The following are notes from a workshop on ‘Mandatory Disclosures and building a Janata Information System’ organised by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) on 21st and 22nd April, 2017 at Population Foundation of India (PFI), New Delhi.
Nikhil Dey of MKSS explained the idea behind a group of people from several organisations in Rajasthan coming together to discuss how they could build systems whereby timely and accurate information dissemination on basic public services could be made. The current emphasis of dissemination is more for the convenience of the management than the people. Hence, the desire to move from a ‘Management’ Information System to a ‘Janata’ Information System.
What is Janata Information System?
MKSS was born out of a need for people’s access to information on their wages and its disbursement in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan that eventually lead to the monumental Right to Information Act, 2005. Since then, there has been a growing understanding that “free access to understandable and reliable information available through offline and online modes”, is crucial for the move from representative democracy to participatory democracy.
MKSS goes on to ask the following questions:
i) What is the information gathered?
ii) How is it currently organised?
iii) Who has access to it?
iv) How should it be presented?
v) In what form are the elements that go into conceptualising the term, information.
Framework for citizen-centric transparency
MKSS suggests the following framework with citizens at the centre:
i) Information is power
ii) Hearing (Sunwai) in which there is a standard on which a citizen’s rights and entitlements are based and they can be heard in that democratic framework.
iii) Participation (Bhagidari), according to MKSS is a process by which “citizens use ‘paper’ which they can demand, see, feel and store with them as an objectified contract between them and the state to reclaim their rights as citizens.”
iv) Protection (Suraksha) which guarantees adequate safeguards for whistleblowers who fight against the coercive power of the state.
v) People’s Collective Platforms (Janata ka Manch) like public hearings and gram sabhas enable information around status of complaints and grievance redressals to be facilitated in such a manner that the hierarchical power relationship between the government officer and the people can be effectively handled. Naming and shaming of public authorities who don’t perform their duties is a feature of such a platform.
Platforms to Operationalise a Janata Information System
Some of the platforms provided by the state are:
i) Section 4, Right to Information Act: This section mandates pro-active disclosure of information by public authorities. A lot of the ‘burden’ of having to reply to RTI application would have been solved by following this simple rule. According to the MKSS, “the range of information that is required to be disclosed include norms, standards, tangible benefits, reasons for arriving at decisions, expenditure, powers and duties of officials, recipients of subsidies etc.”
ii) Social Audits: The premise of a social audit is that communities are best equipped to verify information about performance of schemes by implementing authorities through their experiences on the ground. It has been mandated for schemes based on legal entitlements like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and National Food Security Act (NFSA). However, it is yet to materialise in a majority of states.
iii) Management Information Systems: Several welfare schemes now consist of an ‘MIS’ which contains crucial documentation of process flows and outcomes. For instance, NREGA in its MIS contains real-time transactions-based information on “list of beneficiaries, wages earned, funds released, assets created, complaints registered and redressed, distribution of participation with respect to gender and socio-economic profile amongst other things.
iv) Information and Facilitation Centres: “Information and Facilitation Centres in principle are envisaged to serve as a physical resource for citizens to gain access to information they need about public programmes. The mandate for setting up IFCs currently exists through public programmes like the MGNREGA (under Cluster Facilitation Teams) and through service delivery reform legislations such as the Bihar Lok Shikayat Nivaran Adhikar Abhiyan. Such Centres are seen to be operational in selected Blocks/Gram Panchayats largely driven by active civil society organisations and local functionaries.”
v) Pre-Legislative Policy: “Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act mandates public authorities to publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public”.
A top-down structure as it exists presently is set up for administrative needs. The need for such a collaborative workshop is to build systems that disclose information from the bottom-up. How should such systems look like? What kind of information should they disclose? At what level of aggregation of such information will privacy and accountability be adequately taken care of?
Session 1: Existing Information Systems
Shailesh Gandhi (Former Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission) explained that Section 4 of the RTI Act is about setting norms for information disclosure in terms of time frame, format and design with emphasis on suo moto disclosure.
