Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gram Nyayalayas: a cause for optimism?

Nicholas Robinson

Union Law Minister M V Moily recently announced that 200 gram nyayalayas will be operational by October 2nd 2009. This initiative is taken under the 2008 Gram Nyayalayas Act. The Law Ministry envisions setting up some 5000 gram nyayalayas across India over the next three years, with the hope to fundamentally reshape the lower judiciary in India. The 2008 bill states that eventually every intermediate (i.e. block) panchayat will have a gram nyayalaya. The gram nyayalayas will then form the new lowest layer to the Indian judicial system and the first point of contact for many, if not most Indians. If fully implemented, it is here that the majority of legal disputes in India will be resolved. Who will be these Nyayadhikaris, will there be enough of them to significantly bring down the estimated 30,000,000 cases currently pending in the judicial system, and will they be accountable?

In the 2008 bill it states that these Nyayadhikaris’ qualifications are that of a first class judicial officer, or essentially just a lawyer. He or she will be appointed by the state government in consultation with the High Court in the state. In essence, the imagined recruitment pool is young lawyers, not particularly well trained, aspiring to be magistrates and then later district court judges. Although they may not be seasoned lawyers when they start, many of the problems they encounter won’t be that complicated and if paid well enough the job could start attracting some talented young lawyers. It will be critical to watch over the coming months and years the quality of lawyers being appointed and what sort of prestige the position gains, which will influence the ability to attract future talent. However, given the low quality level of some (but certainly not all) judicial magistrates, session court judges, etc. there is definitely reason to worry that these appointees may not have the skills necessary to do the job and be susceptible to corruption.

Tempering these concerns though, Nyayadhikaris can only impose a sentence of up to two years and the amount they can fine or grant in a civil case is capped as well. The District Court judge is given the responsibility to appoint a judicial officer to inspect Gram Nyayalayas in their district at least every six months. Both these measures are designed to limit the potential harm corrupt or incompetent Nyayadhikaris could do.

A party can appeal the Nyayadhikaris verdict to a sessions court judge for criminal matters which must be decided by that judge within 30 days. For Civil matters it goes to the District Court which must decide it within 6 months. Vitally, the Bill states there is no appeal past this stage (except in cases that involve a claim of a constitutional violation). Effectively, for almost all matters a Gram Nyayalaya can hear there is only one additional appeal you can make afterwards. This appeal is to the judicial officers who in the current system are generally the first to hear a case. Another layer to the judicial system has been added to screen off matters of perceived smaller importance and limit the ability of affected persons to appeal and clog the system at the High Courts and Supreme Court.

This system could work effectively if both the Gram Nyayalayas and the subordinate judges these cases will be appealed to were competent and clean from corruption. Yet, the track record for the subordinate judiciary in India is not perceived to be strong on either of these fronts. The worry is that persons will have fines or criminal sentences improperly imposed against them and find that their avenues for appeal have been shut past these often low level subordinate judicial officers. Even if the sessions court or district court judge is very talented, the time limits imposed for resolving an appeal may mean they can’t give the attention to a case it deserves and so leave many cases of injustice done by Gram Nyayalayas untouched. Two years’ imprisonment may not be the same as the death penalty or life imprisonment, but it’s still a long time to be wrongly put in jail. Similarly, even moderate fines can destroy many families’ savings in India.

Finally, even if all 5,000 Nyayadhikaris are appointed over three years, this still may not be enough to bring India’s judicial backlog under control. To give one a sense of the scale of this endeavor there are currently about 650 working High Court judges and almost 14,000 district judges, assistant district judges, magistrates and other judicial officers in the rest of the subordinate judiciary. Almost all observers agree that there simply aren’t enough judges in India for the cases currently in the system. Further, many observers think Indians don’t litigate enough – i.e. there are many cases of wrongs that should be litigated that aren’t brought to the courts because of the clogged courts. 5,000 Nyayadhikaris is substantial, but probably not enough to take on all the current cases or the cases that aren’t being brought yet should be.

Despite these concerns, we should watch the development of Gram Nyayalayas not only with some degree of skepticism, but also optimism. If the Act is well-implemented and taken in step with broader efforts to strengthen the lower judiciary, Nyayadhikaris could prove vital in bringing the rule of law to millions of Indians.

Nick Robinson is a Visiting Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, and teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Accountability Debate: What should we focus on?

