The public debate about the Jan Lokpal Bill has focused on what I would call the “large” corruption in society. For example, should the prime minister be “covered” under the Lokpal, and by what mechanics should the Supreme Court judges be held to account? Less attention has been given to “small” corruption. Consider the section on the citizens’ charter and the manner and time taken for a citizen to get a specific service from the government. The draft Lokpal Bill calls for each public authority to be responsible for preparing and implementing a citizens’ charter. It requires a time limit for a specific commitment from the public authority. Unfortunately, this potentially powerful idea is packaged in the “grievance addressal” section of the draft Bill and has by and large been sidetracked in the debate.
The idea of a citizens’ charter was first introduced by the John Major-led government in the UK in the early 1990s. Its stated objective was to make public administration more accountable and citizen-friendly, as also to motivate civil servants to do their job well. The UK has tweaked and adapted the system several times since then. It has added a Charter Mark, an award for those public authorities that deliver services that are responsive to citizen requirements as judged by citizens themselves. The idea of the charters and of customer satisfaction-based awards has been applied since in many countries such as Australia, Canada and Malaysia. India, too, went on a charter binge in the late 1990s. As many as 729 citizens’ charters by the Centre and 24 state governments have been developed in India. In general, these charters have grandiose but vague objectives, with no specific time frames associated with them. The department of coal, for instance, says its charter is to “secure the availability of quality coal to meet the demand of various sectors”, a goal that has failed quite measurably in recent months.
Anna Hazare supporters at a demonstration for JanLokpalBill (File photo PTI)
Can anything be done about endemic petty corruption? Are citizens’ charters an answer? Are there other ways?
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As a society, we have made a lot of progress in understanding petty corruption and have begun to take steps to act on this understanding. The role of transparency in mitigating everyday corruption is now received wisdom. The landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act was passed to codify this idea and to implement a simple but effective system. While it can be improved in practice, it has been an important area of success. Other transparency-based ideas such as Janaagraha’s ipaidabribe website help shed light on the mechanics and microeconomics of corruption. Of course, transparency on demand is very different from transparency as a way of being. Most public authorities in India viscerally fight against transparency in thought and deed. Websites are not updated, notice boards obsolete, and apathy reigns. Transparency alone is not enough to improve public service and fight everyday corruption.
The idea of choice as a way to mitigate corruption and improve public services is less systematically applied in India. The availability of choice has materially changed the extent of petty corruption in many areas already. Landline phone connections in India have gone from an area of rampant corruption to one where there is choice, competition and reduced friction. The availability of train tickets on line through the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp. (IRCTC) website has substantially lowered (though not eliminated) corruption. IRCTC last year allowed train tickets to be sold through other travel websites. This third-party sale allows further transparency with greater choice and convenience to customers. Multiple payment options for urban utility bills through online and physical kiosks have largely taken the stress (remember those hours spent waiting in line) and the graft out of the system.
A third leg of the stool is to enforce accountability with penalty. In a first of its kind move, the Delhi government recently passed the Delhi (Right of Citizen to Time Bound Delivery of Services) Act. This Act provides a list of very specific services—renewing a driver’s licence, for instance—and assigns a time frame (one day in this case). It also provides for a financial penalty of Rs 10 to Rs 200 per day in case of non-delivery, with a cap of Rs 5,000 on the errant official. The revenue, food and civil supplies, transport and trade and taxes departments, as well as civic agencies Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Council, are included under the Act. Enforcing accountability has been India’s weakest link. As a society, we seem to prefer to make major changes in legislation rather than use existing legislation to precisely target and deal with wrongdoing.
While petty corruption is endemic, there is no need for excessive pessimism. Big corruption needs big-bang changes to laws, institutions and indeed to the functioning of the politically influenced mandarin class. Small corruption requires a systematic application of transparency, choice and accountability with penalty.
PS: “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment—as well as the prison.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org