Restructuring Citizen Participation in Welfare Programmes

Introduction

Big Brother is the famous quasi-character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel by George Orwell. He constantly keep the people of Oceania under his surveillance through tele-screens, audio-recorders, citizen spies and so on. There is a continual reminder to the people that ‘Big Brother is watching you’.  On a deeper sense this character signifies vigilance as a need of totalitarian states to tightly control the personal lives of the people. Here, vigilance is also symbolized as the abuse of power by the state for using it as a tool to restrict civil rights and liberties.

The above point brings in an interesting contrast between notions of vigilance when seen in conjunction with participatory vigilance committees (PVC).  The idea of PVC in Public Distribution System (PDS) is to appoint responsible members of community as watch-keepers on certain state agencies who are assigned the responsibility of delivering subsidized goods to the same community. In this case, the people keep a vigil over state affairs with the underlying  motive to channel state actions in the best of their interests. This approach by government to share power and responsibilities among broader (and informal) governance institutions is commonly regarded as one that is in the spirit of democracy, and which expedite fundamental rights like right to expression.

At this point next question emerge- Why do we need Vigilance?[1]

Indian bureaucracy is time and again censured due to its appalling record at the front of ethics and professional integrity. India ranks 94 in the list of 176 countries on Corruption Perception Index which perceives the general sense of public sector corruption across the world. The corruption in delivering public services has been especially rampant because of the exercise of discretionary powers and the need of the people to approach public officials.

Hence a crucial development challenge for Indian policy-making and anti-corruption regimes has been to create a virtuous trail of checks and balances among bureaucracy, markets and civil society that compensates for and corrects the misconduct in each sphere. This challenge persuaded them to think beyond punitive and preventive vigilance to its predictive and participative forms. Whistle-blowers, Right to information, citizen liaison groups and participative vigilance committees are just few archetypes of this refreshed policy-making.

In the first part of this paper I will enlist the scope for Fair Price Shop-level Vigilance Committees (FVC) primarily on the basis of field observations, and conversations with key stakeholders. The second part proposes amendments to the current model of FVCs as given in Revised model citizen charter (RMCC), 2007. In the third and final part of the paper I argue that a larger problem with the ideas of ‘participation’ and ‘empowering people’ lies not into legal or governance domains, but in the socio-political status of a particular group or society, and the manner in which it perceives itself.

SCOPE of FVCs

FVC is not meant to be an autonomous institution that has unrestricted discretion over what it will monitor and how. Instead it should be looked as a collaborative framework that extends the food inspectors outreach in terms of keeping a check on proper functioning of fair price shops (FPS). It is a step towards decentralizing the power in anticipation to address public grievances at ground-level.

We observed a range of problems and violations in the operation of FPS, associated commodity leakages and bureaucratic apathy. But only some of them can be placed under the scope of FVCs. For example, we consistently noted a delay upto two weeks in delivery of food grains to each of the shops under our study from Food Corporation of India (FCI) repository. Our further enquiry established that the problem exists across Bangalore. But a FVC is powerless to ring the bell in this case. However if the delay is on the part of the FPS owner where he/she deliberately holds on to the stock even after getting the delivery then the FVC can make an intervention.

We made a list of possible points of entry for a FVC based on our field observations and conversations with beneficiaries, FVC members, FPS owner and food inspector. This list covers the broad issues which when occur are deemed to be recorded and reported by FVC. It will help to clearly understand the placement of FVC in the gigantic PDS structure.

Table 1: Scope of FVC

towards FPS/Shop-owner:

Checking over-charging of price and under-measurement of weights at the time of distributing food grains, sugar and kerosene.

Display board outside the shop presents all the required information, vis-à-vis stock details, prices, working days and hours and scale of Issue.

Inspecting the authenticity of weighing scales.

Checking if the entries are correctly made in ration cards.

Reporting the quality of food grains, and adequate hygiene (from mice, moisture etc.) at storage room.

Inappropriate conduct/behaviour of shop-keeper towards the beneficiaries. Unauthorised person running the affairs of the shop.

towards Beneficiaries:

Keeping a track upon the new cards and their eligibility. Notifying any cases of bogus cards.

Keeping a track on the problems, if any faced by card-holders to get duplicate cards, card renewal or to modify details such as address, family members on the active card.

Notifying hooliganism, robbing and muscle-flexing by any illicit groups in order to get special favours during allotment of commodities or which devoid person/s of their grants or induces mal-practice/illegality in FPS operations.

Proper invoices and counter-foils given to the beneficiaries.

General complaints and grievances by card-holders in regards to PDS.

FVC’s scope is not just constrained to the points of entry in Table 1. Although it do presents a larger umbrella under which other issues/problems of interest to FVC can be located.