Prashant Sharma

The accountability debate rages on. Fuelled by a more aware, more demanding public, in part galvanised by the introduction of progressive laws such as the Right to Information Act, the questioning is coming thick and fast. All the organs of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - seem to be slowly but surely coming under a proto-panoptical public perspective. Demands are also taking shape to increase accountability of the media to the public. Sporadic attempts are also being made to introduce mechanisms to make the private sector more accountable.

In the midst of this important, if breathless clamour for more accountable institutions and more transparent social, political and economic structures, perhaps it is important to take a step back and go to the roots of the issues involved and take stock of the direction in which the debate is moving.

The present demand for accountability from public authorities in India can be traced to the deep rooted problem of corruption which has plagued our public institutions for decades. If our independence struggle was unique in the history of the world for it was premised on values and principles, post-independence saw first a gradual and then an exponential erosion of ethics in public life. However, the issue of corruption needs to be understood at least at three different levels.

First, the small, low level, petty corruption which plagues the life of the average citizen each time there is any interaction between her and the state has touched practically everyone in the country at some point in their lives. A few hundred rupees here to get an application looked at, a few thousand rupees there to get funds released under a government scheme – incidents such as these number in the millions everyday.

Then there are the medium level scams, particularly in the context of public works - inflating costs, not delivering on agreed terms of quality and quantity, works existing on paper but not physically, and payoffs up and down the chain of administration and governance. In a country as large as ours, and with innumerable small and medium public works being carried out every day, the stakes are high, and it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that almost all such projects have some cushion or buffer built in which facilitates leakage on an unimaginable scale.

Finally, we come to the most invisible of practices when it comes to the ordinary citizen – that which involve large deals. These could be kickbacks in defence deals, payoffs in tweaking policy to suit one interest group over the other, and so on. While some of these deals are exposed and come to the fore as scandals (and have on occasion even brought down governments), the bureaucratic-political combine has perfected the art of obfuscating the processes through which such decisions are made. When telephone calls or post-its are prefaced with “The minister desires that…”, one can typically expect a smooth sailing for the process in question.

These three types of practices require different accountability responses. The first two are the ones often highlighted by the media, particularly since the Right to Information Act came into force. Stories of successful usage of the Act abound, where ordinary citizens have received their ration cards and passports without having to pay the mandatory bribes, and where diversions of funds meant for public works have been unearthed (though rarely has anyone been held personally accountable and legally convicted). While these are welcome instances and must be supported, encouraged and strengthened in all ways possible, an effective and consistent accountability framework in response to the third type of practice of corruption has still not emerged.

One substantial reason for this is a sense of impunity. Our judicial system has fundamentally failed us. With backlogs in courts, both at the lower as well as appellate levels, running into decades, there is virtually no fear in the minds of either the political class or the senior bureaucracy that they might be brought to book legally for their malfeasant actions. At this point, we are not even talking about corruption in courts – simply the procedural delays are such that in themselves they provide ample reason to support a sense of utter impunity on the part of wrongdoers. There is therefore a clear and direct link between an impartial, efficient and effective justice system and the establishment of a culture of transparent decision making processes. If the former does not exist, accountability at the higher levels of governance will remain scraps handed out on the whims of those in power. An effective justice system therefore is a necessary precondition to any of the changes we hope to see it the accountability landscape of the country.

Second, is perhaps a more fundamental question, that of the need for money on such a large scale. When it comes to large deals, the amount of money which changes hands is virtually unimaginable. The desire to increase personal wealth alone cannot explain the immensity of this scale. The answer lies in the ways in which our elections are financed. It is practically impossible to contest elections (successfully) in India without very deep pockets. Political parties need money to run elections, they source this money from either interest groups or from public funds, and then once in power, this ‘favour’ has to be returned, either through favourable policies, or through providing a secure environment to the entire machinery which facilitated the siphoning of funds. The result is a spiralling vortex of deceit and dishonesty which cannot be attenuated until and unless the entire practice of electoral politics is fundamentally restructured.

Finally, the issue of accountability is deeply linked to the basic question of morality. Corruption, as we know, starts at the top. If the moral fabric of the political class at the top remains in shreds (the excuse of election financing notwithstanding), this has a definitional impact on the way the hundreds of thousands of middle and lower level representatives and functionaries of the state conduct themselves. Once everyone is implicated, there can be no blame, there can be no sanctions, there can be no justice, and there can be no accountability.

