The proposed Lokpal Bill, notwithstanding all the drama and protest surrounding it in recent days, is just a piece of a much larger agenda of reform of our existing institutions, infrastructure and processes to democratise information, enhance accountability and deliver development to all parts of the country.
Today the country needs adequate information systems as much as it needs civil society's participation. Without modern information infrastructure to enhance openness, transparency and accountability, civil society protests could merely remain theatre for the 24/7 news channels instead of institutionalised reform measures.
|Today key decisions in the government are locked up in the 'nadawali file' which is a vestige of the British Raj and perfection of bureaucratic bottlenecks. Until the nadawali file gets digitised and delivered with proper security on to the net and until requests and responses for the RTI are converted into digital domain it is difficult to effectively answer information queries and redress grievances of 1.2 billion people regarding decisions that affect their lives.
India has a unique and historic opportunity to break away from 19th century mindsets premised on information control and centralised decision-making processes that the British Raj left behind to fulfil long awaited aspirations. It is time to start thinking like a leading 21st century information and knowledge society that is both open and responsive to the needs of the people.
To understand the implications of the Lokpal Bill on shaping the short-term and long-term destiny of India, it is important to understand the Right to Information (RTI) Act. RTI has played an important role in exposing some of the recent corruption trends and cases. The United Progressive Alliance government must be complimented for taking bold initiatives such as the Right to Information, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), as well as focusing on education and sustainable high growth for the last seven years. However, the introduction of the RTI without modern digital infrastructure and technology cannot deliver accurate and timely information and cannot showcase the true strength of this landmark act.
Today key decisions in the government are locked up in the 'nadawali file' which is a vestige of the British Raj and perfection of bureaucratic bottlenecks. Until the nadawali file gets digitised and delivered with proper security on to the net and until requests and responses for the RTI are converted into digital domain it is difficult to effectively answer information queries and redress grievances of 1.2 billion people regarding decisions that affect their lives. It is time to recognise and accept that information, to the extent that it does not compromise national security, ought to be within the public domain to truly empower the public. Based on this, it is important to recognize that for the Lokpal Bill to have a meaningful impact the following five initiatives will have to be addressed simultaneously:
Most of our institutions are archaic and have degenerated over a period of time into highly complex, monolithic, bureaucratic, ineffective and expensive exercises. For the Lokpal Bill to succeed it is important to have commitment to electoral reform, political reform, administrative reform and judicial reform to bring about a change in our institutional structures. For instance, we cannot go on funding elections the way we have been doing, nor can we guarantee promotions to government officers based on mere seniority and protect them despite mediocre performance and lack of appropriate domain knowledge. The present human resource policies of the government cannot effectively work in a modern business environment, nor can these policies deliver the right candidate for the right job. Similarly, centre-state roles and relationships defined in our constitution and processes may benefit from a serious review in the light of increasing growth and disparities as well as by assimilating increasing trends towards decentralised decision-making. Institutional reform will be key to reducing corruption and delivering equitable development.
All our processes related to public services such as getting land records, birth certificates, school admissions, ration cards, pension, starting a business, and filing grievances have not changed since independence. We need to systematically re-engineer all our major processes that affect the lives of ordinary citizens to simplify and deliver services in a time-bound and transparent manner. In fact, the effort today to a large extent is geared towards computerising age old processes without paying attention to the process changes required to meet the needs of the 21st century.
There is very little local community participation, except by panchayat members, in our public institutions. The perception among citizens is that once you pay your taxes, the money becomes the property of government officers and politicians. The community has very little voice and visibility in how the money is spent on local developmental activities. There is no reason why a decision related to a local teacher at a school cannot be made by the local community as opposed to a government officer sitting in a remote office in a state capital. To expedite development and improve productivity and efficiency at the local level, local community engagement is essential and should be systematically encouraged.
Democratisation of Information
Information is power and is often used in hierarchical systems to perpetuate power structures. Given the role that information can play in empowering people, it is critical to use modern technologies and tools to assure transparency, accountability and access to timely information to every citizen. This requires on the one hand digitisation of the nadawali file and on the other hand connectivity to local governments at the panchayat level, with appropriate applications related to financial management, administration, government programmes and priorities. This will also require multiple open platforms and a variety of portals with open source software for people to freely access information of interest and with assured privacy.
For all of these things to happen simultaneously we will have to focus on changing our mindset and innovating to find new ways to govern, manage, collaborate and empower. Without engaging innovative thinking in addressing systemic challenges, trying to solve a single piece of the puzzle such as just the Lokpal Bill will not deliver the desired results. However, such an innovation strategy will have to focus on Indian solutions, inclusive growth and proper eco-system to encourage innovations by the people and for the people.
While the Lokpal Bill movement is laudable as an expression of democratic dissent as well as a symbol of galvanised civil society action, we must not be under any illusion about the efficacy of such pieces of legislation to transform India without democratising information systems and fundamentally reforming our age old processes and institutions. It would be a mistake to remain content with merely enacting powerful laws without spending any additional effort on creating supporting information infrastructures and ecosystems to execute and deliver development to meet the aspirations of people at large.