No accountability on accountability law

“The Gram Vikas Adhikari told me ‘bhul jao’ (forget about it) when I raised the issue with him. My husband spends his money on drinking and I have seven mouths to feed, including five children,” she said Monday.

In 2019-20, Dhapu Devi of Bhim, Rajsamand, completed 92 days under MGNREGA in Bhim, which entitled her to Rs 16,651. When the money wasn’t credited, she inquired with the local Atal Seva Kendra where she learnt that her payments were being credited to a different account due to a clerical error – a single digit of her account number had been keyed in incorrectly, and the money went to the account holder in Punjab. In March 2020, she raised the issue with the Panchayat Development Officer and submitted her documents and proof of work. However, till date, the money has not been credited.

“The Gram Vikas Adhikari told me ‘bhul jao’ (forget about it) when I raised the issue with him. My husband spends his money on drinking and I have seven mouths to feed, including five children,” she said Monday.

Similarly, Santoshi Devi, also from Bhim, hasn’t been paid for 50 days of MGNREGA work between August and October 2020, again due to a clerical error. “My husband kicked me out of the home and brought another woman. So I live on my own on rent and pay extra for electricity. When I ask local officials about my money, woh bhaga dete hain (they drive me out),” she said.

In 2016, Gita Devi’s husband Kesa Ram passed away after contracting silicosis while working in a stone mine. “I got the Silicosis Death Certificate a year later but till date I have not received any compensation from the government,” says Devi adding, “We spent our savings on his treatment and I have five daughters to feed and educate.”

As per Rajasthan’s policy on Pneumoconiosis, she is entitled to Rs 3 lakh as Rehabilitation Assistance and Rs 2 lakh as Assistance on Death. But hasn’t received a penny till now.

Dhapu, Santoshi and Gita, among others, gathered in Jaipur on Monday to share their ordeals, which, activists say, can be addressed through a law stuck with the state government since long: The Rajasthan Transparency and Social Accountability Bill.

With another Assembly session passing by without a mention of the law, social activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey on Monday demanded that it be tabled and passed in the next Assembly session.

In January 2019, weeks after taking charge as Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, while addressing a consultation on accountability law hosted by Roy, Dey, and others from Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), promised right to hearing and redressal. Then, in his 2019-20 budget speech he said that his government will bring in a Public Accountability Law.

The Congress support to the Rajasthan Transparency and Social Accountability Bill goes back to the year 2016, when the activists came up with the draft accountability law following a 100 day Jawabdehi Yatra covering all 33 districts of Rajasthan. The 100-day campaign had witnessed seminars, clinics and workshops on Right to Information (RTI), Right to Education (RTE) and Right to Hearing Act (RTH), which was followed up with camps on RTI application, grievance submission and District Shiksha Sammelans in which ward panch and panchayati raj representatives, among others, had participated. The yatra touched upon several social issues under government programmes such as MGNREGA, ration, pension, health, social security etc. while pushing for an accountability law.

Joining the protest outside the state Assembly on 101st day of the yatra, Sachin Pilot, then the Pradesh Congress Committee president, had said that “The [Vasundhara Raje] government should fix accountability when it comes to its own schemes and implement the accountability law as being demanded by social organisations,” and assured that the Congress party will raise the demand in the Assembly.

In 2018 ahead of the Assembly elections, the law made it to the manifesto of the Congress party. With less than two months to go for the polls, Harish Chaudhary, president, Election Manifesto Committee of Rajasthan Congress, had said then that, “We shall make the passing of the Accountability Law our priority after we come to power.” Page 35 of Congress manifesto reads: The Congress party will implement a Social Accountability Law because a Congress-led government will be committed to transparency, accountability, and the public.

Then in 2019, activists under The Suchana Evam Rojgar Adhikar Abhiyaan (SR Abhiyaan) came up with a comprehensive Rajasthan Public Accountability Bill, 2019.

The draft 2019 Bill had proposed an independent District Grievance Redressal Officer. However, this is said to have been opposed by some bureaucrats, who claim that it will undermine the authority of the District Collector.

Following claims of a ‘pushback’, the Gehlot government constituted a committee under retired IAS officer Ram Lubhaya to examine the previous draft “in order to make it more practical for implementation,” among other things. Although The Rajasthan Guaranteed Delivery of Public Service Act, 2011 and The Rajasthan Right to Hearing Act (2012) have been around, the committee found major issues with both the Acts, noting that they “have largely failed in their stated objectives of time bound service delivery and redressal of grievances.”
For the 2011 Act, the committee had noted that ‘business as usual’ culture continues to prevail despite the Act and “despite path breaking provisions” of the 2012 Act, “it was never seriously implemented by the government” and “did not secure an independently functioning commission that could adjudicate on the complaints in a fair and unbiased manner.”

The Lubhaya committee proposed repeal of both the Acts, while comparing their provisions with the proposed accountability law on 22 issues, such as job chart, grievance redress architecture, fortnightly hearing, automatic escalation, first/second appeal, online registration, etc. with the two laws having few provisions among the 22 counts. Dey says that the proposed law incorporates both laws and plugs acute gaps in them. The 2012 Act “was basically on hearing at the Block level, which is a very good thing, and we are incorporating that, but it lacked teeth. Repeal it not because it’s useless, but because we need a comprehensive framework,” he said.

The 2011 Act, Dey says, only guarantees delivery of a select number of government services, while the proposed Act is “all encompassing.”

The Lubhaya committee also proposed designation of Grievance Redress Officers, from the state, district to the panchayat level. This, again, may not settle well with the bureaucrats.

“There is a massive delivery system with a massive supervisory mechanism. It’s the supervisors who should be held accountable,” said Dey. “It can be an IAS officer, but make the authority independent,” he said.

While the activists have sounded the bugle, they plan to hold meetings and campaigns to coincide with the Right to Information Act (RTI) Day on October 12, to push for the accountability law.

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