In sum then, the two specific areas which pose the greatest challenges to our developing a truly accountable social, political and economic system is that of judicial reform and election financing. Once these two issues are effectively addressed, all else will fall into place. It might be better to direct our energies in bringing about substantial changes in these two areas, for on the morality question, it is best to relegate any hopes of change to the realm of imagination and fantasy.

Prashant Sharma is doing his PhD at the London School of Economics on the politics of public policy reform, particularly in the context of accountability and transparency mechanisms. For more about his work, please click here.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Corruption in the news

The last few weeks have seen a spate of articles in the media on Corruption. On the issue of corruption in the judiciary, please see here and here.

Reports released on corruption in the past few days have also been reported in the media.(2)

With the CVC publishing the list of corrupt officials on its website ,the Law Ministry has made certain proposals on corruption in government.

In two separate pieces, a need to speak up on corruption was brought out.(2)

This report in the Dawn newspaper summed it all up quite well.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Harnessing IT for good governance

Abhijit Patnaik

Over the past decade or so, there have been islands of e-Governance initiatives in the country at the national, state, district and even block level. Some of them have been highly successful and are ready for replication across other states. Experiences from successes as well as the failures of the various initiatives play an important role in shaping the e-governance strategy of the country. As part of the Accountability Initiative’s research agenda - highlighting good governance practices across the country, I had the opportunity to study the e-governance initiative undertaken by the Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC) in Gujarat.

In our study, we tried to answer a host of questions including why the initiative was undertaken in the first place, how it got started, by whom, what the incentives were etc; and attempted to shed light on understanding how an e-governance initiative works, and how using information technology can improve the efficiency and accountability of services at no great cost. The successful development of such initiatives has valuable lessons for increasing accountability in civic management across the country.

I interviewed key officials in the Municipal Corporation and at a later stage some elected representatives in order to gauge what they think of the new system, as well as interviewed IT officials who actually designed the software.

It is under the aegis of the Urban Renewal mission on City Governance that the entire E-governance initiative has taken off. The RMC has developed an interactive website as well as set up an SMS –based complaint management system. The RMC has also set up five City Civic Centres (CCCs) where people can go to access various Municipal services and a 24x7 call centre where complaints can be called in and are instantly logged into the Management Information System. Engineers on the ground instantly get SMSs informing them of these complaints and once they are resolved, they can SMS this back to this Management Information System. This web-based accessible system enables the tracking of the service delivery at every stage, facilitates the flow of information, and thus strengthens the relations of accountability amongst the various actors.

Interestingly, in my interviews with the staff it came up that the inspiration for the SMS alerts system came from banking alerts that an RMC member used to get on his cell-phone! However, it was evident that the biggest factor which drove officials towards developing the online and telephonic system to address problems was that through this medium people have stopped coming to the RMC offices for simple queries and this gives the officers more time to address ‘real’ issues. Necessity, in this case, was indeed the mother of invention. For example, simple tasks like tax calculations etc used to take a lot of time and effort and now these can easily be done through the website. All the software development for the complaints system at the CCCs was done in-house by the staff of the RMC. The team is continuously in touch with the end users to minimise problems with the website. All of this saves costs.

As per the Nagrik Adhikar Patrak (Citizen Charter), the time limit for the complaint redressal is fixed and if during that time limit the complaint is not solved, complaint details are automatically escalated to next level officer; there too the time limit is fixed, if it is not solved then the complaint details are escalated to the highest authority. This is taken care of by the e-Governance software. In some cases, where delay in resolving the complaint is unavoidable (ex. Major drainage operations etc), the call centre records this and informs the complainant of such delay.

Some of the achievements of the initiative so far have been: 80% public related services (like issuance of computerized Birth and Death certificates since 1973) and back office services (which help in strengthening of administrative process) are computerized; more than 60 different utilities are computerized; the City Civic Centres are online. There has been an increase in efficiency and the collection of dues, making many transactions paperless. As a result the RMC is saving Rs.30 - 40 lakh per year. Auditing has become much easier; and citizens do not have to make complaints by coming to the offices anymore.

What about the effects of this system on accountability within the RMC? Since data on complaints received by day/ward/department and officer-wise responses is now easily collected and available, the track record and efficiency with which officers dispose of their complaints is accessible throughout the system. And this could arguably lead to better appraisal of their performance, and hence affect their accountability. In this sense, it is clear that this is quite a powerful tool - the monitoring of outcomes is in-built in the system and the RMC now has the ability to take non-performing officials to task.

