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Dr Sri Ram Khanna (India)

2 Civil society and political/institutional change

I. A. Rehman | Nitai Mehta | Sadiqa Salahuddin | Sri Ram Khanna | Akhtar Hameed Khan | DISCUSSION


In a democracy such as ours the government is of the people and by the people but is it for the people?

The way government works it is not for the people – it is for those who have connections, who have power and who can wangle things in some funny way.

Governments too have their customers who pay the taxes.

If we could influence the bureaucracy it will be more effective than influencing the government. Thanks to the British, we have a system of bureaucracy that would keep things running at a particular speed even if there are no ministers at a given time.

Dr. Sri Ram Khanna presented a case study of the Citizens’ Charter Movement, a campaign launched by a coalition of about 40 NGOs who have joined together to ensure consumer rights from the government. The campaign is aimed at influencing bureaucrats and politicians to secure a consumer rights charter for the citizens that could govern all public services offered by the government – these services are, after all, provided in lieu f taxes and public money.

Some of the guiding principles for such a charter would be:

  1. Performance of government services should be appraised against minimum standards of performance. In a recent seminar on user services the government servants were shocked to learn what average citizens think of their performance. Such questions have never been allowed to be asked in the past but we are now setting up mechanisms to ask them.
  2. Freedom of information is very important and the Indian government is now on its way to passing a freedom of information law that would help NGOs and individuals to learn about the working of different government departments.
  3. Complaints should be acknowledged and answered.
  4. No person working in a government department should be anonymous. They should all wear badges so that the customer may be able to identify them if they ask for bribes.
  5. There should be transparency. If people do not know what is going inside the government departments then they cannot monitor them – they are forced to accept whatever services may be offered them.
  6. There should be accountability.
  7. There should be autonomy for managers, so that somebody is held accountable. At present, each government employee passes the buck to the other when s/he is held responsible for negligence.

There is a feeling now amongst the civil servants that they have to improve otherwise things are not going to work well for the governments. This is an indicator of success for the Citizens Charter Movement.

The legitimacy of such NGOs is their non-political face. "But a consumer movement such as ours still does not have popular support," Mr. Khanna observes. That is primarily because the idea of demanding accountability from the government is quiet alien in countries like India. There is hope for more popular support as the citizens become aware of their rights and powers in moulding the civil society.

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