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The Need for Good Governance: An Indian Outlook
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When India solemnly resolved, on January 26, 1950, to “secure to all its citizens” justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, it promised good governance. Nearly six decades later, the quality of governance is the issue uppermost in all development initiatives. In planning improvements to Delhi’s water supply systems or security systems in Mumbai, administering mid-day meals at schools in remote villages of Arunachal Pradesh or conducting census surveys, it is the quality of governance that determines the effectiveness of all civic and social services, infrastructure development and economic growth.

India is at the threshold of a new spurt in economic growth, sustaining an average 8.4 per cent growth in the last five years. Infrastructure services are being expanded ― notably in telecom ― and improved. National ‘flagship’ development programmes such as the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Bharat Nirman (for rural infrastructure development), Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), have been ramped up even as new programmes, such as the National Urban Health Mission, are being designed.

Alongside, political empowerment is being made increasingly more ubiquitous through various measures ― not just improved capacity-building of panchayat raj institution members through training in various administrative areas, such as accounting and technical evaluation, but also through setting up structures to improve transparency, monitoring and accountability.

Notable among such institution-building measures are the many e-governance initiatives, the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 and the strategy to take the planning process to the grassroots through the institution of the District Planning Committees (DPCs), mandated by Article 243 ZD of the Constitution of India, which took forward the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments on Local Self-Governance.

The enactment of the RTI Act has been a milestone in making governance in India more accountable and, thereby, more transparent. It has been useful in remote villages in Bihar to help poorest families (in the ‘below the poverty line’ or BPL category) to gain access to widow’s pensions and inform people as far distant as Karnataka and Manipur about budget allocations for roads and other construction works in specific villages and towns.

The RTI Act was recently used to decide the debate on the declaration of assets by judges, when the Delhi High Court ruled to uphold a petition of the Central Information Commission to the Chief Justice of India seeking information on judges submitting such declarations. It has also been used in the recent past to push the National Biodiversity Authority to disclose the approvals it has granted and forced the Ministry of Environment and Forests to provide information related to discussions within the ministry related to proposed amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules. The law was used in 2006 to make public the names of Delhi Municipal Corporation officers linked to building code violations in the national capital.

The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) was launched in 2003 to connect all central and state administrative offices, flagship development programme centres, and other government bodies so as help improve efficiency in governance. Targeting the streamlining of delivery mechanisms, the NeGP institutions will help make communications seamless. Monitoring will become easier and, in turn, not only help make implementation of development projects more efficient but also boost transparency in all aspects of the implementation, financial, physical and in terms of social impact. As the NeGP Vision Statement says, the e-governance plan seeks to: “Make all Government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realise the basic needs of the common man.” Several states also have e-governance programmes underway.

But perhaps the most ambitious plan for improving governance in India is the constitution of the District Planning Committees (DPCs) across the country’s 602 districts, taking development planning to the grassroots. The DPCs are authorised to consolidate the plans drafted by the panchayats and municipalities within the district and prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole. The DPCs have begun preparing databases and conducting activity mapping at all levels ― village ward, panchayat, municipality, block and district.

Over the last four years, the district has been promoted as the unit of planning in almost all flagship development programmes, which are deliberately being re-structured to strengthen decentralised management through local institutions.

In the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the National Rural Health Mission, district level plans are being prepared and funded. In the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, village panchayat level plans are prepared and aggregated at the district level. In the urban areas, 63 cities have evolved medium-term development plans under JNNURM.

Decentralisation and transparency are the two lynchpins of India’s surge towards improved governance.

Reforms in the electoral systems evidence this as do reform initiatives in the financial, industry, environment and all social, political and economic areas. The Competition Commission of India has recently reduced the fee for individuals and civil society organisations (CSOs and NGOs) in filing complaints and there is a proposal to bring stock exchanges under the purview of the RTI.

In its push to take a leadership position in the modern global economy and in the knowledge society, India is rightly prioritising good governance as the means.

Technology: Empowering Public Figures
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When the Election Commission of India (EC) ordered that all electoral candidates should make public declaration of assets, educational qualifications, legal cases in which they have been named, it took India’s public life to a new level of transparency. The EC considered that these were the basic facts pertinent to deciding the suitability of a candidate.

And so the basic information about our elected representatives is out ― educational and professional qualifications, financial status and legal standing. But six years after the order, we still know very little about them ― about what they have done for us!