The effective use of IT services in government administration can greatly enhance existing efficiencies, drive down communication costs, and increase transparency in the functioning of various departments. It also gives citizens easy access to tangible benefits, be it through simple applications such as online form filling, bill sourcing and payments, or more complex applications. And as is clear from the efforts undertaken by the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, such efforts can be done on a small-scale by a group of dedicated individuals without major resources.

Abhijit Patnaik is Senior Researcher at Accountability Initiative.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Making the RTI Work: A public hearing on the effectiveness of the Rajasthan State Information Commission

Yamini Aiyar

Recently, Jaipur’s Rajasthan University played host to the first ever Jan Manch or public hearing to evaluate the operations of the state’s Information commission (SIC). Organized by a network of Rajasthan based civil society organizations including the Rozgar Evum Soochna Adhikaar Abhiyaan, the Jan Manch brought together a motley crew of appellants, activists, and journalists on a common platform to share their experiences in dealing with the commission and debate its effectiveness in safeguarding the provisions of the Right to Information Act (RTI) in the state. What made the Manch unique was the constant stream of senior government officials, including the State Information Commissioner, through the day who sat through parts of the hearing and participated in the deliberations that followed.

As an observer to the day’s proceedings, I was struck by the importance of the event first, because it struck at the heart of the RTI – as the arbitrator of decisions on the nature of information that falls within the purview of the law the information commissions are the last word on the RTI. They thus set the benchmark against which the effectiveness of the implementation of RTI can be judged. Second, by bringing citizens together to share their experiences and debate the effectiveness of the commission in the presence of the commissioner and other officials, the event is a watershed in the nature of citizen-state engagement and the tools and spaces available for citizens to monitor government performance and demand accountability.

In the days preceding the Manch, meticulous research was undertaken to procure data from a wide sample of second appellants, analyze and document their experiences. 700 questionnaires were circulated to appellants across the state soliciting information on their experiences. Over 200 appellants responded. Efforts were also made to directly contact appellants and invite them to share their experiences at the Manch. The research culminated in the preparation of a comprehensive report of the operations of the Information Commission that was shared with participants at the Jan Manch. These findings ensured that the day’s discussions were rooted in objective evidence and real experience.

The survey revealed important facts about the effectiveness of the commission. First and perhaps most worrying, the appeal process rarely results in citizens accessing the information requested. As many as 68% of the respondents said that the commission upheld the decisions made by the Public Information Officers (PIOs) and rejected the appeals. The respondents also said that this reflected a bias in favour of the PIOs. The import of these rejections needs to be understood in the context of the nature or basis on which these decisions are made. A recent nationwide assessment of the RTI conducted by RAAG found as many as 58% of the rejections upheld by the Rajasthan SIC were unjustified and did not comply with the provisions of the Act. In this scenario, the high number of rejections by the commission is worrying. To evaluate the extent to which the appeal process assists citizens in accessing information, respondents were asked whether they received information post the appeal process. 50% respondents said that the appeal process did not result in their receiving information rejected while 30% said that they received parts of the information they wanted.

Another problem the survey highlighted was that of compliance with the commission’s orders. 83% respondents whose appeals were accepted by the commission said that they are yet to receive information from the PIO indicating that PIOs rarely comply with SIC orders. Many activists argue that the reason for this is the failure of the SIC to impose penalties on errant PIOs and award compensation to harassed citizens. According to data collected by RAAG the Rajasthan SIC has imposed 25 penalties since its inception. The survey undertaken by the Jan Manch also highlighted this problem. Respondents were asked if they felt the PIO ought to have been penalized in their respective cases. As many as 90% respondents felt their case merited the imposition of a penalty but a mere 8% said that penalties were actually imposed. Other problems highlighted by the survey included long delays in the SICs and constant postponement of hearings. This is not specific to Rajasthan. The RAAG study found that disposal rates are extremely poor across the country and waiting time for a case to be heard can vary between 2-20 months!

The Jan Manch provided an opportunity for citizens to share their travails with the SIC and the government. About 100 second appellants participated in the Manch. There was Raman Kumar who has been trying to access documents pertaining to his pension from the education department since 2007. He has made over 10 visits to the IC and is yet to get his information. There was Ram Kumar Gagani from Chittorgarh whose story reflected the arbitrariness of appeal decisions. His appeal was initially accepted by the IC but the PIO refused to comply. Following this, he filed another appeal to the commission, but this time the commission turned its previous decision on its head and rejected Mr. Gagani’s appeal!

