The Kerala government’s decision to enact a Right to Hearing (RTH) Act signifies the entrenchment of an idea that has come to stay. Ever since the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, the fate of government schemes and public perception of governance has been ineluctably linked to transparency and responsiveness. Kerala is following in the footsteps of Rajasthan which enacted the RTH Act in August 2012.
Rajasthan’s RTH Act was a corollary to the instant success achieved by a predecessor legislation, the Rajasthan Public Services Guarantee (RPSG) Act, 2011, which covered 153 services offered by 18 government departments. In its first year, the RPSG Act received 57 lakh complaints of which 56.3 lakh complaints were disposed of. The obvious inference to be drawn from this huge public response was the need to empower the citizen. The Rajasthan government must be credited for quickly acting on the realisation that a right to hearing could tilt the scales in favour of the citizen
This is where the RTH Act is a game-changer. In Rajasthan, officials are now designated as public hearing officers at the gram panchayat, tehsil, district and division levels with corresponding appellate authorities too. RTH offers a single-window at all tiers for citizens to register complaints. Complainants get a dated receipt bearing the date and location of a public hearing where an officer from every department is to be present. After receiving the complaint at the hearing, the official concerned must give a response within 21 days failing which the aggrieved citizen can approach the appellate authority which has the discretion of penal action on the errant official. By September 2013, Rajsamand district, where the RTH Act was first implemented, received 30,513 complaints and disposed of 29,966. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan, spearhead of the RTI movement in Rajasthan and later across India, has reported that RTH has effectively addressed grievances against panchayats and some government departments and schemes but would need awareness campaigns and proactive disclosures to sustain this latest rights-based legislation. Similarly positive, the Planning Commission highlighted the importance of training gram panchayats, setting up IT platforms to cut paper-work, and tackling frivolous and mala fide complaints.
But for such revolutionary legislations to strike roots in every state and gram panchayat, the central government’s intervention is decisive. A key legislation — Right Of Citizens For Time Bound Delivery Of Goods And Services And Redressal Of Their Grievances Bill, 2011 — has unfortunately lapsed with the 15th Lok Sabha. With the Lokpal Act, many states without Lokayuktas have to institute them in a year.
Similarly, this lapsed bill would have required all public authorities across India from the panchayat level upwards to appoint grievance redress officers and publish citizens charters guaranteeing timely delivery of services. The approach of the Congress governments at the Centre, obsessed with rolling out subsidies and schemes in a cavalier manner to shore up its welfarist credentials, and in Rajasthan and Kerala, have differed. The latter realised the way to a voter’s heart is shorter through the RTH Act ensuring effective implementation and better targeting of government schemes and services. Ironically, neither the RTH or the RPSG Act could save the erstwhile Ashok Gehlot government from a ruthless drubbing. The Oommen Chandy government in Kerala, another pioneer in cutting red tape through the immensely popular mass contact programmes, may not fare better either. But then, elections are decided by a host of factors. Regardless of electoral fortunes, a political consensus to ensure the continuity of this progress towards accountable and transparent governance is non-negotiable.