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Saturday, January 5, 2002

Rashid is a resident of Hyderabad. Some years ago he needed a no objection certificate from MCH to sell his house, and for that he had to clear all property tax dues. He approached MCH to know how much he owed in taxes. He was not seeking a favour. He wanted to pay taxes. And yet, even for this information he was made to run from pillar to post. After 9 months and 36 visits he got the answer. But only after he shelled out as a bribe an amount equal to half the tax due! This is not an isolated case. Any citizen who approaches any government agency today for any service, faces hostility, humiliation, harassment, delay, inefficiency, corruption, apathy and indignity. The only positive feature is even the high and mighty is sometimes forced to endure the same misery. A former Cabinet Secretary recounted travails of a Foreign Secretary in getting electricity connection to the IFS officers' colony. The combined might of the Cabinet Secretary, the then Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and all the IFS officers could not ensure service, and each household ended paying a bribe of Rs 1000!

The citizen is the focal point of all governance in a democracy. We elect a government to serve our collective needs and to provide us common services. The citizen is the true and ultimate sovereign, and the measure of a government's functioning is a citizen's satisfaction. A government accountable to the citizens who are its true masters, and public servants responsive to the needs of the taxpayers who are their paymasters are the essential elements of a democracy. However, our experience is far from this idyllic vision. Happily, there are simple, practical, effective remedies. In Britain, John Major introduced the concept of Citizen's Charters. The official responsible for a service is identified, the procedure to be followed by the citizen to obtain the service is defined, performance standards including time frame are prescribed, and monetary compensation for noncompliance is provided. In 1998, Lok Satta movement released a People's Charter listing details of over 40 commonly availed services, and built pressure on the State government. As a result, an excellent Citizen's Charter has been released recently in respect of four services, applicable to all Municipalities in the State. For the first time in India, a compensation of Rs 50 is now payable to the citizen for every day's delay in these services. Over 50 municipalities in Andhra Pradesh are implementing this and in 97% cases services are delivered on time. About 200 citizens received compensation for delay. Strangely MCH has not implemented this government directive so far. We need to enforce this in MCH, and extend such Charters to a variety of other civic services and amenities. This should be made a major citizens' issue in the MCH polls, and we should force parties to respond. And once such an instrument is available, we should consistentlydemand and get quality service. Only then will local government be effective and corruption-free.