Through data and real life experiences, the Manch unraveled the many challenges to the effective implementation of the RTI. More crucially, the process created the opportunity for citizens and government to debate solutions. The organizers of the event put together a list of demands that they put forward to the SIC. Stricter compliance with section four disclosure norms; the creation of a single window system for submitting RTI applications; spreading awareness about the RTI; speedy disposal of IC cases and stricter imposition of penalties and the inclusion of penalties as an indicator for PIO performance evaluations and finally the tabling of SIC annual reports in the state legislatures were some of the key demands and suggestions made. Panelists and participants also made suggestions towards addressing some of the weakness within the IC. Important amongst these was the suggestion that the IC could publically report on the compliance to its orders by government departments and PIOs. This could go a long way in creating pressure necessary for PIOs to respond to IC orders. The need for better training, budgets and staffing norms were also discussed.

By meticulously analyzing the everyday operations of the commission and bringing together citizens and government officials on a common platform to scrutinize the implementation of the RTI and offer suggestions, the Jan Manch demonstrated the potential of platforms such as this to strengthen the implementation of the RTI. To me, the most revolutionary aspect of the day’s proceedings was not so much the complaints citizens made but rather the fact that much of the day was spent discussing concrete suggestions for improving performance. Making complaints is easy but offering constructive suggestions for improvements is much harder. The importance of these suggestions is that many came directly from citizens who have invoked provisions of that Act and are thus well versed with its strengths and weaknesses. Second, the Jan Manch marks the first time that citizens voluntarily came forward to scrutinize government functioning and engage in a constructive dialogue with officials. The presence of officials through the day suggests the beginnings of a significant mind-set change within the government where officials have at least recognized the value of direct citizen engagement. All participating officials spoke of their desire to receive constructive suggestions and feedback through this Manch.

Most important, the Manch is a testimony to the tranformatory potential and power of the RTI. The very fact that hundreds of citizens responded to survey questions and many of them willingly made their way to Jaipur to share their experiences is evidence enough of the power of the RTI. What we need are many more Jan Manches.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director of Accountability Initiative, and Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

Friday, 11 September 2009

Responsive governments need responsible citizens: Bringing citizen accountability into the debate

Araddhya Mehtta

The Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme aims to deliver daily cooked meals to every child in every Indian government primary school, and is currently the largest school-feeding programme in the world, covering 120 million children in government and government-assisted schools. However, although the MDM’s overall effects are positive, implementation remains varied. For example, within Delhi, children in some schools receive regular meals of a good quality, while others receive meals irregularly, if at all, and quality varies widely.

In Delhi, as elsewhere, there are problems in both delivery and distribution, which may or may not be alleviated by increasing the MDM scheme’s budget. Why do these problems exist? Caterers, unsurprisingly, often argue that the government is not paying them enough. The suggestion is that if the government increased spending and provided adequate funds for better kitchens, extra ingredients, transport facilities, and staff, delivery problems could be eliminated. Doubtless, more resources for caterers would improve meal delivery. However, this alone will not ensure perfect implementation everywhere. First, deliveries may still be late, inadequate, poor quality, or absent, as at present. Second, once food has been delivered to schools, not all the food is always distributed to children.

Accountability in the MDM scheme can be considered at two levels. At the first level, caterers need to be accountable to the government for delivering meals, and the government needs to be accountable to citizens for managing the caterers. ‘Accountable’ in the MDM scheme means that if caterers do not deliver adequate quantities and qualities of food on time, the government and the people will be aware of this and can punish the caterers in some way, or seek compensation. As client, the government should impose sanctions on caterers. But as the government is ultimately responsible to its citizens for the scheme, the government is accountable to citizens for imposing sanctions and managing the caterers. Most approaches to accountability have focused on this three-way relationship. No exception, the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) seeks to improve MDM implementation primarily by holding the government accountable for the scheme and by pressurising the government to further improve MDM delivery.

My field research indicates, however, that focusing on these ‘macro-level’ accountability relationships is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that each child receives his/her entitlement. Accountability at the macro-level needs to be reinforced by accountability at the local, or ‘micro-level’, where providers are held accountable by individual citizens/recipients and where citizens (school parents) engage positively with the scheme. Parents must participate actively in the monitoring committees, composed of teachers, parents, community members and a local government official, that were set up by a 2006 Government Order to monitor the delivery and distribution of the food, and register complaints to the government and caterers when food is below standard.

