s charter and the associated grievance redressal mechanism. In essence, what is sought to be established is that each government department would set timelines for each service they provide to citizens. By having a timeline set, it is expected that citizens will get government services in an efficient, time bound manner. Erring officials in government departments will have to pay a penalty for each day’s delay and this penalty will have to be borne by the official from his/her personal salary.

All this looks very good…..but I am sorry one needs to be a little careful. Like the Lokpal concept, even the citizen’s charter is fraught with risks and I am afraid no one has really thought through this matter fully.

Here’s what I mean. It is true that if government departments set timelines and adhere to them, it will be beneficial to the public. Unfortunately, too much focus has been placed on the timeline being put; not enough on what kind of a timeline will be put. For eg., and this is purely hypothetical, the passport department of the central government may put a timeline of 60 days for the issuance of the passport. Now this is a ridiculous deadline. Under normal circumstances, the passport should take less than 30 days. In most developed countries around the world, the passport may take less than 15 days – in fact, as less as 7 days in some countries – to be issued. So the 60 days is a wrong timeline to start with. Further, if there is a delay beyond 60 days, it is not as if the world would turn upside down and the citizen would be given some red-carpet treatment and served apologies on a platter. There is a process laid down for such delays to be handled. A complaint must be made by the citizen – it will then take another several days (maybe 30 days) for the next officer to look into the matter. If he/she also cannot resolve it in so many days, the matter may then be reported to the Lokpal (as sought in the JLP) or any other official as set up in the government’s version of the bill. Basically, the citizen may get no relief at all for a very long time. All this, while everyone feels smug that the country finally has a citizen’s charter in place!

Here’s another point. Most people cannot wait for 60 days to get their passports. They want their passports issued much earlier since there may be an urgent travel that may have come up. What happens then? In today’s bad world, the applicant has the option of paying “speed money” and getting the work all done within 2-3 weeks. Depending on the money one is willing to pay – and the number of people the money can be paid to – the work can get done even faster. In such a situation, the applicant actually gets a red carpet treatment! With a faulty timeline specified in a citizen charter, this speed money will almost get institutionalized. Even in those cases, where passports were being delivered in shorter timeframes, and where no bribes were necessary, an attempt would now be made to delay the issuance and take speed money.

So in addition to having citizen’s charter, it is important to have realistic timelines. We need more discussions on what the timelines should be – unfortunately, the words “citizen’s charter and grievance redressal” have assumed almost magical connotations – again the pressure starts and ends at adopting some sort of a citizen’s charter. Too little time has been spent on setting realistic but tight timelines.

I am also against levying personal penalties on government officials. There is a fundamental flaw in doing this. There is an assumption that the official is solely (and supposedly intentionally) delaying the requisite service. Now this may well be the case in many cases, but in many other cases, the problem lies elsewhere. For eg., a passport cannot be issued without a police verification report coming in. A police verification report may be delayed for several reasons and no particular police official could be held responsible for that because that police official handles so much other work in addition to verifying addresses for issuance of passports. So in case of a delay, why should the police official or the passport official be personally penalized? Besides, most of these guys earn such low salaries (official salaries!), that if they have to pay from their own pockets, they will be bankrupt. That will in fact lead them towards corruption to make both ends meet. If the person is clean, in all likelihood, he/she will think of quitting the job and taking up something else. The poor pay scale in government jobs is the main reason why well qualified people don’t join the government….

The problem I have with the entire discussion with citizen’s charter is that it fails to recognize the underlying reasons which cause delays in the first place. Of course, corruption is one major reason. But there are other reasons too. In most cases, the processes are antiquated and in today’s times, some of them are perhaps unnecessary. Then there is no attempt made to use modern methods to complete the necessary processes. For eg., in the police verification of residential address in the issuance of a passport, the policeman is expected to personally visit the home. Instead, this could be outsourced to private companies and strict checks could be put on them so that verifications are done in a high quality and timely manner. This reform would cut the time taken to issue passports by half. With most cops pulled in a hundred different directions (my own experience with a cop who was supposed to verify my home was that he was being pulled out for several “bandobast” duties every now and then), they simply don’t have the time to do residential checks.

Then there is also a lack of transparency. It’s not like the passport office doesn’t display the status of the passport application on their website. They do. But that website is hardly updated. It doesn’t even provide the expected time of delivery of the passport. In many cases, it will just state “awaiting police report”. What does that mean? And obviously the passport officials cannot give an estimate of when the police report will come. The police doesn’t offer any such transparent method of informing the public.

So it’s important to use technology in a much bigger way in providing government services. And that brings us to the subject of “good governance” which no one seems to be focusing on. Poor delivery of government service is thought to be purely because of corruption – but in reality there is problem of poor governance that needs to be addressed first. One talks of corruption in the Public Distribution System (PDS), but one doesn’t support the issuance of Aadhar cards which would eliminate the need for such a corrupt PDS system to exist. Rather than reject the Aadhar project outright as the Standing Committee just did, it would help if we could remove the weaknesses in it. A “direct transfer” method of providing subsidies is definitely better than providing actual goods through a corrupt PDS mechanism. If one wanted citizens to get better service, one would insist on the Aadhar cards being made mandatory.

But these are days when decisions on such important matters are often taken on emotions and under fear of public pressure, rather than on mature and intelligent calculations. The Lokpal debate proved that beyond a point. No one is in support of the Lokpal getting all powers – investigation, prosecution and adjudication. That would make the Lokpal into a draconian body. The Congress doesn’t want to give it investigation powers and the BJP doesn’t want to give it prosecution (and therefore adjudication) powers. But I fear that what may eventually happen – in an environment of opportunistic one-up-manship, is that we may well end up giving all three powers to the Lokpal. That would create a new Lokpal Raj in the country.

The real truth is that we need more sane discussions on the subject of citizen’s charter. We need to know what the timelines specified would be. That’s crucial to the success of this otherwise good idea. In conclusion, I fully support the concept of citizen’s charter, but I would tread carefully…..and discuss the issue more thoroughly before making laws on the same.

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