Citizen’s Charter could be a game changer in governance

The proposed Citizens' Charter will help rein in the all-powerful babu and put him on an equal footing with the ordinary citizen.

Akshaya Mishra December 14, 2011 19:07:47 IST
Citizen’s Charter could be a game changer in governance

The Citizen’s Charter, if backed up with honest intention and efforts, could be a game-changer in the Indian governance story. But before we come to that here’s a brief portrait of the babu we know.

The nondescript, self-effacing babu is an incredibly powerful man. Not many among the city-bred generations, who are accustomed to better service in offices, would be aware of that. Whatever his position in the bureaucratic pantheon, a babu on his chair could cause havoc in the lives of ordinary Indians by the simple acts of refusing to allow files to move, by digging out technical errors in them and by sticking to the literal interpretation of government orders rather than by going by the spirit.

As the first point of contact for citizens with the government, he occupies a unique position. Every grievance of the citizen must pass through him and everything the government wishes to do for people must pass through him as well. His critical location in the governance map fetches him a lot of respect - and fear and hatred too. This is a position that he has abused for decades. If there’s huge failure in implementing policies drawn up for the poor and the powerless, a large part of the blame rests with the babu.

Citizens Charter could be a game changer in governance

Reuters

He is indispensable, he is unaccountable and he rarely is answerable to the people he is supposed to serve. Protected by the mammoth bureaucratic apparatus he operates in and by the indulgent political class, he is a clever beast too. He knows how to keep the top bosses, both political and bureaucratic, in good humour, allowing them to indulge in corrupt activities while being mindful of his share of the spoils too. Also, he knows how to keep the efficient and honest of his ilk at bay.

This portrait of the typical babu is an unflattering one. But, unfortunately, this is the person the common Indian has to handle on a regular basis. The story of SK Nayyar, who fought a long battle with the bureaucracy to get a petrol pump awarded posthumously by the government to his son, Anuj, a Kargil war martyr, is a case in point. He was even made to provide proof that he is the father of his son. If this could happen to a man like Nayyar, imagine the plight of the village farmer at the block office.

"It's not easy when a citizen is an individual and the weight of the bureaucracy is heavy. He cracks down very easily and is forced to go for compromises. You make one compromise and you are asked to make nine more. You either stand or you crack or you die," Nayyar told CNN-IBN some years ago. Not many people stand like he did. Many crack and make compromises or die. But they are people like us.

It is an unfair equation between the people and the babu, where the latter enjoys all the powers and the former has none. Why must we be left at the mercy of the babu or the bureaucracy he represents? Why cannot there be a fairer arrangement where the relationship between both is one of equals?

The Citizen’s Charter could change that. It is an empowering instrument in many ways.

First and foremost it binds the bureaucracy to a set of obligations. Earlier, the citizen was in no position to ask questions to officials for delays in the clearance of files. The lower level clerk could extract bribes from him by simply sitting on them — there are instances of hospital officials demanding money for post-mortem reports too. The charter, which aims to fix time limits for each category of service rendered by government officials, would make him accountable for delays. If hefty fines and dismissal from service are in place we could see a decline in corruption at offices.

For the citizen it would be of tremendous help. He won’t be required to make endless trips from his village to the block or tehsil office just to enquire how his file has moved. He would be clear about the fate of his case beforehand. And, of course, he won’t be required to pay a bribe.

The  Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redress Bill 2011 spells out as much. It says:

1.There will be a Citizens Charter, containing the category of goods and services rendered by it, the time within which such goods or services will be rendered.

2. Any violation of the charter will result in time-bound grievance redressal and also penalty/disciplinary action.

If followed with right intent it would diminish the babu to what he actually is: a normal individual, no bigger or smaller than others. It would redefine officials' work into 'service' thereby putting the citizen at an equal footing with the official.

But let's not assume the babu won't fight back. But that's sometime in the future. For now, the charter is just what the doctor ordered for the hapless citizen.

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