Voice against apathy
HOLDING THE STATE TO ACCOUNT Citizen Monitoring in Action: Samuel Paul; Pub. by Public Affairs Centre, Books for Change, 139, Richmond Road, Bangalore-560025. Rs. 200 (paperback).
IN THE Indian context, charges and taxes paid by the citizen to various Government and statutory agencies, and the return that they get for these payments have little or no functional link.
If civic agencies claim to spend hundreds of crores each year but do not provide motorable roads, water supply agencies penalise those who do not pay charges, without any obligation to provide measurable levels of service.
Electricity boards have no commitment or compulsion to supply quality power without interruption, but users face disconnection if charges are not remitted periodically. The state of public sector telephone service is not very different.
In this ``seller's market'' for services characterised by corruption, inefficiency and lack of transparency, Bangalore showed that things could be different. The book under review is the story of the triumph of the middle class and the poor of that city, of the blueprint that they drew up to wage a sustained campaign against politics sans accountability and apathetic officialdom.
It is a well-documented account of Bangalore's ``report cards'' method that conducted surveys and statistically proved that citizens were deeply unhappy with the state of services and the people who ran them.
What is more, it virtually unmasked individual departments, which were evading all accountability, by quantifying the level of dissatisfaction among the public with their services.
The rarity of such an attempt brought it into national focus and this book explains it all. It also stands out as a model for getting user feedback, a scientific tool that will show service providers in their true colours, without the gloss of official pronouncements and promises methods that private sector uses regularly to keep ahead of the competition.
Samuel Paul, a former professor and director of the Indian Institute of Management, who founded the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore, narrates in the book the genesis of the report card, its remarkable effort to quantify public reaction to various services and the social trigger for action that it provides.
The report cards are opinion polls that quantify public dissatisfaction over service levels in the Bangalore City Corporation, the city's Development Authority, the Transport Corporation, the RTO, Water Supply and Sewerage, Telecom, and Electricity agencies, among others. As with many cities, the lowest levels of satisfaction were with the Development Authority and the RTOs.
He apparently draws heavily on his work at international organisations like the U.N., the World Bank and the ILO, and the report card initiative benefited from the involvement of personalities like Raja Ramanna and P. C. Alexander.
The responses of Bangalore's residents, both middle class and the not-so-affluent, make the important contribution of throwing powerful numbers at authority, on where they failed.
The book raises moments of great hope, as the report cards draw the attention of those in authority, but also records the disappointments of how reforms brought about by the cards fell by the wayside because politicians interfered with responsive bureaucracy.
The setting up of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force by the S. M. Krishna Government is viewed by the author and his colleagues as a vindication of their civil society initiative to bring accountability to State-run services.
The book must be a definite addition to the library of any activist, as it is a manual for action. For the media, it provides key perspectives in analysing user concerns vis-à-vis services, and the many areas that can be potentially investigated in a city context.
The budget of the municipal corporations, which is perhaps the least scrutinised, is one such area for closer scrutiny, a clear example of which is provided, in the Bangalore context.
NGOs in many cities would benefit from the systematic approach adopted to assess levels of service be it on the quality of roads laid or the kind of healthcare delivery that Government provides.
As the author points out, often, it is not the lack of spending ability but the poor returns that the public gets for the invested tax funds, that is the cause for lack of development.
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