We don’t know enough about what questions they have raised in Parliament (or the Assembly), how many days of the parliamentary or assembly sessions they attended, what development works they have undertaken or how they spent the funds for the Local Areas Development Schemes

The EC initiative in accountability is constrained by space; it has a prescribed format which allows only for the basic facts about our representatives.

But what would make the exercise more meaningful is sharing information on the elected representative’s activities in office … and his or her views on issues affecting the constituents’ lives. The electorate would like to know what the representative did to act for the community’s interests: Did s/he raise issues of public concern in Parliament or in the Assembly? What projects did s/he fight for? Did s/he ask for public works to be sanctioned? How many days did s/he spend in Parliament and how many in the constituency?

In India, politicians ― and politics ― are poorly thought of. Only politicians can do something to change this view … not only by changing the mores of political practice, which can only be over time, but also by presenting a more holistic picture of this practice today!

Politicians are among the most accountable of public servants today ― if nothing else, simply by the fact that, at least once in every five years, a few million people decide whether they deserve to return to power. Elections aside, they are made accountable by the judiciary and other legal institutions, the media, the non-government and other civil society organisations (NGOs and CSOs) and by representatives from other political parties.

Negative news attracts more media interest than the positive and even the EC requirement on the legal status of the candidate (or representative) presumes a negative accountability ― the requirement of information about legal standing presumes an unlawful behaviour. The options for informing the electorate about positive initiatives of elected representatives are overwhelmingly restricted to word-of-mouth communications and expensive advertisements (which are rarely released).

To inform a wider reading public about issues of interest and to form a bridge between to them and the political leader, technology presents an enviable opportunity ― offering a cost-effective route to reaching the widest possible audience. It allows political leaders to explain the context within which certain actions are taken, the environment at the grassroots levels. And, it also allows them to interact with their constituencies through easily-posted electronic feedback, responses to queries posted online and action on complaints submitted via the Internet.

Elected representatives in India may do well to learn from star politicians around the world ― and from Bollywood stars ― who use the latest information technology to great advantage in informing their constituents about their endeavours and interests.

The incumbency of US President Barack Obama is being described as the “Internet presidency”, given his penchant for web-based advocacy. Not only was his presidential campaign substantially an online effort, the President’s initiative for healthcare reform has focused on lobbying for his proposals through the web and social networking sites.

Closer home, all draft bills and pre-draft policy proposals are posted by the government on the Internet for public display and comment.

But where the US online debate on healthcare has reached everyone, the Government of India’s online initiatives are controlled, restricted efforts. Obama uses Twitter and YouTube to inform and discuss issues; in India, policy-makers use only government sites to inform the few who log into these sites.

There is danger in both: the one can get out of control, with crowds of commentators riding on the President’s popular tweets and getting access to all his followers; the other can just fail to inform any but the most proactive of stakeholders.

The recent tweet by Minister of State for Environment Shashi Tharoor on austerity-driven train travel (“cattle cars”, he said, breaking the “holy cows”), a clever play on words that backfired because the phraseology is unfamiliar to most readers to whom English is not a native language. However, what it did serve to do is focus attention on the more ridiculous steps taken by MPs flaunting “austerity” at great cost to the nation! Not all the (more staid) media reporting on the same facts was able to draw the same attention to something that is of such vital interest to citizens.

Bharatiya Janta Party leader L K Advani conducted an effective campaign through mobile-phone messaging during the last national elections in May-June 2009, an example subsequently emulated by candidates for the state elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere. The digital campaigning did not win Advani the prime ministerial position but it has won him a place in the history books as the leader who took political campaigning in India from a local, door-to-door exercise to a national movement.

Politics in India has typically focused on local issues, with national issues being restricted mainly to the election manifestos alone. The Internet has changed that. Not only does it allow political leaders to address the entire nation and raise issues of country-wide significance, it also brings local issues to the national platform. Not only could a Mamata Banerjee explain the issues of Nandigram to the entire nation online, the Internet would facilitate comparing this to issues around setting up a special economic zone (SEZ) in Gujarat or Kerala. This would provide a voice to all stakeholders … and even prove a learning exercise for policy-makers as much as mass political leaders.

For candidates with limited funds, especially, technology has proved to be a boon. For representatives with forward-looking messages, rising to the challenges of the digital age, mobile- and Internet-based messaging tools are proving invaluable. The BJP, for example, used just five per cent of its campaign budget to reach out to over 20 million Internet and mobile-phone users.

Corporate organisations are using information technology to effectively communicate across geographies and time zones, ensuring seamless functioning at least cost. Political leaders could imitate this and use technology to better inform the electorate about issues and achievements.