Amidst the furore caused by Anna’s protest and the government’s rethinking of their Lokpal bill, something exciting in the states seems almost to have been missed.  It’s not particularly flashy and it doesn’t have any celebrity spokesman, but it hits on many of the issues of most concern to Anna and may be already beginning to make a real difference on the ground.  It’s called a Right to Services Act, and it either has already been enacted or is being considered in at least six states, all within the last year.

The Right to Services Acts are really pretty straightforward.  They’re all slightly different, but the basic format runs something like this:

  1. The government is responsible for delivering a set of services.  These are enumerated in the legislation.  Some states have seven or eight on that list; others have more than thirty.  Regardless of the number, government responsibilities are clearly identified and articulated.
  2. The legislation specifies a specific period of time within which a service must be provided.  This varies by state and by service, but perhaps a birth certificate must be issued within seven days or water supply has to be provided within thirty days.  Again, the requirement is specific and clear.
  3. The individual government official responsible for delivery of the service is specified.  It’s not just “the government” or “the department” that is responsible for providing the service; it’s a specific person.
  4. If the service isn’t carried out in the time frame specified, then the responsible individual is held accountable and charged a fine.  The government can make him pay by garnishing his wages.  The fine is returned to the aggrieved citizen as compensation.

The Jan Lokpal Bill has similar provisions, but I think there are at least two key ways in which the two differ, and both are, I think, reasons to be more optimistic about these state Right to Services Acts, than about the national Jan Lokpal Bill.

First, the Right to Services Acts vary from state to state.  Anna’s bill would create a central agency and then roll out parallel state agencies that would work with the national.  The whole thing would be uniform and coordinated from the centre.  All standards in all states would be the same.  At first, this sounds kind-of appealing, but it’s actually a weakness.  Not all conditions in all states are the same.  What if a state can provide some services more quickly than other states?  Would it not benefit those citizens for its government to shorten the allotted timeframe for those services?  What if there are services that are really crucial in some parts of the country but, in others, are less important?  Would it not benefit those citizens for their state governments to have the flexibility to prioritise the services more important to local needs?

There’s a principle here, one called “subsidiarity.”  It basically means that responsibility should be taken at the lowest level possible.  So, if states can handle an issue, then the central government shouldn’t get involved.  If a municipality can handle something, then a state shouldn’t get involved.  If communities can take care of a particular need, then the municipality should stay out of it.  If a family can manage, then it should be left to them.  Subsidiarity says let the states handle this for themselves.  The whole process stays closer to the people that way, and more responsive to their particular needs.

In addition, all those state Right to Services Acts are slightly different, so they act as experiments.  Each state can look at what others are doing and learn from those examples.  It’s a way for state governments to improve their systems and legislation over time without having to try everything directly themselves.  This too is a real strength.

The second major issue is that the Jan Lokpal Bill seeks to tackle “corruption,” an issue too big to be manageable.  Yes, we’d all like to see an end to corruption, but the problem is so huge.  It’s hard for even the most optimistic to see how it can be rooted out in one fell swoop.  The Right to Services Acts, on the other hand, are narrow and clearly defined.  They don’t take on every type of corruption, but they do effectively deal with a particular problem.  By limiting their scope, the chances of being effective are increased.

This is due to the shift in incentives the Acts brings about.  The Right to Services Acts rightly recognise that people’s behaviour is driven by their personal incentives.  Those incentives can be anything – money, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction at doing the right thing, avoiding punishment.  All of these are incentives, and people will act to maximise positive incentives while minimising negative ones.  By introducing personal fines, the Right to Services Acts change the incentives for officials.  A department fine doesn’t really affect an individual official very much.  He doesn’t particularly care about that.  But if the fine is coming out of his own pocket, he does care.  That is far more likely to affect his behaviour.

The Jan Lokpal Bill includes something similar, but in trying to be too far reaching, it may cease to be effective and therefore lose this power of incentives.  If officials don’t really think that failure to deliver services will be traced back to them and have individual consequences, then the incentives will continue to be as they are now – to act in an inefficient and corrupt manner.  The more focused Right to Services Acts more effectively harness that power of incentives.

The Jan Lokpal Bill would abolish all Right to Services legislation in the states.  It would supercede and replace any existing systems or acts.  This would be unfortunate.  The aims of the Jan Lokpal Bill are noble, but if it gets in the way of measures that are already beginning to work in the states, then it could actually move us farther away from the corruption-free India we all want to see.