A handbook to empower citizens

Many readers despair of getting justice or quality services from what is increasingly seen as a callous, corrupt and unreformable government. Hence middle class participation in elections is dropping like a stone.

Media peddling escapist entertainment are doing splendidly, while those attempting serious political and social analyses are withering. Cynicism has spread to the point where mere bribery or embezzlement has ceased to shock, and those wanting a better life would rather migrate to the USA than attempt to reform the system within.

Yet much of the problem stems not from a callous government but a lazy, ineffective citizenry that fails to utilise rights they are entitled to. This has just been proved by a bunch of youngsters who, under the guidance of an NGO called Centre for Civil Society, have put together the Delhi Citizen Handbook, 2003. This is timely, coming just before the Delhi election. But it is no mere election-directed pamphlet. It is a thoughtful guide on how the governance of a city can be improved, and how citizens themselves can play an important role in taking control of the rules that control their lives.

The 10 top findings of the handbook would do justice to veteran newspaper reporters.

1. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Department has 28 inspectors to oversee 1.5 lakh establishments. At one outlet per day, an outlet would be inspected only once in 17 years. No wonder adulteration is rampant.

2. More than 40 per cent of children who pass Class V from municipal schools cannot read or write their names.

3. The Delhi Transport Corporation employs 12 people per bus and loses Rs 25 crore/month. Private bus operators employ 6 persons per bus and make profits.

4. Farmers pay 7-15 per cent commission to agents at wholesale markets that are the monopoly of the Delhi Agriculture Marketing Board.

5. Delhi has 36 safai karmcharis per 10,000 population. Other metros have 18-20.

6. Over Rs 4 crore of taxpayers’ money has been wasted in an Old Age Pension scheme where 37.5 per cent of beneficiaries were ineligible. In 168 cases the beneficiaries had died, yet pension payments continued.

7. The Holiday Homes for industrial workers run by the Labour department subsidised beneficiaries by Rs 1,545 each in Mussorie and Rs 2,612 each in Hardwar in 2000-01.

8. The Drug Control department has 29 inspectors for over 5,000 retailers. Unsurprisingly, the fake drug market is flourishing, with sales of Rs 4,000 crore/year.

9. The Delhi Financial Corporation overstated its profits by at least Rs 171.25 lakh in 2002-03.

10. Only 3.6 per cent of MLA local area development funds were spent in 1999-00, and 52.2 per cent in 20020-03. This is an impressive list of shortcomings. Yet let nobody think that the handbook is just a litany of complaints. It is a very constructive attempt to find solutions, and empower ordinary citizens to do so. In particular, the Handbook focuses on how citizens can use the Right to Information Act as a powerful weapon.

Not all of us have the stamina or passion to undertake inquiries for the public benefit. But many of us want our own grievances to be rectified. The Handbook gives a list of steps anybody can use to pursue their grievances. The mere fact that questions are being asked can be enough to have your grievance rectified. The apparent callousness of the government is often an illusion arising from lack of transparency: neither the rulers nor the ruled know what is going on. This hurts politicians no less than citizens: concerned politicians simply do not know what is going wrong. Make the information public, and petty bureaucrats suddenly lose their power over people.

A decade ago, Samuel Paul pioneered a Citizen Report Card in Bangalore. This was a rating by citizens of the quality of public services they were receiving. It made transparent what was not working, and induced much better government response. Citizen Report Cards are now advocated by the World Bank and other agencies as a powerful tool of citizen empowerment.

The Delhi handbook is another such tool. I would urge citizens in all cities to set up civic groups and bring out their own handbooks. You can get a copy of the Delhi handbook on the internet by going to www.ccsindia.org You will be asked for your user name and password. Type “handbook” as your user name and “delhi” as the password. You can then download and print out the entire handbook. I think it would be a great idea if somebody started a competition between cities for the best city handbook of the year. We need competition in our civic space no less than in our business space.

What do you think?