November 18, 1997
The conference of chief ministers in New Delhi on May 24, 1997 discussed the Action Plan for Effective and Responsive Government. The Action Plan included initiatives on: making administration accountable and citizen-friendly, ensuring transparency and the right to information, and taking measures to cleanse and motivate the civil services.
On the first the background note suggests the formulation of citizens’ charters. It recognises that state governments and central ministries and departments are involved, in one way or another, in providing public services. It accepts that, apart from an overall lack of transparency and accountability, most delivery systems suffer from ad hocism and delay. It stresses the identification and publicity of reasonable standards of service and time limits, particularly in critical activities, with a public interface. The charter, though not to be justiciable, will carry a moral commitment and offer a framework for evaluating public services.
The citizens’ charter is based on wide publicity of standards of performance of public agencies and local bodies; assured service quality; access to information; courtesy and helpfulness; consultation with citizens; simplified procedures for complaints, time-bound redressal; and independent performance-scrutiny with citizen groups’ involvement. It is claimed that the citizens’ charter places the citizen at the centre of administration instead of making him a passive recipient of services rendered indifferently, with no regard for quality, time or cost.
This recommendation was accepted in the statement adopted at the conference. The government has directed ministries, departments and other agencies with public interface to formulate citizens’ charters. It appears that many central agencies such as the Railways, post, health, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC), petroleum industry, Delhi Development Authority and Passport Office have formulated citizens’ charters while others have announced citizen-friendly initiatives.
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The first thing to strike you about the citizens’ charters is that they are a make-believe world and have no relation to the realities on the ground. The CBEC charter contains all you could wish for in an interface with this corrupt, lethargic, client-unfriendly organisation. Anyone who has come into contact with it has a tale of woe to tell.
One is amazed at the brazenness in its citizens’ charter and the capacity to take people for a ride. The CBEC commits itself to lofty values that can be universally acclaimed: “integrity and judiciousness, objectivity and transparency, courtesy and understanding, and modernity for trade facilitation”. Words, words at which Indians so excel! The charter talks of standards for “general procedure” and for customs operations in cargo and passengers. It is hard to believe that the organisation has changed overnight to erase its past. The standards for general procedures prescribe: (a) In case of a likely or inevitable delay in decision making, or when an issue is disputed, we will promptly communicate the reasons on our own initiative. (b) We promise to respond to all our clients’ written inquiries within 10 days. (c) Your declaration, intimation or returns shall be received with on-the-spot written acknowledgements. (d) We endeavour to settle any disputes relating to your declaration or assessment within 10 days of receipt of your written or oral explanation (e) We aim to repay any refunds due to you within 30 days of receiving a valid claim.Similar tall and unbelievable claims have been made on standards for customs operations. It is claimed that where customs declaration of a cargo consignment is complete and correct, it is released within four hours in case of an electronic declaration and eight hours in case of a paper declaration. It is assured that 90 per cent of declaration lodged with the customs are to be processed the same working day. Reading this charter makes one wonder whether he is living in India or a country like Singapore.
The citizens’ charter story of the Passport Office is the same. The harassment of passport-seekers is legion. The charter gives the impression that it is the easiest thing to do. It undertakes that, if all documents are in order, a new passport should be issued in about five weeks. If you already hold a passport, your passport will be re-issued in a week. For other services, a time limit of four-five weeks is laid down.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is widely perceived as one of the most corrupt organisations in the country. Volumes can be written by customers about poor services, delays, lack of public accountability, harassment, sub-standard construction, and so on. The citizens’ charter makes one wonder which organisation it is talking about. It makes tall claims and lays down time limits which are clearly unattainable. This is equally true of the charters of the Central Public Works Department and the Estate Office of the Ministry of Urban development.
This raises the question of the credibility of the exercise. It gives the impression that the organisations in question have already achieved maximum accountability and consumer satisfaction and there is no further room for improvement. The citizens’ charters are treated as vehicles to bring out how well functions and responsibilities are being discharged.
One would have expected not this smug attitude but that these organisations would do some introspection and self-assessment. This would have helped bring out present weaknesses and shortcomings in the preamble, and been followed by specific targets for phased improvement. The proposed organisational, procedural and other changes could have been spelt out. This would have shown the seriousness and authenticity of the exercise.
But for those familiar with the working of government, the response of the ministries, departments and subordinate offices is predictable. All know that the Government of India is a world of fast-changing fashions. Each lasts a short time, till something else catches its fancy. Making token gestures is a much-cultivated trait in Delhi. Why incur odium by raising doubts about the relevance of transplanting foreign-grown administrative reforms on native soil? Why not undercut them by making a mockery of the whole exercise? It is time we declared the ostrich our national bird!The writer is a former Union Home Secretary
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