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A K Bhattacharya: The other side of reforms

Whatever may have been the pace, sequence or quality of reforms in the last two decades, nobody can dispute their positive impact on the degree of accountability in governance standards

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We are living in exciting times. is uncovering the unholy nexus between business and political power. Politicians as a class need to worry about their credibility. Governments are getting exposed for their complicity in the subordination of public interest to the commercial objectives of a few well-connected private entities. All this is happening with the help of a media whose own initiative to unearth scandals is quite patchy, but which is fairly generous in giving coverage to any scam brought to light — either by Mr Kejriwal or the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

All that is happening now is somewhat similar to what the Hindu scriptures referred to as the , or the churning of the ocean. This process may have given rise to a lot of negativity and encouraged people in business, politics and government to brood over all that could be wrong and refrain from taking decisions. However, like the churning of the ocean, a lot of good is also likely to result, if the same people in business, politics and government were only to draw the right lessons from the current turmoil. So, instead of despairing over how the current environment of negativity and policy paralysis has harmed business and economy, it might make better sense for the government, the political parties in opposition and business leaders to press for reforms and more reforms.

Why more reforms? That is because more reforms can bring about greater transparency in decision making and introduce even greater accountability for those who take decisions and do business. Whatever may have been the pace, sequence or in the last two decades, nobody can dispute their on the degree of accountability and transparency in governance standards across sectors. Ironically, it is this simple message that is likely to be ignored in the midst of the current negativity over corruption and scandals. Indeed, if the country wishes to move ahead, it must once again bat for more reforms, since it is with the help of several reform initiatives in the last 20 years that the people of this country could unravel wrong deals and bring the government to book.

Imagine the relative ease with which Mr Kejriwal accessed the balance sheets of the many companies that runs! Could he have done that before the corporate affairs ministry’s much-celebrated got off the ground? Accessing balance sheets of private limited companies was next to impossible until the government in 2006 allowed these documents to be accessed online. Getting hold of a balance sheet of an unlisted company was a near-impossible task. Visits to the regional offices of the registrar of companies, dealing with the unfriendly officers manning them and, finally, the need to physically search the files ensured that data for unlisted companies hardly came out in public domain. All this changed with MCA 21, when in order to access a balance sheet of a company registered anywhere in the country, all you needed was to pay a token amount of Rs 50 and see the document online. With MCA 21 around, even unlisted companies and their dealings are now open to public scrutiny.

Take, for instance, the , one of the major initiatives of the United Progressive Alliance government. In spite of attempts being made to dilute its provisions, the law has had a beneficial impact on governance. True, the new law has often been misused to settle personal scores. But its efficacy in ensuring transparency in decision-making processes can hardly be underestimated. Today, government departments are aware that an application under the act can bring out in public domain instances of irregularities, if any. The law, in effect, works towards safeguarding the interests of the people.

What has helped reforms on this path towards greater accountability and transparency is technology. With the use of the internet and information technology devices, the government has introduced several reform initiatives in the areas of house tax assessment and payment, passport issuance services and tax payments. These online services empower consumers and eliminate corruption. Imagine what would have happened if the Haryana government had introduced an online system for either land registration or transfer of land ownership! Some states have already begun the process of online registration of property. The sooner these proposals are implemented, the better for the country.

The need of the hour is to use technology to further minimise human interface when the government dispenses any service for the people. Technology can also be used to share more information on government processes in a large number of public service areas, without any security implications. Reforms in such areas should be speeded up and this would also empower people. We may still need an Arvind Kejriwal and an alert media to uncover corruption or corporate scandals. But the spectre of online transparency and monitoring through open access will ensure that the government, politicians and businesses become more responsible in their dealings. That should count as another gain from reforms.

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