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December 7, 2011

Upcoming Laws on Delivery of Public Services

One of the key demands by Anna Hazare on the Lok Pal Bill was to include provisions to redress grievances of citizens. Indeed, this demand was one of the three key issues discussed by Parliament in a special Saturday sitting in August. A few states have passed laws in this regard. It is interesting to note that three pieces of legislation at the central level address this issue. A set of Rules notified under the Information Technology Act, 2000 has provisions to ensure that public services are provided through electronic channels. The Electronic Services Delivery Bill, 2011, which has been slated for introduction in the current session of Parliament has similar provisions, with an administrative mechanism. The government has also published the draft Citizen’s Right to Grievance Redress Bill, 2010 for public feedback. We discuss the main features of these statutes.

The Electronic Service Delivery Rules 2011 were notified in April 2011 to enable the government to use electronic means to deliver services. The objective was that services such as filing of income tax returns, applications for passports, payment of central excise tax, issue of permits etc. could be provided through the internet. The government may authorise various entities to provide these services for a fee.

Even before these Rules were notified, several government departments had started internet enabled access to services. For example, over five million income tax returns were e-filed in 2009-10 and 15 million PAN cards were allotted through online applications in that period.

It must be noted that these Rules enable departments to use electronic commerce, and to outsource such work. However, there is no requirement for every department to provide services through these channels.

The Electronic Service Delivery Bill, 2010 requires the central and state governments to deliver all public services through the electronic mode within a period of five years from the enactment of the Bill. The Bill recognises the head of every department in the central and state government as the competent authority for ensuring service delivery through electronic means. The government shall notify the list of services which are not feasible to be provided through electronic mode (for example, if it needs a test such as for a driving licence). The government is also required to create a mechanism to address the grievance of any person who is aggrieved by the outcome of a request made for e-service.

The Bill also creates mechanisms similar to the Right to Information Act to ensure that such services are provided. There is a three-person commission in each state and at the national level (Interestingly, only retired civil servants can become members of the commissions). Any person may appeal to the central or state commission if a department head or their subordinate does not comply with the provisions of the Bill. The commission may impose a fine up to Rs 5,000 on the department head or her subordinate.

This Bill will override all other Acts on this topic (including the Rules discussed above). Unlike those Rules, which are of an enabling nature, this Bill will make it compulsory for every department to provide the option of obtaining services through electronic channels. However, it does not have some of the features of those Rules such as enabling service fees and requiring electronic signatures. It also does not specify safeguards to protect the confidentiality of information collected. Even current systems are lax in this regard. For example, the PAN number of any person can be accessed by providing the name and date of birth.

The draft Citizens Right to Grievance Redress Bill, 2010 requires every public authority to publish a citizen’s charter within six months of the commencement of the Act. Public authorities include Constitutional institutions, statutory bodies and NGOs that are substantially financed by the government.

The citizen’s charter has to include (a) the details of the goods and services to be provided by the public authority; (b) the name of the authorised person responsible for providing the goods and services; (c) time frame to provide these; (d) class of people entitled to receive these; (e) grievance redressal mechanism; and (f) any other obligation of the public authority.

The Bill provides a grievance redressal mechanism. Every public authority is required to set up an information and facilitation centres to ensure effective delivery of goods and services. Grievance redressal officers (GRO) have to be appointed at every level, i.e., central, state, district and municipalities to inquire into complaints. All complaints must be acknowledged within a day. The GRO has to ensure that complaints are remedied within 15 days and grievances addressed within a month. The complainant will also receive an action taken report.

The Bill also sets up an appellate procedure. The central government and state governments have to appoint public grievance redressal commissions. If a complainant is unsatisfied with the decision of the GRO, he can appeal to the head of the department within 30 days; the appeal has to be disposed of in 30 days. Appeals against this decision will lie with the state commission and the central commission.

The Bill specifies the selection committee for the state and central commissions. The state commission will be selected by a panel of the chief minister, leader of the opposition and a High Court judge. The central commission will be selected by the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and a Supreme Court judge.

The head of the department or the state or central commission may initiate proceedings against any official if they believe there is prima facie evidence of a corrupt action. They may also impose a penalty (at rates to be specified in the Rules) for acting in a malafide manner. However, unlike the draft Electronic Service Delivery Bill and the Right to Information Act, there is no penalty if malafide intent is not established.

The widespread frustration with the government’s delivery mechanisms for public services was evident during the Jan Lok Pal agitation. There are three new mechanisms that have been proposed. Two of these focus on electronic delivery mechanisms, thus eliminating the need of human interaction at the service centre, and the potential for harassment and rents. The third tries to make existing delivery systems more accountable by publishing service standards and grievance redressal mechanisms. The two Bills are still at the consultation stage, and interested citizens should engage with the ministry and the parliamentary standing committee to provide their feedback.


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