Amendments to RMCC, 2007

The guidelines under model citizen charter of 1997 introduced by Department of Food and Public Distribution  (Ministry of Consumer affairs, Food and Public distribution) were revised in 2007 in order to broaden the scope and scale of its functions. However this revision stopped short to broaden the framework of vigilance committees on similar lines. The document lacks the level of engagement that would have plugged the loopholes quite apparent at this juncture. In its current state, it is very easy to violate the spirit of charter as it is either vague or completely silent on responsibilities, timelines, accountability, counter-vigilance and the path to redressal and redressal itself of the grievances raised by these vigilance committees.

One of the prime reasons why they extensively remain dysfunctional is the narrow prescription to form these committees, and ambiguity upon their power and authority. The Chapter 1, Part XI of RMCC, 2007[2] which outline vigilance committees nor indicates the proper process to form a committee neither identifies the clear procedures to inspect and review a FPS. Moreover there is inadequate information on the grievance redressal mechanism and time-frames for acknowledgement and response to these grievances is completely left out. The prescribed text also skips upon the monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with the commitments made under the charter.

Hence few critical additions/amendments are required in the framework of vigilance committees. The proposed amendments are primarily meant for FVC, but might be useful for block, district and state level committees as well. They must obviously pass through legal scrutiny and framed in consonance with legal language. However the main objective of putting them here is to give a direction to functional, effective and result oriented vigilance committees.

I

It will be the responsibility of food inspector to ensure the formation of a vigilance committee in each ward, and where there are more than one shop as many committees. The election of members could be done by a simple voting in a meeting attended by at least 75% beneficiaries. The first choice of identifying a social activist/member of SHG as one of the member shall be given to the beneficiaries. In case they cannot finalise an individual, food inspector shall provide all necessary assistance to decide upon the same. Food inspector shall also invite the local elected member (Sarpanch or MLC) to chair the committee. Thereafter food inspector must time to time verify that all the members actively participate in the inspections and meetings.

II

Each elected committee shall have a tenure of one year after which the aforesaid election process will be employed again. The same will be applicable in case of death, retirement, removal of any member due to any reason.

III

All the members will be free to inspect the FPS under their mandate at any working hour of the shop. At the time of inspection, they will be allowed to pursue any of the roles mentioned in Table 1 as per their discretion, and collect evidence if necessary.

IV

The members may simply record their observations/complaints on a plain paper duly signed by all the members and submit it to the food inspector on a monthly basis. Food inspector must then respond accordingly to the grievance raised.

V

The food inspector shall publish the grievance document along with his remarks to each of the individual grievance within 30 days of the receipt of the said document. This document should be available for public review by both online and offline modes.

VI

It will be the responsibility of Assistant Director of the department to review that FVCs are duly formed and grievances are disposed in suitable manner.

The Common Man’s Problem

As I stated above, the vague and ham-fisted vision and structure of FVC is one of the key reasons for its failure. The lack of enthusiasm in the department of food and civil supplies to create a local watch-dog on the FPS is another reason. Nevertheless the problem is a lot sociological and political in nature than simply related to legal or governance deformities.

A low public involvement is recorded in most cases where people’s participation is anticipated in order to bring transparency in the bureaucratic discretion or to help their way to the rights provided to them. An intermediary in the form of mass media, NGOs or a concerned individual is needed to play the role of protagonist. This protagonist agent has to instigate the provisions that are introduced in the law. It has to highlight the lackadaisical approach of administrative machinery. It has to persuade mass mobility against financial or bureaucratic dereliction.

Where an outside intervention is made the implementation of law and functioning of governing bodies seem to improve.  The role of MKSS in leading the campaign for greater transparency and access to official documents in Rajasthan substantiates the above argument[3]. In our case, when a local Bangalore NGO called CIVIC made active intervention to revive FVCs it produced positive results. Few FVCs were unofficially formed in Jayanagar and Rajgopalanagar by the people themselves. But as the CIVIC turned to other projects, withdrawing their active involvement, no remnants of those committees could be traced within two years of their formation.

This will take a much more rigorous study to trace the social factors that stop people from taking lead in pitching for their own rights. It is quite a different social scenario when people are not even conscious of their rights. But in this case, it will seem astonishing at the outset that they choose not to act even though they are aware of their mandate, and further their action will result in community’s and their own well-being.

[1] There are multiple ways to perceive vigilance, say state vigilance on its citizens, or citizen vigilance against suspicious criminal activities. All through this paper, vigilance will mean keeping a check over professional conduct of government functionaries.

[2] Revised Model Citizen Charter, 2007;     http://dfpd.nic.in/?q=node/18

[3] Jenkins, R., & Goetz, A. M. (1999). Accounts and accountability: theoretical implications of the right-to-information movement in India. Third World Quarterly, 20(3), 603-622.