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Public Accountability in India:- Current Scenario

Accountability means being able to provide an explanation or justification and accept responsibility, for events or transactions and for one's own actions in relation to these events or transactions. Accountability plays a particularly important role in the public sector: It is about giving an answer for the way in which one has spent money, exercised power and control, mediated rights and used discretions vested by law in the public interest. It is fundamental to our system of government that those to whom such powers and responsibilities are given are required to exercise them in the public interest fairly, and according to law.

Introduction
The purpose of the accountability examination is to subject improper and unlawful conduct or activities to some form of sanctions or corrective measures. These sanctions are measures or devices calculated to neutralise the further undesirable effect of their offending activities or to charge violators with reversing their actions and making reparation for the loss or damage, which their conduct has caused. This kind of accountability may manifest itself in a wide range of accountability requirements, including requirements:
  • To meet statutory obligations;
  • To meet audit requirements;
  • To be able to produce evidence in court proceedings;
  • To be able to withstand the scrutiny of the media;
  • To meet industry-based standards for accreditation or Quality Assurance standards; and
  • To justify actions to investigative bodies such as Royal Commissions and parliamentary committees

Accountability is not only a hallmark of democratic governance; it is an essential element for improving the performance of public officials. Accountability is linked to ‘almost every conceivable aspect of good governance. It is an important ‘instrument for fighting three vices such as corruption, clientelism and capture Public accountability mainly regards matters in the public domain, such as the spending of public funds, the exercise of public authorities, or the conduct of public institutions. It is not necessarily limited to public organisations but can extend to private bodies that exercise public privileges or receive public funding.

This also impacts on the accounting perspective. Public accountability implies the rendering of account for matters of public interest, i.e. an accounting that is performed with a view to the judgement to be passed by the citizens. In general, one could say that public accountability is accountability in and about the public domain Public accountability is important to provide a democratic means to monitor and control government conduct, for preventing the development of concentrations of power, and to enhance the learning capacity and effectiveness of public administration.

Measures Through Which Accountability can be Enforced

Elections

Elections are the main mechanism through which citizens are given the power to ensure accountable governance. Citizens make their voting decisions and either vote the government back into power or out of it depending on their evaluation of whether it delivered on its promises during its term. Accountability claimed through this channel has been called vertical accountability. There are also provisions for horizontal accountability institutional checks and balances to ensure that the government is performing its duties in the interest of its citizens.

The 170th Report of the Law Commission on Reform of Electoral Laws

Disqualification: The Law Commission had proposed that in respect of offenses provided in S.8 (1) [except the offense mentioned in S.8 (1) (b)], of the Representation of Peoples Act, a mere framing of charge should serve as a disqualification. This provision was sought to be made in addition to the existing provision which provides for disqualification arising on account of conviction.

The reason for this proposal was that most of the offenses mentioned in Sub-section (1) are either election offenses or serious offenses affecting the society and that the persons committing these offenses are mostly persons having political clout and influence. As explained by the Vohra Committee, very often these elements are supported by gangsters and local thugs, with the result that no independent witness is prepared to come forward to depose against such persons. In such a situation, it proves extremely difficult to obtain the conviction of these persons.

Disclosure:
To complement the above recommendation, it is also necessary for a candidate seeking to contest election to furnish details regarding criminal cases, if any, pending against him, including a copy of the FIR/complaint and any order made by the concerned court. So it is suggested that S. 4 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 be amended so that in order to qualify, a candidate must submit a declaration about not only his assets but also a declaration as to whether any charge in respect of any offence referred to in proposed S. 8B has been framed against him by any Criminal Court, and is pending.

The report has been used by the Supreme Court in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms and Anr, AIR 2002 SC 2112 to substantiate its judgment about requirement of disclosure by a candidate regarding any pending cases against him/her. The report has also been a torchbearer for subsequent committees giving recommendations about this specific issue.

Reforms Suggested by the Election Commission

The EC in its various proposals for electoral reforms and pending proposals addressed to the Prime Minister and the Law Minister has given many practical proposals focusing on the functioning of the elections. To some extent, it stands on a privileged platform in so far as its recommendations are backed by enriched experiences from conducting elections for five decades.