T.R. Raghunandan (Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj; Advisor, Accountability Initiative; Founder, Avantika Foundation; Former Programme Co-ordinator, ipaidabribe.com) talked about his experiences in dealing with government budgets below the state-level while working on an Accountability initiative project to study intergovernmental fund transfers to 30 gram panchayats in Kolar district, Karnataka. Karnataka uses a software called ‘Panchatantra‘ to do panchayat-level accounting. However, the reconciliation of zilla panchayat vouchers with the treasury is done manually. Zilla panchayats and taluk panchayats act as pass through agencies for payment of items like salaries. Around ten centrally sponsored schemes consist of 90 percent of the allocation while around 320 schemes found in the ‘link book’ (budgets for the district sector) consist of 2 percent of the allocation. They have overlapping heads of accounts as well. In Mulbagal taluk, the average fund availability (releases + balances allocate and unspent by all entities) and other fund flows disappear below the taluk level. The link book has to be extended to each state line department upto the district and taluk level in order to ensure accountability and transparency of fund transfers. Accounts and other details should also be location-specific with a proper unit of disclosure and the cashbook possibly digitised to make this system work. The idea is to make sure that funds from the Central Ministry to the panchayat to the habitation should be transparent and a complete reconciliation possible at the Block Development Officer-level.
Rajendran (Liberation Technology) started with a quote by Harvard Law professor, Lawrence Lessig. “Code is law architecture is policy”. Rajendran spoke about his experiences while working on the MIS of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The MNREGA MIS was meant to make muster rolls, registers, wage payments and other details associated with the scheme more transparent. There would be a weekly ‘Fund Transfer Order’ signed twice to ensure accountability. However, in practice, the funds would reach several days after the second signature. The day of the second signature is recorded as the ‘Payment Date’ which means that the gap between the ‘Credited Date’ and the ‘Processed Date’ is not recorded in the system. The legally mandated delay compensation is based on this second signature. There is also a delay in fund flows between the zilla panchayat and the gram panchayat which is not recorded. Yet another instance is that of how MNREGA workers who are stuck at 92-93 days of employment because the software cannot record more than 100 days of employment. So, in many ways, an MIS which is said to bring transparency to the system only benefits the bureaucrats to keep track of the scheme sitting in their offices while the people whom the scheme is supposed to benefit continue to suffer. Here, a paper trail is superior to an MIS in terms of people being able to track and ask for their entitlements under government schemes.
Anita Gurumurthy (Founder, ED, IT For Change) talked about the need for civic processes to ensure quality data and democratic ‘janata-centric’ information systems. A JIS ought to be a philosophical position, not a technology solution. There should be strong laws for grievance redressal. For instance, a universal service obligation should have a gram panchayat facilitation centre. Efficiency should not come at the cost of exclusion as in the case of incorrect Aadhaar seeding leading to denial of rations. There needs to be human thought that goes into technology.
Session 2: Opening Budgets
Nilachala Acharya (Research Co-ordinator, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability) spoke about how Treasury Systems are useful in tracking spending and revenues. According to Acharya, the Eleventh Finance Commission made a case for local government grants and state treasury data to be made public. Maharashtra’s Budget Estimation, Allocation and Monitoring System (BEAMS), Uttar Pradesh’s Kosh Vahini, are examples of some online treasury management systems which are public as of now. It contains bill authorisation slips, standard codes till the minor head, and many more detailed unit-level data.
Pic: Ravi Duggal (International Budget Partnership), Nilachala Acharya (CBGA)
Session 3: Police and Prison Management
Venkatesh Nayak (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) talked about Section 4 disclosures in the police and prison systems in India. Given the power exerted by the police over life and liberty of individuals, stringent guidelines for the legitimate use of power must be articulated in law and enforced in practice. In addition to procedural protections governing arrests and treatment of detainees, proactive disclosure of information by police departments is a crucial safeguard against arbitrariness in the deprivation of individual liberties. A series of amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973 were made in 2009 which stated that Police Headquarters in all States (except Jammu and Kashmir) and Union Territories should publicise information about all arrests made, such as name of person arrested, name and designation of officer making the arrest, time and date of the arrest, and crimes of the accused. All this information must be collected from every police station every day and displayed in the district police control room. Every State Police Headquarters is required to create a database of this information about arrests made by the police and make it accessible to the people. This is in addition to the statutory responsibility of the police to inform the relatives or friends of the person arrested, about the facts of the arrest. (CHRI, 2016)
If implemented, it could make the police more accountable to unlawful arrests. Why is this important? In India, two-thirds of prisoners are undertrials and a fourth of the under-trials have been in detention for more than a year. This ratio is the highest in Jammu and Kashmir. Most recently, a Kashmir man, Gulzar Ahmed Wani was acquitted of all charges after appearing as accused in more than 15 cases in 16 years. India’s prisons are filled with such stories of innocent people losing a better part of their lives away from friends and family due to police highhandedness.