Based on fieldwork in two schools in Delhi, my research shows that the parent participation necessary to generate ‘micro-level’ accountability does not occur everywhere. Where such parent participation occurs, the MDM scheme functions well, and where it does not, the scheme delivers poorer results. The paper therefore argues that scholars and practitioners should pay more attention to these micro-level actions, and seek to explain why parents engage actively in holding caterers accountable only in some schools. My research indicates that the level of accountability among citizens determines the extent of their participation and, to a large degree, the success of the scheme. A notion of ‘citizen-citizen accountability’ could therefore usefully be incorporated into current approaches to state-and-provider accountability. Building on the idea of social cohesion (referring to reciprocity, trusteeship, obligation, solidarity and inter-dependence), citizen-citizen accountability implies parents’ mutual answerability in fulfilling obligations, and the imposition of (informal) sanctions in case of non-participation or participation for private gain.

In one of the two schools studied, the MDM scheme worked well (i.e. children typically received food on a daily basis, either directly from the MDM scheme or from replacement sources organised by parents and teachers). In the other, the MDM scheme worked very poorly (i.e. delivery was erratic and there were no replacement sources). Based on focus group discussions and interviews with teachers, students and parents, the effectiveness of the MDM scheme seems not to depend solely on the accountability relationships between the government and citizens. Rather, good implementation depends very significantly on the level of (historically generated) social cohesion (such as notions of trust and reciprocity) between parents, and between parents and teachers. Just as citizens can be considered to have an obligation (in law and morality) not to destroy public property, they can be considered to have an obligation to engage positively with the MDM scheme. The implication of this analysis is that increasing MDM scheme funds and focusing solely on government accountability will not fully eliminate implementation problems. Activists (including the RTFC) and scholars should also focus on citizens’ accountability to each other, and to the government.

Assessments of the MDM scheme have consistently focused on the lack of government accountability, and by extension wholly ignored the critical role of citizen accountability in the success of such schemes. While the RTFC has drawn significant attention to short-comings in government efforts to implement the MDM scheme effectively, little attention has been paid to the importance of local level accountability relationships in ensuring the success of the scheme. These local level relationships, which constitute parent-monitoring committees responsible for oversight of the delivery of the MDM, are an essential factor in determining whether the scheme is successful on a school-to-school basis.

Araddhya Mehtta is a Consultant with the Accountability Initiative. Her research has been published as part of our Engaging Accountability: Working Paper Series and can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Teachers: Overpaid or Overburdened?

Avani Kapur

I recently had the opportunity to interview 16 teachers from 7 schools across 2 districts in Uttarakhand as part of a study being conducted by J-PAL, MIT aimed at understanding the institutional dynamics of the Read India programme – an accelerated learning programme launched by the NGO Pratham. We wanted to know what teachers thought of Pratham’s training, materials and monitoring, the difficulties they faced as well as the changes (positive and negative) brought about within the classroom dynamics by using this new teaching method.

While the report itself is still in its draft stages, there were a few points that came out of the teacher interviews, which raise some questions regarding the current system of education and teacher accountability – which is what the blog post is about.

Broadly, there were four things that came up consistently in the teacher interviews. First was the lack of teachers and high pupil-teacher ratios, which according to the teachers, caused difficulties in implementing programmes including Read India. Teachers testified to feeling over-burdened with administrative and other duties such as supervision of the Mid-Day Meal and were thus unable to devote time to new teaching methods like using the Pratham materials. As a teacher said, “In a school that has over 150 students and only 2 teachers, if we were to divide the students up and pay individual attention to the weak students , what would the other students do?”.

This shortage of teachers was reaffirmed by the government block and district officials. In Haridwar for instance, they revealed that of the 117 schools, 42 schools had only one teacher, and 3 schools had no teachers at all!

Second was the constant pressure to finish coursework and curriculum. Pratham spends a lot of time and effort designing materials that will be relevant to the students. Even the teachers testified that the innovativeness of the material increased student enthusiasm, and was a useful learning tool as compared to the rote-learning often used in finishing the curriculum. There did however appear to be a disconnect between the Pratham goals of improving basic learning levels and the government’s emphasis on finishing the school curriculum. The teachers appeared stuck in the middle between these two divergent demands.

Moreover, teachers felt that the training they received were disconnected from many of the real problems afflicting the school– i.e., lack of teachers, disinterested parents, lack of discipline amongst students, and a general disinterest in education.