Disqualification:
The Commission had proposed that the law should be amended to provide that any person who is accused of an offence punishable by imprisonment for five years or more should be disqualified from contesting election even when trial is pending, provided charges have been framed against him by the competent court.

A conviction for offenses under S 125 A i.e. for inappropriate filing of information, should further be made part of Section 8(1)(i) of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951, dealing with disqualification on conviction for certain offenses. It is also suggested that persons found guilty by a Commission of Enquiry should also stand disqualified from contesting elections.
Other Recommendations

It has been the experience in the past few elections that in some cases, the candidates leave some of the columns blank, and there have been cases where the candidates are alleged to have given grossly undervalued information, mainly about their assets. S.125A provides for punishment of imprisonment for a term upto six months or with fine or with both, for furnishing wrong information or concealing any information in Form 26. The Commission is of the view that to protect the right to information of the electors as per the spirit of the judgment in the PUCL case of the Supreme Court referred to above, the punishment here should be made more stringent by providing for imprisonment of a minimum term of two years and doing away with the alternative clause for fine.

The National Committee on The Working of the Constitution

Disqualification:
The Committee recommends that the Representation of the People Act be amended to provide that any person charged with any offence punishable with imprisonment for a maximum term of five years or more, should be disqualified for being chosen as a member of Parliament or Legislature of a State. Such disqualification shall happen on the expiry of a period of one year from the date the charges were framed against him by the court in that offence. Unless cleared during that one year period, he shall continue to remain so disqualified till the conclusion of the trial for that offence. This should equally be applicable to sitting members of Parliament and State Legislatures as to any other such person.

In case a person is convicted of any offence by a court of law and sentenced to imprisonment for six months or more the bar should apply during the period under which the convicted person is undergoing the sentence and for a further period of six years after the completion of the period of the sentence. If any candidate violates this provision, he should be disqualified.
  • Any person convicted for any heinous crime like murder, rape, smuggling, dacoity, etc.
  • should be permanently barred from contesting for any political office.

Other suggestions

The Committee has made other very innovative suggestions. Firstly it feels that if a party puts up such a candidate with knowledge of his antecedents, it should be derecognized and deregistered.

Secondly, a very novel method has been suggested with respect to Special Courts. It recommends that criminal cases against politicians pending before Courts either for trial or in appeal must be disposed speedily, if necessary, by appointing Special Courts. A potential candidate against whom the police have framed charges may take the matter to the Special Court. This court should be obliged to enquire into and take a decision in a strictly time bound manner. Basically, this court may decide whether there is indeed a prima facie case justifying the framing of charges.

The Special Courts should be constituted at the level of High Courts and their decisions should be appealable to the Supreme Court only (in similar way as the decisions of the National Environment Tribunal). The Special Courts should decide the cases within a period of six months.

The Committee pointed out grave incongruities in the existing provisions of sub-sections (1),

(2) and (3) of S. 8 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951, illustrating the case of a rapist, convicted and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, being disqualified only for six years under sub-section (1) and while not able to vote, being free to contest elections even while serving the last four years of his sentence in prison.

The Committee also pointed out the lacuna in S. 8(4). The section provides that Members of Parliament or Legislatures, if convicted, would be disqualified for subsequent elections only after three months have elapsed from the date of conviction, or if the case is appealed, till the time such appeal is not dismissed. The Committee recommends that the aforesaid provision should suitably be amended providing that this benefit shall not be available for the purpose of his contesting fresh elections and should be available only for the continuance in office.

A FREE electoral process is one where fundamental human rights and freedoms are respected, including:
  • freedom of speech and expression by electors, parties, candidates and the media;
  • freedom of association; that is, freedom to form organizations such as political parties and NGOs;
  • freedom of assembly, to hold political rallies and to campaign;
  • freedom of access to and by electors to transmit and receive political and electoral information messages;
  • freedom to register as an elector, a party or a candidate;
  • freedom from violence, intimidation or coercion;
  • freedom of access to the polls by electors, party agents and accredited observers;
  • freedom to exercise the franchise in secret, and
  • freedom to question, challenge and register complaints or objections without negative repercussions.

