SR Abhiyan interview: ‘Accountability law a chance for Oppn to back positive reform agenda’

Last month, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced his government’s intention to enact the Rajasthan Guaranteed Right to Services and Accountability Law that civil society organisations have been demanding for quite some time. In an interview, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Soochna Evum Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan (SR Abhiyan), who have been pushing for this law through the statewide Jawabdehi Yatra, explain the need for an accountability law in India, and other related issues.

What is the purpose of SR Abhiyan’s Jawabdehi Yatra?

The Jawabdehi Yatra is being organised by the Soochna Evum Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan for the second time in Rajasthan to demand an accountability law in the state. In the first yatra in 2016, all 33 districts of the state were covered over 100 days…Nearly 10,000 grievances were filed on education, health, NREGA, ration, pensions, human rights, mining, silicosis, and environment; Dalit, minority and gender issues, and issues of artisans, nomadic communities and tribal communities; and Tthe Forest Rights Act and PESA. The Jawabdehi Yatra to date has kept a track of these complaints and the quality of redress. The first Yatra’s success was evident in the commitment of passing an accountability law finding a mention in the Congress’s Assembly election manifesto…Despite the above assurances, when no law was passed for three years, the SR Abhiyan decided to organise the second Jawabdehi Yatra to push the elected government to honour its commitment. Before being prematurely halted due to Omicron, the second Yatra covered 12 districts in 18 days. On the official portal, 2,600 grievances were filed again, to put on record the nature of people’s grievances.

How are you reaching out to the people right now? Will you restart the Yatra?

We ended with the declaration that the Yatra is temporarily suspended but the Andolan continues… After the Rajasthan Assembly commenced its Budget session, the SR Abhiyan began a dharna in Jaipur with the dual objective of demanding a law in the Budget session as well as educating people about the proposed Act and its importance. We have been encouraged by the fact that the chief minister reiterated during his Budget speech on February 23 the government’s intention to pass the Rajasthan Guaranteed Right to Services and Accountability Law.

Why do we need an accountability law? Do we need to make constitutional provisions for it?

The accountability law flows clearly from the Constitution…The Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice that examined the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011, which was the first legislative attempt to define citizens’ rights to grievance redress, clearly stated it. It said a law of this nature deals with ‘actionable wrongs’ that are part of the Concurrent List and therefore can be legislated by either the state or the Central government.

Does the draft law cover all government servants or a section of the lower bureaucracy?

The law covers any functionary and body involved in the delivery of public services, or is acting on behalf of the state in the delivery of goods or services, or fulfilling other state responsibility. Thereby it covers public-private partnerships, sub-contractors etc. The law focuses on designating Grievance Redress Officer — in every public office at the level of the state, district, block, and panchayat/ward — who is one level senior to the official against whom a complaint is filed. Therefore, the law is leveraging the existing supervisory structure to enforce accountability.

Do you want a separate accountability law for each state depending on the local conditions or a uniform law for the entire country?

Like RTI, this is a subject that can be legislated either centrally or in the states. We began the campaign for an accountability law and grievance redress together at the state and Centre…

If Rajasthan enacts the accountability law, will you undertake the yatra in other states?

Absolutely! We strongly believe that peoples’ inability to hold government functionaries accountable to their mandate and their strong desire for answers is a universal phenomenon that finds resonance in other states. Many campaigns and networks from different States have already reached out to the SR Abhiyan for organising public discussions on the need for an accountability law at the state level. In the current political framework, it is essential for the Opposition to not just react to the politics of hate that is being spewed by the BJP but also to demonstrate a positive and constructive agenda of reform that upholds democratic participation and citizen-centric governance. The accountability law is such an opportunity.

If the Centre does not respond positively to your demands, will you campaign for such a law?

The hope is also that the law in Rajasthan will force the Centre to respond more positively to such a demand that is bound to grow in different parts of India…We believe that this law is an essential part of a participatory democratic framework, as long as people would fight to protect democracy they will campaign persistently and actively for a law of this nature.

What is the maximum penalty and compensation proposed?

The law does not rely on punitive measures to drive systemic change…The maximum penalty that can be imposed under the law on an official found to be responsible for the cause of a complaint as per due process is Rs 50,000.

You call the proposed accountability law ‘RTI Part 2’. However, you also maintain that the Modi government undermined the RTI. So, what are you doing to make the RTI more effective?

We have consistently maintained that the peoples’ right to know is paramount in a democracy…While the Modi government has undermined the RTI Act through regressive amendments, it has not affected the strength of the 80 lakh plus community of RTI applicants who continue day after day to file RTI applications and speak truth to power.

What safeguards do you propose so that the accountability law does not meet the same fate as the RTI?

Our country has seen many laws being legislated on paper, but not implemented on the ground in either its letter or spirit. What made the RTI and the NREGA different were that the laws, in their design, gave people institutionalised platforms to participate, organise and monitor government functioning through mechanisms like social audits. The biggest safeguard for the Right to Information has been its utility and popularity across all segments of society. The accountability law is built on the same fundamental understanding.

You and other civil society organisations campaigned for years for Lokpal. Now, there is the institution of Lokpal. Has it made any difference?

The Lokpal, as it was enacted, left a lot to be desired, including its biased selection process and its non-applicability to states. Amendments brought in by the BJP, including the prevention of disclosure of assets and liabilities of public servants and their families, have already reduced it to an ineffective institution, even before it began functioning. The Whistleblowers Protection Act, a critical piece of legislation that will complement the functioning of the Lokpal, has not been implemented to date because the Central government has not issued rules for it to come into effect.

What makes you optimistic about the proposed accountability law?

The Lokpal has made very little difference to ordinary people… The social accountability law, on the other hand, empowers citizens to become part of the process of seeking and securing redress at every stage.

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