If civil society activism is steel and concrete, media is the sand and cement of the fourth pillar. The impact of public movements led by leaders of civil society in shaping laws and institutions is considerable. During 2013-14, the anti-corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare influenced the passing of the Lokpal law and a threat of repeat of the agitation in 2018 led to the establishment of the Lokpal.
Civil rights groups and concerned citizens exercised considerable influence in the birth of Right to Information Act, 2005. Even before the Act came into existence, openness of governance and restructuring of party and government was advocated by the former President of Soviet Union, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev. The RTI Act is only one facet of openness in administration and perestroika means restructuring of party and government. Glasnost means transparency in governance.
The RTI Act is only a part of glasnost. It is the beginning of openness. Openness in administration means that administration is carried to the doorstep of a common man. The District Collector and Superintendent of Police can visit a cluster of villages every month, listen to people’s problems and solve them at the earliest (less than a month). It is not the same as endorsing a petition to a subordinate, who in turn endorses it to his junior and further down the channel. Time is the essence of problem resolution.
If the Director, Anti-Corruption Bureau visits district headquarters, more complaints will come forth and there will be awareness and a sense of fear in corrupt officials of key departments. Secondly, the District Collector and Superintendent of Police need to address the media including electronic media every fortnight and apprise the public of the various facets of the administration. For want of space I am not going into details. They should take care to give a true picture of crime and various aspects of the working of the Revenue and other departments. The Assistant Commissioners of Police in cities need to move out in their jurisdiction at least twice a week to solve people’ grievances instead of citizens doing the rounds of police stations.
It is also equally important that senior officers are accessable on phone to the common man. Their phone numbers need to be easily available. There should not be rank and status consciousness in attending to people’s problems. After all, Gandhiji went to Champaran village (when communications were poor) to listen to sharecroppers’ grievances and then took it up with the District Collector. If crimes are in the millions, grievances will be in the billions. A legislation modeled as “openness in administration” can provide a platform to address people’s problems. RTI Act (even if information is furnished) can only expose a wrongful omission or commission and no more.
If a gun licence is to be renewed, why not deliver it at the doorstep by collecting the fee. Why should senior citizens etc., need to go to the bank, pay the challan and then go to the Deputy Commissioner’s office for a simple renewal? The same logic holds true for renewal of passport and municipal building permissions. Openness of administration is the key to good governance. Many crimes occur daily. Some are reported, others are not reported, and some are not registered. Not registering (not taking cognizance of an offence) is a bigger malaise in administration. Police, tax authorities, CBI, ED, ACB etc., are public authorities and are paid from public exchequer. They are duty bound to act.
For genuine transparency, all public authorities including judges of higher judiciary need to make annual disclosure of their assets public. There is nothing unreasonable or undemocratic in demanding representation to civil society in the “collegium” system of appointments to higher Judiciary since the system itself lacks a legal base.
Civil society includes media. Civil society movement lead by late Jayaprakash Narain against the emergency rule of Late Indira Gandhi and the media campaign against it led by newspapers like the Indian Express and the Statesman impacted its repeal. While unelected public institutions like the bureaucracy, police and Supreme Court could not oppose the authoritarian rule, civil society and media took up the cudgels.
Unselfishness is God said Swami Vivekananda. This trait is a supreme virtue. We have seen the best and most honest Presidents of the Republic and Governors succumbing to selfishness and swearing in the crime-tainted as Ministers. If they refuse, there may be temporary setback in the formation of Ministry, but it will have the effect of eliminating the evil of inducting the crime-tainted into the Council of Ministers. Here too, civil society needs to step in and leaders like Anna Hazare should take the initiative to launch a movement to cleanse public life of crime-tainted politicians.
We pay lip service to the accountability principle. It is not translated into law. For any allegation of abuse of power by the judges, accountability law is a solution to some extent. Civil society activists need to be up in arms for a sound legislation on accountability since the principle is critical for functional democracy and good governance. The political value of democracy needs to promote public values of integrity and efficiency in administration, judiciary, police etc.
Late Chowdhary Charan Singh, former Prime Minister, while he was Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh introduced a Lok Ayukta bill in the Assembly which made nepotism and favouritism as “offences” and it included the office of Chief Minister in its purview. Now almost all Lok Ayukta laws exclude the office of Chief Minister. Most Lok Ayuktas have no power of investigation, search and seizure, arrest and prosecution. They can only inquire and send their reports to government. Any progressive law and the subject of anti-corruption needs to expand the scope of offences and not allow them to shrink. For example, the 2018 amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (which became a progressive law in the course of time) deleted the offence of “abuse of public office”. Added to it, the offence of “disproportionate assets” was diluted. Therefore, there is need to associate credible civil society members in shaping or in amending the provisions of law.
There is considerable dishonesty in framing fiscal, banking and special laws. So also, international agreements that pose hurdles for repatriation of black money deposited in foreign banks. More often laws represent class interests. For example, bribing voters in elections is a minor offence under Electoral Law wherein conviction and sentencing is a rarity while bribing a Minister or a public official is a serious offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. If one steals a mango from another’s garden, it is an offence while bank loan evasion worth lakhs of crore rupees is no criminal offence. Deeper involvement of civil society is needed in governance and law-making process in order to make democracy people oriented. The writings of celebrity thinkers, media editorials, the initiative of civil society activists, RTI activists and genuine Public Interest Litigation activists contributed a bit in checking abuse of State power and influencing public policies.
After all, the history a nation or its quality as a civilization is largely judged by how it handles crime, corruption, wrongdoings and violence in society and more so in the ranks of the governing classes. It is also judged on how it promoted human rights, protected public safety and health as well as public morals.