A FAIR electoral process is one where the playing field is reasonably level and accessible to all electors, parties and candidates, and includes:
  • an independent, non-partisan electoral organization to administer the process;
  • guaranteed rights and protection through the constitution and electoral legislation and regulations;
  • equitable representation of electors provided through the legislation; clearly defined universal suffrage and secrecy of the vote;
  • equitable and balanced reporting by the media;
  • equitable access to financial and material resources for party and candidate campaigning;
  • equitable opportunities for the electorate to receive political and voter information;
  • accessible polling places;
  • equitable treatment of electors, candidates and parties by elections officials, the government, the police, the military and the judiciary;
  • an open and transparent ballot counting process, and
  • election process not disrupted by violence, intimidations or coercion.

Free and fair and credible elections depend on:

  1. An enabling legislative framework,
  2. The impartial and neutral practices of election administrators, the media and the forces that maintain law and order and
  3. Acceptance of the competitive electoral process by all the political forces in the country.

Thus to determine that a given election is free and fair, calls for scrutinizing not just the laws that provide for elections and the election event - but the run-up to the elections as well. The scrutiny of a process inevitably calls for more than a documentation of the chronology of events leading up to the elections – it calls for a scrutiny of the actions – the behavior of all actors involved in the electoral process and a review of the outcomes.

The scrutiny of the legal framework governing elections should address whether the provisions they make for registration, pre and post election activities, complaint procedures, voter information and education, election preparation are fair, open and transparent. The scrutiny of the legal framework governing elections must also look at the provisions it makes for the election itself - i.e. the ability to campaign freely, the polling procedures and arrangements, the vote count and the settlement of disputes as these are all a part of the electoral process.

Lack of electoral transparency and accountability, the use of money or violence to influence or intimidate voters and the criminalization of politics are critical problems in may parts of the world. While participatory governance promotes many forms of citizen participation beyond voting, free and fair elections are nevertheless a fundamental element of democracy and good governance. The tools in this category are aimed at fostering electoral and political accountability while also seeking to empower voters to effectively participate in the electoral process and enable them make informed choices.

Tools under the Electoral Transparency and Accountability category

  • Pre-Election Voter Awareness Campaigns are aimed at making people aware of: the importance of their participation in electoral processes either as voters or candidates; different modes of participation; the procedure to become eligible for voting and to actually cast their vote; and ways to assess the poll-worthiness of a candidate.
     
  • Platform Mounting means creating a platform for dialogue during the run-up to the elections by bringing together representatives of all the electoral stakeholders such as the Election Commission, registered political parties and civil society organizations to share information, foster good working relations, consult each another on legislative change and resolve administrative matters that may affect parties and other stakeholders while ensuring a democratically credible electoral process.
     
  • Election Monitoring is intended to strengthen the electoral process by providing an independent assessment of election preparations, capabilities, and fairness, thereby helping to strengthen democratic processes and institutions and to ensure that the conduct of elections meets international standards, are peaceful, and have credible results.

    Accountability for Electoral Promises involves various means that CSOs can deploy for effectively demanding the fulfillment of electoral promises - thus enhancing the political credibility - of individual politicians and the democratic system more generally.
     
  • Crisis is a tool to measure the transparency of political financing activity. The purpose of Crinis is two-fold. Firstly, it assesses the legal framework and practices with regards to transparency of political finances in a given country. Secondly, based on these results, it helps civil society to develop actions to advocate for reforms to improve the law and the practice.

