July 15, 2011

Vote every five years (or lesser). Pay taxes on time. don't damage public property. Abide by law of the land. Monitor the government. Surprised? You should not be. Because the way things are shaping up in our country, the task of proactively monitoring the government should be at the top of our duties as good citizens.

No we are not talking about ‘parallel’ government or the ‘civil society’. It has to be you, multiplied by 1.2 billion who should just be aware of how your tax money is being used and then help shape public discourse. But what’s the need of all this you may ask. We have a Constitution which has inherent checks and balances to monitor, highlight and rectify problems if and whenever they show up. You are absolutely right but just think about these checks and balances. Judiciary, Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Central Vigilance Commission, National Human Rights Commission and recently added the Central Information Commission.

Then there are regulatory authorities for particular sectors. Drug controllers for pharma industry, pollution control boards to keep pollution in check, insurance regulatory authority and so on and so forth. We have lots and lots of agencies which are supposed to monitor things which directly affect us. However, all these agencies are grappling with one or the other problem. Pendency in courts is well known. Over 42 lakh cases were pending in the High Courts as on September 30, 2010 with over eight lakh being criminal cases. In the Subordinate Courts, this figure was over two crore. Out of the total pending cases, 9 per cent were pending for 10 years and above and 24 per cent cases were pending for 5-10 years in both high courts and subordinate courts.

CBI, the biggest investigating agency of our country, has 2,300 cases pending for last 10 years, 1,000 for 15 years; and 381 for last 20 years. Staff shortage is 30 per cent. But more than all this is the political pressure it works under, to please friends and threaten foes. Central Vigilance Commission is also grappling with staff shortage. CAG has the power to access and inspect the government records but it does not have any powers to enforce supply of information within particular time period. Same is the case of National Human Rights Commission since its role is mainly to give recommendations, not to get these recommendations implemented.

Central information Commission, which was established a little over five years ago, is already dealing with a pendency of 15,000 cases. In pollution control boards, the shortage of qualified professionals is so severe that a technical person gets even less than two days to take care of an industry in the state in one whole year. These two days also include travelling for the purpose.

The country has 332 pollution monitoring stations. Half of them are not working while others don’t update their data. Drug control authorities have similar problems. Some don’t have drug testing labs, others don’t have adequate staff. So now you see why we need monitoring.

But what can you do? A lot. There are different ways you can help these agencies monitor the government. CBI can’t be assisted in shrugging off political pressure, but the agency along with CVC seeks citizen participation. CVC even accepts mobile recordings, videos or sound tapes which can be directly forwarded to a mobile number to report against bribery.

After the fiasco of Satyam Computers, Ministry of Corporate Affairs initiated a scheme under which shareholders in 8 lakh domestic companies can complain against any irregularity in their company. Also, we can make a difference in our environment. In 2003, India had signed Kiev protocol. Kiev is a city in Ukraine and the protocol was signed there. It talked about access to information and public participation in matters related to environment.

Stress was laid on pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs). These are the data collection registers that will detail potentially hazardous chemical substances and pollutants released to air, water and soil. This needs involvement of government functionaries, the industries and citizens. Government sets standards, industries are supposed to disclose all the data about pollutants they are releasing into environment while citizens are supposed to monitor this data and report any shortcomings for proper action. Maharashtra pollution control board has a decent set of PRTRs but all state pollution control boards are yet to pull up their socks and improve the involvement of public in environment protection.

Recently the directorate general of civil aviation decided to place in the public domain its data on on-time performance of airlines to let the passengers make an informed choice and at the same time put pressure on the airlines with regards to their performance and reputation. Such options are increasingly being made available to the public to improve performance of different agencies. The need is to find these options and utilise them to their fullest.

Here are some of the tools which may help you: Resources for Readers