Sunday, January 6, 2008

On improving the quality of democracy

On improving the quality of democracy

By Amit Bhaduri

The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary must be continuously accountable to the people. The right to information is an instrument for moving towards this goal.

THE COURSE of India's evolution since Independence has been one of remarkable success combined with almost unforgivable failures. The most spectacular success has been our political system — a functioning democracy in a very poor country of enormous diversity in terms of language, religion, culture and ethnicity. This is probably unparalleled in political history. Our unforgivable failure is the persistence of acute poverty and destitution. It is a matter of utter shame that nearly six decades after Independence, we have anywhere between one-third and one-fourth of our people desperately poor and denied of the minimum of human existence, the largest number of illiterates, millions of malnourished children, many even crippled or blinded. A political democracy of one-adult-one-vote co-exists with a highly distorted economic democracy in which voting in the market takes place according to purchasing power to marginalise the poor. The tension this generates is apparent in many distorted forms such as the play of religious or caste identity or regional parochialism, not to speak of corruption, patronage and nepotism in our politics. And despite the elections becoming freer and more representative, the quality of our democracy seems to be declining. We must find ways to correct this by bringing closer our political and economic democracy in a more just society.

Simple-minded old answers, we now know from experience, are grossly inadequate for reducing this gap between our economic and political democracy. Economic ideologues on two sides of the barricade can continue to argue in favour of either state intervention or the magic of the market place through liberalisation and globalisation. But the former typically results in wasteful and mindless bureaucracy; the latter widens the gap between the rich and the poor, and leaves the poor even more marginalised. This indeed was the main message of the last general election when the "India shining" slogan crashed for the BJP-led coalition; the previous Congress-led coalition, which took great pride in liberalising the economy, did not win the election either. Some essential element is clearly missing in this ideologically coloured debate. And one tends to suspect that neither the pro-state nor the pro-market view wants to come clean, and place it at the centre of the problem for improving the quality of our democracy in its current phase.

In a way, most of us know the broad direction of the solution. The accountability of our democratic system should be increased but the issue is how to achieve it. It is not that our democracy is devoid of accountability today but that this accountability is largely negative in character. When people get thoroughly dissatisfied with a government, they register their anger by voting negatively against it, the so-called "incumbency factor." The result is we seldom vote with the hope for a positive change these days, we cannot trust our politicians in general and do not "own" the government we might have elected. This is hardly the basis for development towards a more just society, irrespective of whether we achieve some high rate of economic growth.

The situation can begin to change only when we recognise that accountability must be continuous, and not merely thought of intermittently at the time of the election. Accountability must also be more comprehensive to include not only the politicians, but also the bureaucrats implementing the day-to-day decisions, the judges interpreting the laws as well as the private corporate sector and international organisations insofar as they influence these organs of the state. In short, power and position in society must come with responsibility in a democracy of higher quality while the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary must be continuously accountable to the people.

The Right to Information (RTI) movement is the main instrument for moving towards this goal. The hurdles on the way are many but the prize is also enormous. The movement has been gradually gathering momentum in different parts of the country. Nine States have so far passed the Act, and the Congress-led coalition government tabled a RTI Bill in the 2004 winter session of Parliament. In some States, the RTI Act is the outcome of strong popular movements. In others it is heartening that at least some politicians support the movement voluntarily as the Delhi Government under Sheila Dikshit or the Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi. But many still oppose it, as do most bureaucrats and judges. Power without accountability is always sweeter than power with responsibility for the individual enjoying it, but it is a disaster for any democratic system. And the RTI movement is not for or against particular individuals, but about a better functioning of the system.

Unfortunately however, the present arrangements within the Government apparatus are not just biased against a freer flow of information to the public. Even when some information trickles down, gets leaked out or somehow accessed, it often becomes virtually impossible to fix accountability. For instance, almost every government department at the Centre and in the States has its own vigilance wing manned by officers and staff from the same department. Naturally, complaints of corruption against seniors, colleagues or friends have less of a chance of fair hearing in this arrangement. In some extreme cases, vigilance is not even a separate function — one example is the Food and Civil Supplies Department of Delhi. Some field officer is assigned the additional duty of vigilance. This might mean handling corruption charges against one's boss or even his or her own action as a field officer!

This sad state of affairs is highlighted by the Nagarwal case in the Ministry of Railways. Nagarwal levelled charges of serious corruption against the General Manager, and the case got conveniently handed over to the Deputy General Manager who, rather than investigating the case against his boss, was said to have been more busy in destroying the evidence. Moreover, things are not allowed to get out of hand irrespective of how serious the charges of corruption are. The vigilance wings in the Central Government departments do not even have the power to register an FIR under the Prevention of Corruption Act. They can only take disciplinary action under the Conduct Rules. Although at the State level there is a State Vigilance Department directly under the State Government, it has no jurisdiction over elected representatives. However, in some States it has the power to register FIRs against officials.

One of the important steps urgently needed is to bring under a uniform framework the jurisdiction and power of all vigilance works at the Central and in the State levels. Since the more serious cases of corruption often permeate through the influence of private corporations or even international bodies from the Centre to the State level and vice versa, it is a crucial requirement for translating information into accountability. Two incidents are enough to illustrate the point. The first relates to the interaction between the corporate sector and the Government. The Enron fiasco is now recognised as a gross mistake in which both the Maharashtra Government and the Central Government were involved. We now know a lot about the fraud of Enron from the American media, but information is still not forthcoming in India on how so blatantly biased a deal was cleared by both the Central and the State Government in their great enthusiasm to attract direct foreign investment for the Indian power sector. Any government that claims to be serious about RTI should have at least published a report by an independent judicial body.

Consider the other case of the Delhi Jal Board, which is going on right now. We now know that the World Bank funded some studies conducted by Price Water House Corporation, which is said to have grossly under-valued the assets of the Delhi Jal Board. There is a general suspicion in the air that this is a step towards privatising the water system of Delhi. The people of Delhi, who will be most directly affected, surely have the right to know, to have easy access to these World Bank-funded Price Water House Studies. When some of us tried to get the information, we were told by the officers concerned that these studies were `drafts' and not final documents, so access was not possible although this goes against the letter and spirit of the Delhi RTI Act. When we approached the World Bank, we were told that we could access only such documents that it decided to make available on its website — a case of selective transparency when it suits the Bank! When we pressed for information, the Bank took the position that it merely funded the study and that it belongs to the Delhi Jal Board.

The World Bank conducts seminars all over the world (it conducted one in Delhi on February 15-16, 2005) about the crucial importance of transparency. And yet it does not have a policy to ensure that all the activities funded by it are carried out in a transparent manner. Our long and difficult journey about the Right to Information has begun for improving the quality of our democracy. It looks like the educators who talk about transparency only in seminars would also need to be educated in the course of this journey.

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu

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