Benefits
  1. Reduces the scope for unfair or corrupt electoral practices.
  2. Enhances voters’ awareness about the electoral process, helps voters make informed choices and lays the foundation for increased citizen participation in governance over the long-term.
  3. Helps convey the felt needs of constituencies and communities to political parties and candidates, thereby contributing to better-informed platforms and plans.
  4. Contributes to enhanced political transparency, accountability, credibility and public trust in governance.
  5. Helps to empower marginalized and disenfranchised population groups.
  6. Can serve to increase voter turn-out (especially among women and other politically marginalized groups).
  7. Encourages persons with integrity, and who are concerned with public causes, to participate as candidates
  8. Promotes a culture of internal democracy amongst political parties.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (KMSS)

About MKSS
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan is a grassroots organization that was formed in 1990, working in rural Rajasthan. Its objective was to use modes of struggle and constructive action for changing the lives of its primary constituents — the rural poor. In the period leading up to its formation it had taken up issues of re-distribution of land and minimum wages. These were seen as the two basic issues of the rural landless and the poor of the area The need to access records was established and people began to think of ways and means through which they could get the government to give them the right to know”. The modes that were adopted were diverse and the one important aspect was that the people identified totally with the cause.

For them it was their battle, a battle for their survival. The struggle illustrated that the right to information was not just a component of people’s right to freedom of speech and expression but was also a part of their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution — the right to life and liberty. The villagers understood and made a large section of enlightened opinion in the country understand that the access to records of development work in villages would help in obtaining the basic living wage, the entitlement under the ration quota, the medicines the poor should receive in public health centers, preventing abuse by the police, and even in preventing delay and subterfuge in implementation of other livelihood entitlements.

The government of Rajasthan very reluctantly passed an order (after much pressure) whereby the people were given the right to inspect records and later to get certified photocopies. At the time of inspecting the records of a village council, the MKSS found that there were a great deal of irregularities and malpractices. From this emerged the technique of the public hearing which has been used as a tool in uncovering and bringing to light many scams in development works.

Usually, in a public hearing the MKSS first obtains the records pertaining to the public works carried out by the Village Council in the last five years. Once the documents are accessed, the Sangathan then takes the records to each village where the work is said to have been executed and then testimonies are sought from the villagers and the laborers who were employed on the site. The MKSS also does site verifications with the laborers and villagers, and then on the day of the public hearing in front of the general assembly of the villagers the details are read out and testimonies sought.

There is also the concept of having a panel of people who are invited to the public hearings, including lawyers, journalists, academicians and attempts are made to try and bring about corrective measures for the irregularities identified. The malpractices usually uncovered are purchase overbilling, sale overbilling, fake labor rolls, under payment government officials. The panel is also allowed to cross- examine and ask for clarifications, and with the administration present of wages and in some cases ghost works (works that are there on record but do not exist).

Government Accounting Standards Advisory Board (GASAB)

About GASAB
Government Accounting Standards Advisory Board (GASAB) was constituted by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India on August 12, 2002 for the Union and States.

The GASAB will formulate Government Accounting Standards for our country. These accounting standards will be formulated in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution and our laws and in keeping with international norms in this regard. The basic objective of this initiative, taken at the behest and with the approval of the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, is to promote best practices on the basis of generally accepted principles of Government accounting.

Board is charged with the responsibility of not only formulating and proposing standards to improve the usefulness of the Government’s financial reports based on the needs of the users but also to keep these standards current so as to reflect changes in the economic environment. The Board also has the onerous responsibility to provide guidance on the implementation of standards and to consider significant areas of accounting and financial reporting that can be improved through the standard setting processes.

Accounting and financial reporting standards are essential for improved public accountability and, in fact, for the efficient and effective functioning of our democratic system. They play a major role in fulfilling the Government’s duty to be publicly accountable and they contribute to a fuller understanding of economic, political and social consequences of allocation decisions and various uses of Government resources both at the Centre and at the State levels.

Bad accounting frameworks can lead to bad information and bad information invariably leads to bad decisions with serious long-term consequences. We also realize that accounting rules can be manipulated and abused to provide a misleading picture of what is really happening in the national economy.

The objective of the GASAB is to formulate standards relating to accounting and financial reporting by the Union, the States and Union Territories with Legislature. The Indian Government Accounting Standards (IGAS) so formulated by GASAB are recommended to the Government of India for notification in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.

The GASAB shall have, inter alia, the following responsibilities:

  1. To establish and improve standard of Government accounting and financial reporting in order to enhance accountability mechanisms;
  2. To formulate and propose standards that improve the usefulness of financial reports based on the needs of the users;
  3. To keep the standards current and reflect change in the Governmental environment;
  4. To provide guidance on implementation of standards;
  5. To consider significant areas of accounting and financial reporting that can be improved through the standard setting process; and
  6. To improve the common understanding of the nature and purpose of information contained in the financial reports.

