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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Time to Reset the Reform Agenda

Sunday 27 November 2011, by Sanjay Pulipaka

The intense debate on the Jan Lokpal Bill should not overshadow the multiple approaches that are available to combat corruption and, more importantly, the larger issue of governance reforms in India. India definitely needs an independent authority such as the Lokpal to combat the menace of corruption. Tragically, the debate on the jurisdiction of the Lokpal had a misplaced focus on whether to bring the Prime Minister, legislature and judiciary within the ambit of the Lokpal. In the constitutional scheme of things, maintaining balance between the various institutions is critical. India will become a country with severe political instability if the balance between the various institutions of the government is undermined. It is precisely for this reason that the recent Sense of House resolution adopted by Parliament did not make references to issues such as bringing the legislature and judiciary within the purview of the Lokpal. On the other hand, through a non-binding resolution the Parliament has expressed willingness to examine the possibilities of including the Lok Ayuktas at the State level, lower bureaucracy with appropriate frame-works, and citizen charter and grievances within the ambit of the Lokpal. This shift in the contours of debate from inclusion of the legislature/judiciary to the Lok Ayuktas at the state level should be welcomed.

The focus of the debate pertaining to accountability mechanisms should revolve around the need for having a decentralised structure which goes up to the district level, namely, Ombudsman at the district level. There is also the need to adopt a multi-institutional approach. Special courts have been constituted in some States to combat the menace of corruption. There is a need to review the performance of these courts and provide them with necessary infrastructure to facilitate faster disposal of cases. There is a need to look at the discretionary power of the various functionaries who have intense interactions with the general public. The possibility of either reducing or enhancing (with necessary checks and balances) the scope of the discretionary powers needs to be assessed properly.

Given the delays in the government departments, the anger against government bureaucracy is indeed understandable. However,
it should be noted that there are fairly large numbers of people within government institu-tions who are working tirelessly to deliver goods and services in spite of many odds. It is important to help such hard working people in the government sector. I am not able to identify a single piece of legislation (or an institution) that has been created to recognise and reward the hard work and initiative in the government sector. Promotions and salary hikes are given on the basis of seniority without any correlation to achievements. Even the routine promotions often become contentious. There is no single institution to expeditiously address the grievances of employees on issues pertaining to promotions and conditions of work. Often the only option left for employees is to approach the courts; this entails prolonged litigation and loss of morale among the workforce.

INSTEAD of taking a holistic approach to governance reforms, the recent debate seems to be obsessed with creating institutions and legislative frameworks to punish people for financial fraud. Further, in the recent debates fairly large numbers of people were not making any distinction between administrative lapses, grievances, and corruption. The function of the proposed Lokpal seems to be to punish people for indulging in corruption. The unstated theory seems to be: the “possibility of punishment promotes honesty”. If you define honesty as absence of financial fraud, then the punishment approach may have some results. However, if you define honesty as sustained hard work to achieve the stated objectives/goals of an organisation, then an overemphasis on the punishment approach will give results to the contrary. An overemphasis on punishment will make organisations slow, as there will be increased paperwork and officials will refrain from assuming leadership to achieve the stated objectives. If an individual is a government servant, then it is safer for him/her not to take any initiative and be passive. If s/he takes initiative and commits mistakes, then there is distinct possibility of getting branded as a “corrupt official” and subsequently “punished”. The challenge, therefore, is also to identify processes that celebrate hard work and initiative.

The senior political leadership in the government has expressed unhappiness with the trajectory of the Jan Lokpal movement. However, it should be noted that the political leadership has let the reform agenda that they have initiated slip away. UPA-I had constituted an Administrative Reforms Commission which has produced copious and pertinent recommendations on various governance issues. The Union Government is yet to come out with a report card on how many of those recommendations have been implemented and the timeframe for implementing the remaining recommendations.

Lastly it should be noted that the common man interacts more with the State Government and local government institutions. Issues such as public order, public health, primary and secondary education are addressed by the state and local governments. An excessive focus on the Union Government may take the attention away from the necessity of having governance reforms in the State and local governments. We need governance reforms at all levels, namely, Union, State and local governments. There is also a need to focus on processes which will facilitate decentralisation of power, ensure greater participation of people in the governance process, and enhance choice for the common people in accessing public services.

Reforms should be less about punitive action and more about incentives for positive actions. It is time to reset the governance reform agenda to make it more people-centric.

Sanjay Pulipaka is currently working as a Fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.

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