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Bringing Change

written by Shailesh Gandhi September 21, 2017
Bringing Change

Photograh by Aman Bhargava

When I was in IIT, some of us had been interviewed for a documentary– “I am 20”[1]– in 1967.  I had then said, “Freedom in India means freedom to starve, go naked, be uneducated and die of hunger.”   I was  critical about the conditions in India and felt we had failed to achieve our goals. After graduation I set up an industry in plastic packaging. To me providing livelihoods was one of the key priorities, and at the end of the last century we employed 500 people.

About two decades back at an alumni function a faculty member asked me, “When you were in IIT, you were very critical about society and the nation. What do you think now?” The first thought that came was that we still had grinding and debilitating poverty; lack of education and public health still ailed us. In terms of ethics, fairness, and honesty we had gone down the slope. But it also occurred to me, that at 20 when I criticized society and the nation, it was implied that we would do better.   I realized that my generation had not delivered. At 20 I could blame others, at 50 I had to take the responsibility. I told him my thoughts and then started thinking of what I should do and came to the conclusion that I should devote myself to making the change that I desired.

About two decades back at an alumni function a faculty member asked me, “When you were in IIT, you were very critical about society and the nation. What do you think now?”

I sold my business in 2003 and was introduced to Right to Information (RTI) at that time.  The classic definition of democracy is “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” In Indian languages we call it Swaraj (my rule), or Lokshahi (Sovereignty of the individual). The reason we call India a democracy is because we have a reasonably fair system of elections. But the real concept of the sovereignty of the individual is absent. There is very little respect for the individual citizen. If citizens could access information about how their government takes decisions, or spends their money, they could monitor it effectively. RTI gives access to most government information to a citizen.

Nine States had RTI acts including Maharashtra before the National Act came. I started using the Maharashtra RTI Act and realized its huge potential for citizen empowerment and how it could empower the individual citizen to get herself respect. I started doing RTI workshops to bring awareness about RTI and its unique potential of bringing real democracy. It was also fairly evident that if citizens were accessing information of the records in government offices, it could bring greater accountability and slowly reduce corruption.

I realized that my generation had not delivered. At 20 I could blame others, at 50 I had to take the responsibility.

In 2004 the government accepted the idea of a National RTI Act and some of us had an opportunity to actively negotiate about the provisions in the law.  The law was passed by Parliament in May 2005 and became operational on 12 October, 2005.  It empowers citizens to access all information from government offices. There are only ten categories of information which can be denied. No reasons have to be given for demanding information and most information should be given suo moto. When a RTI request is made, information has to be provided within 30 days. This law works because it has a penalty clause which mandates a personal penalty up to Rs. 25000 if a government officer does not provide information, or delays it ‘without reasonable cause’. To settle disputes on interpreting the law and implement it, Information Commissions have been set up in the States and at the Centre. Unfortunately most Information Commissioners are selected in a completely arbitrary manner and the selection is usually an act of political patronage. This is true of most Commissioners, regulators, Lokayuktas, and Governors. These are our checks and balances of democracy, but have little effectiveness since there is no transparency in the selection process. There was a civil society demand for better Information Commissioners and I was invited to be a Central Information Commissioner in end 2008. I must confess that this was a rare random occurrence, and those who selected me knew almost nothing about me, and there was no process.

The reason we call India a democracy is because we have a reasonably fair system of elections. But the real concept of the sovereignty of the individual is absent. There is very little respect for the individual citizen.

I had been critical about the working of the Information Commissioners and the backlog of cases they were building, which at that time was around one year and growing. Most Commissioners were disposing less than 2000 cases per year. I disposed most cases in less than 90 days and averaged a disposal of 5400 cases a year. I realized that paper files in working were pretty messy and hence converted my Commission into a paperless digital office in 2010 [2]. I have been advocating a digital paperless working in all government offices. It will lead to considerable increase in efficiency and reduction in corruption. This would also facilitate bringing transparency and accountability in governance apart from saving thousands of crores.

I think a major problem in our nation is lack of good governance. There are serious design flaws owing to which this occurs. Corruption is the byproduct of a system not designed to deliver. To give just a few examples of better systems requirement:

  1. There are no HR specialists in government. There is no system to really select, evaluate, motivate and punish officers.
  2. The government does not work in a digital mode, without paper files.
  3. Our judicial system is dysfunctional since over 20% of sanctioned positions of judges are not filled.

No nation can perform well unless its government works well. There is hardly any attention being paid to this area. There is a great need to recognize the reasons for the government’s inability to deliver [3], and find solutions for this. Citizens need to take responsibility and spend maybe two hours every week to identify the root causes for bottlenecks in the government’s working and then try and find ways of implementing solutions. If IIT Alumni took this as their responsibility it would be possible to bring a better government by design. That would be true payback to the nation.

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