And finally, all teachers indicated that monitoring was weak and said increased monitoring would be encouraging, when it was of the supportive kind, assisting them in learning new techniques and helping them in their teaching process rather than just requiring them to fill government forms.

While these testimonies from the teachers are by no means unique observations, they do raise some hard questions on our current educational system. Teacher salaries in 2007-08 according to DISE corresponded to 31.48% of the total expenditure done by the SSA. These teachers are costly and we are all contributing to it through the education cess. Estimates indicate that private school teachers earn close to 40% of their government colleagues’ income. Yet, the fact remains that the quality of education remains abysmally low for a vast majority of Indian children, and not much effort is being made to find out the causes.

Through the 1980s and the 1990s, the government focussed all its energies on getting children into schools, and enrolment data became the principle tool for monitoring progress, including of teacher performance. It’s only in the last three to four years that government officials have begun to openly admit that motivation and accountability among teachers is also a big problem. Yet, the tendency has been to regard the lack of learning as being solely due to lack of teacher motivation, and place blame squarely on the teachers, without looking at underlying structure of the educational system which might also be contributing to the problem.

As early as 1999, the PROBE Report (Public Report on Basic Education in India) had found that despite a major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil-teacher ratio in the survey areas has shown little improvement over the years. Today too, according to ASER, 2007 the median pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools remain as high as 39.

Further, in the current structure, monitoring is weak and teacher incentives are skewed. Salaries are not performance-based and there is a constant pressure to finish the curriculum rather than concentrate on helping children to actually learn.

While the current Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill is a great first step, a closer look at the Bill indicates that many of these endemic problems have still not been addressed. According to the Bill, Government schools do not need to meet any norms except the pupil-teacher ratio, and unlike in private schools, there are no consequences for failing to meet this basic norm. Moreover, the Bill legitimises the practice of multi-grade teaching, where more than one grade is being handled by the same teacher, simultaneously. The number of teachers is based on the number of students rather than on grade. So, for instance, a primary school having less than 60 students gets only 2 teachers, regardless of the number of grades in the school.

This commentary is by no means meant to absolve teachers of their shortcomings. Teacher absenteeism is indeed very high in rural areas. The PROBE Report, 1999, showed how 1/3rd of Head Teachers were absent during the study, and even of those present, teachers hardly taught. In another study conducted in 3 states, classroom observations showed, shockingly, that each group of children was taught for only around 25 minutes in a day (Ramchandran et al, 2004)! Teacher ability is also another big problem. A forthcoming study in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar reports that teachers lack even the most basic skills – less than 50% could summarize a class 5 text.

However, as I pointed out above, the problems faced by teachers are also real, and do need to be dealt with. Instead of always thinking about teachers as being overpaid and underperforming workers, maybe it is time for us to start looking into the underlying reasons for their lack of motivation, and think about increasing relevant training and support, and improve their incentives to perform through a more rational accountability structure. Our current educational structure needs a serious revisiting.

Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator of PAISA project at Accountability Initiative

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Tackling corruption: is the infrastructure in place?

Yamini Aiyar

Speaking at the biennial conference of the CBI and State Anti-Corruption Bureaus, the Indian Prime Minister reflected on the ‘malaise of corruption’ that is ‘sapping our efforts to march ahead as a nation’. He spoke about the urgent need for tackling corruption immediately and effectively, and urged anti-corruption agencies to ‘make the cost of corruption unacceptably high’.

Effective enforcement measures are one small element of a wider strategy to tackle corruption. As the PM argued, the primary purpose they serve is to create an environment of deterrence, in the absence of which corruption becomes a low-risk activity. It is for this reason that we ought to pay some attention to the effectiveness of our current institutional structure for tackling corruption.

At the Centre, corruption cases against senior public officials are handled by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The CVC is a statutory body with substantial independence. However, its role is merely advisory, and this is its greatest weakness. The CVC has no powers to take action when its recommendations are not complied with. Not surprisingly, there are many instances of non-compliance. According to the CVC’s latest annual report, 225 cases imposing major penalties on officers were not complied with.

Additionally, every government department is entrusted with the specific responsibility of investigating vigilance cases for which Chief Vigilance Officers (CVO) are appointed. Delays in filling CVO positions are common. Moreover, these posts are usually occupied by officials within the department who handle vigilance responsibilities part-time. This seriously undermines the objectivity and autonomy of the vigilance officer in conducting inquiries.