Other areas that could be covered under proactive disclosure is the Case/General Diary of a police officer which is mandated by Section 172 of CrPC, the areas or jurisdiction under each police station, average number of cases in each police station, etc. It becomes all the more important because police stations are one of the top five public authorities that receive RTI requests.
Another issue with proactive disclosure in policing is with respect to budgets. It is impossible to know the budget of a police station. Budget for policing is only available till the district-level, not upto the individual police station. While open-ended investigations into crimes are generally under-funded, close-ended investigations have Non-Plan funds in the form of lumpy capital investments. Areas like passport verification are also under-funded because of its demand-based nature which inventivises corruption.
Yet another case for pro-active disclosure comes from the recent Supreme Court order in September 2016 to put up copies of First Information Reports (FIRs) online within 24 hours with exemptions to cases related to insurgency, terrorism and sexual offences. The petitioner, Youth Bar Association of India, Uttarakhand stated in the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that it is difficult for the public to get access to the FIR. It is important for the accused to get a copy in order to obtain legal advice.
Indian Police Service officer Pradnya Saravade’s blog is an excellent resource on the challenges of policing in India.
Rakshita Swamy (MKSS) shared Section 4 disclosure practices in state departments in the Government of Kerala while training officers with the Institute of Management in Government. For example, meetings convened by officers, job charts, in the Department of Finance; Citizen charter, scholarship beneficiary list, etc in Department of Social Justice among others.
Session 4: Janata Information Systems
- Pankti Jog (Executive Secretary, Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel)
MAGP is an organisation based out of Ahmedabad that has pioneered several good practices in the field of information disclosure. Some of them include a Saturday Legal Clinic to help people draft applications and complaints, ‘RTI on Wheels’ which is a state-of-the-art mobile van that seeks to create awareness among illiterate villagers along border towns of Gujarat whose problems are of a peculiar nature and are not in a position to question officials and an RTI helpline.
2. Yamini Aiyar (Accountability Initiative)
Aiyar spoke about AI’s engagement with Block Officers and other officials at the district and state-levels who play crucial roles in various Centrally Sponsored Schemes.
3. James Herenj (Jharkhand NREGA Watch, Social Audit Watch)
Herenj talked about his work with Jharkhand NREGA Watch, especially the challenges of shifting from checking a bank account passbook to an MIS Credit. While it is easy to determine through a passbook where money is stuck, it is impossible to do so in the MIS. Those at the software/PC-end work from the state. However, in the MIS, the Fund Transfer Order has a unique number in the wage list. Recently, using such auditing techniques, they were able to reveal pilferage upto Rs 2 crore at the block-level.
4. Vineet Bhambhu (MKSS, Right to Food, PDS, Pension)
By analysing the district-wise PoS Transaction Report made available by the Rajasthan government, there were some startling numbers on Aadhaar-seeding to ration cards and NFSA beneficiary lists. Out of the 96 lakh seeded, 74 lakh had been disbursed the amount. This shows a huge number of 22 lakh ‘excluded’ among biometrically-linked accounts. The Jaipur office of the UIDAI has reportedly over 300 crore requests in their authentication logs and several names are ‘in abeyance’ after filing affidavits.
The Delhi government on the other hand has cancelled more than 50,000 ration cards because they were ‘fake’ or ‘ineligible’. There is even a court order which says that if a beneficiary does not collect rations for three months, their name should be cut-off from the NFSA list. Given the technical glitches around Aadhaar-seeding with PDS and bank accounts, it leaves a huge volume of people to be unable to collect their rations for several months. Even though the UIDAI has provided for a manual override or a mobile-based OTP in case biometrics fail to authenticate, it is reportedly, not been effective as there is an April 2016 order which says that the SDM has to approve in case that happens. There is an Allotment and Distribution Report, but the lack of a PoS log failure report in the public domain makes it impossible to determine the difference between exclusion of ghosts/duplicates/fakes from genuine beneficiaries.
Several other community organisers went on to speak about the failures of this new system that has led to the exclusion of thousands to lakhs of genuine beneficiaries of government welfare schemes.
R. Sreedhar (Geologist, Mines, Minerals and People’s Alliance)
Indian Bureau of Mines, the regulatory body in charge of monitoring and supervising mining activity in India, inspects 300-400 mines every year. According to their estimates, there are around 3000 legal and 98,700 illegal mines in India. While it is legally mandated to obtain a clearance from the National Green Tribunal before mining, it has become a mere formality. For instance, while the Mahanadi Coal Mines are yet to be cleared by NGT, the mining has been going on for years and the government still talks about the need for a clearance as soon as possible.