Authority, Scope and Applicability of IGASs

  1. The IGASs are notified by the Government as per the powers vested under Article 150 of the Constitution. The IGASs, as notified by the Government, are applicable to the Union and the States.
  2. The provisions of the IGASs do not override the provisions of any existing or future Acts or Rules made thereunder by the Union or State Governments.
  3. The IGASs would be prospective in their application. The IGASs are not applicable retrospectively and the Governments are not required to reframe their Financial Statements of previous periods to comply with the IGASs.
  4. IGASs by their very nature are meant to apply to material items. Any other limitation on their applicability or otherwise is made clear by GASAB in the respective standards.
  5. The IGASs have standard portions set in bold italic type which should be read in the context of explanatory paragraphs in the respective Standards set in plain type. Both have equal authority; portion in bold, italic type indicating main principles whereas those in plain type explain those principles.

Conclusion
It is high time the state government enacts a law on good governance which will spell out the state government’s commitment to the principles and precepts of good governance. This is a new concept which will have to be refined over the years though a beginning can be made without loss of any time.

Enactment of Legislation on Protection of Whistle-Blowers:

It is often the persons working in the system who can expose wrong-doings in the system. However, such persons need to be protected as they perform a very valuable function in society. There are a number of countries in the West in which special enactments have been passed or Rules have been made to give legal and other protection to persons who expose wrong-doings in government.

Compilation of Index of Good Governance:

The concept of good governance needs to be translated into a quantifiable annual index on the basis of certain agreed indicators such as pendency of civil and criminal court cases, number of communal riots, number of people killed in police firings, increase in crime, custodial deaths, birth rate, death rate, infant mortality rate, extent of immunisation, literacy rate for men and women, sex ratio, availability of safe drinking water supply, electrification of rural households, rural and urban unemployment, percentage of girls married below 18 years.

Some universally accepted criteria for good budgetary practices may also be included in the index. These would include, among others, revenue deficit/surplus, quantum of fiscal deficit, outstanding loan repayment liability, interest burden, capital expenditure and the extent of government guarantees. These values will have to be worked out as a percentage gross state domestic product. The other criteria could include number of occasions and the period for which the state was in overdraft or in Ways and Means accommodation with the Reserve Bank of India, and the tax performance of the state and disbursement of subsidies as a percentage of GSDP. This is only an illustrative list of items which could figure in the index of good governance.

Suo-Motu Publication of Information:

Each office should set apart a room as public concourse for easy access of the people. It should have all rudimentary facilities such as proper sitting arrangement, drinking water, fans, a notice board, an intercom telephone connection to the officers, etc. There should be a facilitation officer available in the public concourse for guiding the public. In the case of smaller offices, this responsibility can be entrusted to one of the officers/senior staff members on a part-time basis.

Bibliography
Books & Articles:
  • A. Goetz and R. Jenkins, ‘Hybrid forms of accountability: citizen engagement in institutions of public sector oversight in India’, Public Management Review 3(3), 2001.
  • A. Joshi, ‘Producing Social Accountability? The Impact of Service Delivery Reforms’, IDS Bulletin 38(6), 2008.
  • CVC Act, 2003.
  • E. Peruzzotti, and C. Smulovitz, ‘Societal accountability in Latin America’, Journal of Democracy 11(4),2000.
  • George Kopits, Jon D. Craig, ‘Transparency in government operations’, International Monetary Fund, Publication Services, 1998.
  • Government Accounting Standards Advisory Board (GASAB), Inaugural address by Shri Vijayendra N. Kaul, Comptroller and Auditor General of India,7th November, 2002.
  • Guidelines for the public authorities under the Right to Information Act, 2005, 25 Apr, 2008, Government of India, Ministry of Personnel, P.G. and Pensions, Department of Personnel & Training.

Website:
  • http://arc.gov.in
  • http://www.cga.nic.in

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