Early this year, a group of eminent citizens under the chairmanship of eminent legal luminary, Justice AP Shah, brought out a document titled “Reclaiming the Republic” which analyses and puts forth issues that are of deep concern to people and asks to protect and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards for India’s democratic polity. The issues addressed are relevant and every citizen can identify with them. Hence, capturing the essence of their work, on the eve of the Independence Day tomorrow is important.
For chalking out the components required for effective public accountability and proactive public participation, the following issues have been identified:
A strong right to information (RTI) regime which citizens able to access relevant information;
Prevention of Corruption Act, which comprehensively defines corruption and provides an independent mechanism for investigation and prosecution in cases of corruption;
Independent and empowered anticorruption ombudsman - Lokpal and Lokayuktas;
An effective whistleblower protection law;
A statutory mechanism which guarantees people the right to time-bound redress of grievances in a decentralised manner;
A legal framework for pre-legislative consultation that gives citizens the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process of making laws and policies that affect them;
A statutory framework to empower citizens to monitor and undertake social audits of government programmes. While, in some cases, enactment of appropriate laws is required, in others where relevant laws already exist, specific measures to ensure proper implementation are needed.
The range of reforms that have been proposed include:
• Doing away with several antiquated and draconian laws which have been widely misused to curtail personal liberties and intimidate political activists;
• Reforms to repair the damage done to anti-corruption institutions and putting in place a functional law and institutions to deal with public grievances;
• Judicial reforms aimed at making the judiciary more independent, accessible, efficient and accountable. Because: The judiciary today is not accessible to a majority of the people who cannot afford lawyers. It is virtually dysfunctional as cases take decades to be decided. There are serious concerns about the quality of judgements and corruption in the judiciary. It, therefore, needs comprehensive reforms. To begin with, informal courts envisaged as Gram Nyayalayas are needed, which can function without lawyers and where normal disputes of common people can be decided quickly. The procedures of the courts need to be simplified and made much less formal. The number of judges needs to be increased and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods, particularly conciliation, need to be used in a more professional manner.
• Reforming the implementation of law through a set of police reforms in accordance with the Supreme Court’s judgement;
• Electoral reforms aimed at reducing the influence of money power in elections and making the electoral system more democratic. Because: A system of free and fair elections, in a minimum sense of the term, has been a noteworthy achievement of Indian democracy. Yet, the mechanism of political representation does not encourage or provide meaningful and substantive choices to the citizens. Asymmetry of information and money ensures that there is no level playing field for political competition. Wide ranging electoral reforms, along with reform of political institutions, are needed.
• Media reforms aimed at making the media freer, more diverse and accountable through an independent regulator; Because: Certain draconian legislations such as sedition, blasphemy and censorship laws are often invoked by State agencies in a bid to curb media freedom and free speech. Further, in the past two to three years, there has been an increasing use of strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) by corporates to intimidate and silence media initiatives, especially investigative journalism, by burdening them with the cost of protracted legal battles and threat of huge payouts.
There is no institutional framework for accountability of the media and licensing powers vest exclusively with the government, thereby allowing it to wield influence over the media. The public broadcaster is also under the control of the government, thereby thwarting any meaningful, independent reportage.
• Health reforms to ensure that the public health delivery system is put in place across the country and healthcare is affordable and accessible to all;
• Educational reforms to ensure properly staffed and funded government schools and better endowed, oriented and regulated higher educational institutions;
• Agricultural reforms to ensure that farmers receive remunerative prices for their produce, are freed from indebtedness and that we move towards more healthy and sustainable farm practices;
• Environmental reforms to ensure that environmental costs and benefits of every developmental project is examined by proper, independent regulatory bodies, especially if it involves the destruction of forests, coasts and other eco sensitive zones. Because: Articles 48A and 51A of the Indian Constitution require the State and the citizens, respectively to protect the environment. The States and Union governments have neither shown the requisite political will nor have they empowered citizens and communities to fulfil their Constitutional duty to protect the environment.
• Policies and programmes to ensure health, education, employment and social security to especially disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, SC/STs, women, Muslims, etc. Because: The implementation of criminal law by a police controlled by the executive has led to widespread misuse by the government in power. This was sought to be remedied by the Supreme Court in the police reforms judgement, which unfortunately remain unimplemented. The Parliament and States must pass Police Acts in accordance with that judgement and also provide for a 33% reservation for women in the police force.
• Extension and expansion of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) to guarantee to every adult at least 150 days of work a year at minimum wages; and
• Universal basic services for all citizens, including universal pension for the aged and special provisions for specially disadvantaged groups.
• Enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and establishing independent commissions for looking into systemic injustice meted out to vulnerable groups.
States RTI Activist Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of this eminent citizen panel, "These proposed policies and programmes are neither optional, nor unaffordable for an economy of our size. We have examined the financial costs involved in providing for such welfare measures and are of the opinion that additional costs involved can be mobilised with the help of a small turnover tax, wealth tax and inheritance tax, besides doing away with many irrational corporate subsidies. A substantial part of this additional spending is likely to come back to the government as indirect tax revenue.’’
List of members of `Reclaiming the Republic’ initiative include Justice AP Shah (chairperson) Prashant Bhushan (convenor), Anjali Bhardwaj (convenor), Aakar Patel, Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson, Deepak Nayyar, EAS Sarma, Gopal Guru, Gopal Gandhi, Harsh Mander, Jayati Ghosh, Kavitha Kuruganti, Krishna Kumar, Nikhil Dey, Paul Divakar, Prabhat Patnaik, P Sainath, Ravi Chopra, SP Shukla, Srinath Reddy, Sujatha Rao, Sakthi Selvaraj, Syeda Hameed, Vipul Mudgal, Wajahat Habibullah and Yogendra Yadav.
The entire booklet can be accessed here:
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.