The government approved 100% FDI in mines as far back as 1991. The Hooda Committee formed in 2006 submitted a report which made the recommendation that 26 percent of the ownership of mineral products should go to the people displaced. However, it was opposed and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 was amended in 2015 to provide each mining lease for a period of 50 years. Section 9B of the Act provided for the establishment of a District Mineral Fund for the benefit of districts affected by mining operations. The Pradhan Mantri Khanaj Kshetra Kalyan Yojana is to use the funds accruing to the DMF in order to spend on development and welfare programmes in mining affected areas. However, in practice, when people of the area expected this scheme to be an additional fund, it has replaced the normal budget in the mining affected districts.
The much touted transparency measure called the ‘e-auction’ of minerals only ensures transparency between the government and the bidder. It is not an effective reform post the Coal Scam.
In addition, there has been a steady decline in the workforce in mining due to huge informalisation. Further, in stone quarries in MP, for instance, exposure to silica has led to serious health conditions like silicosis which is the most common occupational lung disease in India and the incurable nature of it has led to deaths in various other parts of the country.
The presence of Indian mining companies in African countries like Mozambique has been a big cause of distress. But no information on the mining operations is available in the public domain. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has information on revenue, CSR, etc. A best practice in the area is the Environmental Impact Assessment Resource and Response Centre which provides legal information on forests in India.
Session 2: Grievance Redressal
- P.V. Unnikrishnan (Kerala Chief Minister’s Grievance Redressal Cell)
The idea of the CM’s Grievance Redressal Cell is to rout grievances from the CM’s office to the concerned departments. Classification, description of grievances is done for tracking and checking history. 80 percent of the grievances are received by post and the rest are by mobile/email. Those sent over mobile or email receive an acknowledgment electronically. SMS communication is made through the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing’s ‘Mobile Seva‘ service. The data is available upto a docket number. 90 percent of the cases are medical and MLA’s complaints receive top priority. There are district-level support mechanisms and e-file is a scanned copy.
The challenges to this system are both technical and social. Technical because the classification process involves a matrix of subject IDs and routing departments and the routing process is not foolproof. In the event of a false-routing, a delay in grievance redressal can occur for days. Social because by giving priority to cases brought forward by MLAs and routing it centrally through the CM’s office, it reinforces power structures that exist offline to online.
2. Inayat Sabikhi (MKSS)
Sabikhi shared her experiences of working on the implementation of the Service Delivery Guarantee Law that currently exists in Rajasthan and Bihar states. Rajasthan’s ‘e-Mitra‘ provides for Common Service Centres in rural areas and e-mitra kiosks in urban areas to provide government services from multiple departments in an easy manner. Jharkhand’s Pragya Kendras and Common Service Centres in Bihar do the same. However, there only two services currently covered under the service delivery law in Bihar: (i) Dealer’s License (ii) Ration Card. Such centres point out that there is a notified rate for a government service. This is essential, as in rural areas, a service like updating the passbook which ought to be free, is often charged Rs 10 by an intermediary.
There is a Public Grievance Redressal Officer (PGRO) at the anu-mandal-level (between district and block) and all information is digitised with a tracking ID. The PGRO calls for a public meeting with the complainant and there are records of adjournments and final orders.
3. Amrita Johri (Satark Nagarik Sanghatan)
Johri spoke in brief about the Grievance Redressal Bill pushed by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information as opposed to the 2011 Bill which expired because of the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. The GR Bill provided for an information and facilitation centre with a helpline/SMS directly to the Grievance Redressal Officer. The GRO is to hear, redress the issue within a stipulated timeframe and has both administrative and supervisory powers. It also provided for an independent authority at the district-level for appeals called the Grievance Redressal Commission in addition to social audits for all the processes. There would be automatic escalation instead of the complainant having to file an appeal. It set a penalty as GR is a sign of failure of the original system.
In an order by the PMO on June 24th, 2014, the government promised to:
(i) Pass a Grievance Redressal Bill
(ii) Make amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act
(iii) Set up Lokpal
By March 2016, these plans shifted from passing laws to policies. However, an RTI request revealed that the policy has not been passed by the Cabinet.
Pic: Amrita Johri, Anjali Bhardwaj (SNS, NCPRI); Inayat Sabikhi (MKSS)
This concludes the notes from various sessions on Section 4 disclosures under the RTI Act for different sectors and states. To recap:
- How to build information dissemination platforms with people in mind?
- Develop primers on existing information systems which help people online and offline.
- Audit existing government websites to assess how much information is shared, how comprehensively is it shared and at what levels of aggregation/disaggregation it is shared.