cTransparency in the functioning of government is the hallmark of a democracy — be it in the manner elections are held, resources managed, recruitments conducted, money spent, or information exchanged.
The second volume of the Economic Survey 2016–17 has proposed a new Act to bring about transparency in the arena of information dissemination to the public about any existing/new laws. Named “The Transparency of Rules Act (TORA)”, it aims to arrest the asymmetry of information regarding rules and regulations existing between the citizen and the government.
Abound with data in different mediums, manouvering through existing laws as well as new rules makes navigating government departments an especially hard task. Often, even government officials themselves are unaware of the new laws being added to the law books. Despite notifications through government gazettes and websites, the language used is technical and fragmented. This ‘legal jargon’ further inhibits the easy comprehension of information for the ordinary citizen — much like reading a doctor’s prescription slip containing seemingly scrambled and unorganized words and sentences. The Economic Survey points out to the worrisome effects of such a trend-
“The opaque mesh of rules is so complicated that even government officials struggle to keep up with the latest version. This is the cause of a lot of inefficiency, and delay. Arguably it is also an important source of corruption and endless litigation. This is why India would benefit enormously if the average citizen could easily access the latest rules and regulations in a comprehensible format.”
Disseminating information about rules and regulations in a manner proposed by this new Act will reduce corruption, touts, and wrongdoings. The Act proposes –
Departments to place all citizen-facing rules on their website. Any rule that is not explicitly on the website of a TORA-compliant department would be deemed not applicable.
All laws, rules and regulations need to be presented as an updated, unified whole.
Websites should clearly state the date and time of each change made.
Knowledge forms a vital cornerstone of democracy. The French post-modernist, Michael Foucault talks about the triangle of knowledge, power, and rights wherein power derives from knowledge and in-turn creates more knowledge, with rights being sovereign. In a society where knowledge is poorly distributed, people often remain unaware of their due rights and privileges, severely affecting the public service delivery system. Transparency of Rules Act can be an effective tool for empowering the citizen-state relationship. But the question to ask is — How is it different from RTI Act which was enacted in 2005? Has the RTI failed in addressing citizen grievances?
While TORA mandates a government body to present information as a unified whole in a simple and comprehensible language, RTI does not make it mandatory to put out information in a particular format. So what we get with RTI are differently-shaped boxes containing compartments of different sizes filled with information. You will have one law presented as a PDF and another for which the website will ask you to visit the government department.
The Citizen Charter, a political initiative of John Mayor included a system of granting “Charter Marks” to public bodies meeting specific standards. Many countries adopted this system, including India. Principally an adaptation of UK model, India’s Citizen Charter has a constituent of “expectation from clients”. TORA, with its mandatory provisions will be a sound overture in ensuring that Citizen’s Charter is able to achieve its aims and objectives. Presently there is lack of awareness in addition to a dearth of information (Citizen Charter being a voluntary initiative), and unsound publicity often mars the successful implementation of a programme/rule. The impediments towards realizing the objective of an “open government” are many. We may not change the system overnight, but minor and superficial interventions from time to time serve no purpose either.
However, there are problems with the newly proposed Act. Even if a website of, say, the health department is TORA-compliant and you submit all documents for availing a particular service, despite approaching the grievance redressal authorities as mentioned in the department’s Citizen’s Charter, there is no remedy within RTI or TORA.
A significant piece of legislation that could help guarantee time-bound delivery of services to a citizen was introduced in Lok Sabha in 2011. This bill, named “The Right of Citizens for Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011 lapsed with the term of the house ending. In addition to putting out a charter, the bill required all public authorities to ensure timely delivery of goods and services by penalizing concerned officials up to Rs. 50,000 in case of failure to render services.
The Transparency of Rules Act can be seen as a subset of RTI. So, instead of enacting a separate Act, it would make more sense to amend the existing RTI to require public authorities to present information in a simple and easily-alterable format (much like the “Wikipedia” format talked about in the proposed Act).
Technological requirements for implementing it as a new law or embedding it into RTI would be trivial. And it need not be done at the same time throughout the country. One department at a time — it is that simple.
In our pursuit for fully-digitized and cleaner social institutions, the Transparency of Rules Act will be much needed. It will reduce the gap between those who have unlimited access to information and those who stand at the edge of the informational society. Empowering citizens by way of increasing access to information in a simplified form will go a long way in creating a class of citizens who are not only aware of their rights but can also influence the course of policy making in India.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.