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Sanjeev Sanyal: Tell me the rules!

How a small reform can transform India

Sanjeev Sanyal  |  New Delhi 

The poor quality of general governance is widely acknowledged as India’s central problem. One hears this ad nauseum at conferences, seminars, newspaper editorials and casual conversation. Many suggestions have been put forward ranging from reform of municipal government to that of political campaign financing. All of these initiatives are important and must be pursued. However, my own experience suggests that we need to resolve an even more basic problem that pervades the daily life of a common citizen.

The essential premise of all systems of governance is that common citizens follow the rules of the land. In turn, this assumes that the citizen knows the rules or can easily find them. Unfortunately, this is no simple task in India.

There are a plethora of rules, procedures and forms that apply to routine activities like getting a driver’s licence, applying for a gas connection, setting up a business, building a home and so on. I am not talking here about the great laws that are contained in the Constitution or debated in Parliament. I am referring to the little rules and regulations that govern daily life. These rules are usually set by government departments, local bodies and other agencies. Even if the original guidelines are clear, these rules are inevitably subject to change. Very soon we find ourselves in a quagmire of modified sub-clauses, exemptions, internal contradictions and complex procedures. Note that I am not really commenting on the quality of the law — that is a major subject in its own right. I am merely pointing out that it is nearly impossible for even the most law-abiding citizen to know exactly what is expected. Not surprisingly, this leads to large-scale corruption, harassment and inefficiency. Indeed, it sometimes feels that the whole framework has been deliberately set up for rent-seeking.

What should we do?
Given the above situation, we need a fundamental change in the way common citizens are informed about the laws, rules and regulations that they are expected to follow. Here are three simple steps that would dramatically tilt the scales in their favour:

First, it must be made mandatory that all rules, procedures and forms be placed on the website of the relevant agency or department as well as prominently pasted on the office notice-board in English and Hindi (and/or the local language). Today, we have an arbitrary system where some agencies put up their rules on the Web and some do not. More often than not, the information is partial, out-of-date or simply misleading. Under the new framework, a rule or procedure will be deemed not to apply unless the citizens have been given a fighting chance to know about it. If the rule on the website or notice-board is wrong or incomplete, then that is what applies. If a form is not mentioned clearly and provided, then it need not be filled out. This is not entirely a new principle because major laws, such as those passed by Parliament, come into effect only after they have been notified in the Gazzette of India. I am merely extending this to apply to all government rules and, at the same time, asking for it to be delivered through a more accessible and modern medium.

Second, all laws, regulations and procedures must be presented as a coherent whole rather than as a series of circulars and notifications. At present, a citizen needs to follow a complex paper trail in order to understand what is expected of her. Even officials do not often know the current state of the law (or pretend not to know). I can understand that in the old days it may have made sense to update rules by appending a sub-clause. This makes no sense today when it is just as easy to make the change in the main text and then highlight it using italics. Wikipedia provides a good illustration of how we can constantly update a certain text while allowing easy comparison with past versions. Thus, the citizen is always presented with a clear set of guidelines at every point in time. It will have the side-benefit that many internal contradictions in the law will become self-evident and can be corrected. Again, this is not entirely a new idea since we already do something similar for important central laws. I am merely asking for this process to be institutionalised and strictly enforced.

Finally, the time and date must be mentioned every time a rule or regulation is uploaded or changed. This is very important because it will tell the citizen when the new law has come into effect. Preferably, the law should come into effect after a few days (say a week) after the change has been notified in order to allow the citizen to comply. The government’s software can be easily set up so that officials cannot manipulate the date on which the notice was issued. Note that Wikipedia is again a good model to follow because it creates a history of each rule and tells us exactly when each change was made.

The transparent state
Many of the problems of governance in India flow from the lack of transparency. The above change — preferably enshrined in legislation — would make the state transparent and strengthen public institutions at the cost of individual incumbents. In turn, this would dramatically reduce rent-seeking and inefficiency. The necessary information-technology platform is simple and already exists. Furthermore, it does not have to be introduced everywhere at the same time but can be introduced in one state or department at a time. Most importantly, it will cost virtually nothing to set up and even less to maintain. The real problem will be one of mindset. Today, the attitude is that the rules can be changed arbitrarily without making any effort to inform the citizen. My proposals will make it the business of the state to clearly notify the common citizen of her rights and duties.

The author is president of the Sustainable Planet Institute

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First Published: Wed, October 13 2010. 00:21 IST