An interesting feature of the anti-corruption system is the presence of Lokayuktas (ombudsmen) in many states. The idea of creating an ombudsman was first proposed by the Administrative Reforms Commission in 1966. Since then, 17 states have set up Lokayuktas headed by retired judges. But most Lokayuktas are ineffective as they have no independent authority to undertake investigations, and have limited resources. Moreover, the Lokayuktas have no authority over other vigilance agencies such as the anti-corruption bureau.

When they do get reported, anti-corruption cases suffer from inordinate delays in investigation and convictions. According to the CVC, investigations can take anything between six months to three years. Conviction rates are dismal. A recent World Bank study reports that in ten years Rajasthan managed to convict a mere 411 public officials for corrupt practices. Part of the problem is the long delays in disposing of corruption cases - a result of failures within our judicial system. In 2005, Orissa had over 1,800 cases pending in trial courts. Unconscionable judicial delays meant that 12% of the defendants were dead before their cases came to court!

What can be done to reform our anti-corruption systems? Strengthening the powers and resources available to vigilance agencies both at the center and states is the first obvious step. The Karnataka Lokayukta and Andhra Pradesh Vigilance Commission are two examples where this has been done with considerable success and resulted in increased convictions.

The judiciary can play a role in initiating these reforms. The greatest strength of the current system in India is the considerable autonomy accorded to the CVC. This was the result of a 1997 Supreme Court judgment that ordered the CVC to be transformed into a statutory body. To ensure autonomy, the court directed that the CVC be appointed by a committee which includes the President and the leader of the opposition. Similar interventions can go a long way in strengthening vigilance agencies across the country.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director of Accountability Initiative, and Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Lok Adalats: Justice or Judicial Efficiency?

Bala Posani

I recently had the chance to travel to Ahmedabad on a reconnaissance trip to explore the possibility of a certain research project. We wanted to know if Lok Adalat (People’s Court) could be extended in its present scope to serve as a possible recourse for grievance redressal in service delivery cases. In recent years there appears to be a shift towards a rights based framework for service provision, with citizens being able to access state services through an argument of rights and entitlements – the right to food, the right to education, right to employment, and so forth. In this context of rights and entitlements, judiciary would seem a logical forum for citizens to seek redressal for their grievances in accessing these services.

The choice of Gujarat was because it afforded us the possibility of partnering with Research Foundation for Governance in India in Ahmedabad, who have considerable expertise in legal research and advocacy. Gujarat also happens to be a state where Lok Adalats are conducted actively. This is an ongoing exploration, and I managed to get some inputs from Senior Judges in Gujarat on what they felt on the matter. Going forward, we hope to present the case more formally. At this point, from my own witnessing of the processings at the Lok Adalat, and reading around the issues, there are some initial questions that cropped up about merits and constraints of Lok Adalats themselves, which is what this blog post is about. This is also perhaps apt, given the current focus on judicial reforms in India.

Lok Adalats were introduced in India in the early 80s. The main idea behind having them was to improve access to justice at local levels, and ease the burden on the regular courts due to millions of petty cases that clog up their scarce resources, awaiting settlement. Lok Adalats were to provide a speedy, fair and deliberative form of alternative dispute settlement mechanism, drawing on traditional methods of conciliation where the presiding judge – who is an experienced adjudicator with legal acumen and a record of public service – effects an understanding between the claimants, and settles the cases as compromise between the two sides. In most cases claims are for small amounts of money, and relatively minor issues related to traffic accidents, marital disputes, land disputes and so forth. Ordinary courts refer cases to Lok Adalats if they feel the case can be settled through compromise. There is no appeal against the decision reached at Lok Adalat, although if no compromise is reached, the claimants can go back to the courts that referred them there.

I had the opportunity to sit and observe the cases being disposed. While I was sat there, about 15 cases came up – mostly related to Prohibition offences and minor crimes and accidents, and on an average they took about 3-5 minutes each – something that in the normal procedure of regular courts would take much longer, and in worst cases, take years to even come up for hearing. Fines were imposed, compensations were awarded, and compromises reached. They had a target to cover 2000 cases within the day, and seemed well set to reach the target. I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the cases were being dealt. However, there were some larger questions that came up in my mind from my research and from observing it all happening.

Foremost, I was struck by the ‘paternalism’ of the proceedings. Given the general air of obsequiousness in many bureaucratic spaces in India where citizens engage the bureaucrats as supplicants more than as rights-bearing citizens, some amount of paternalism from the officials was expected in the proceedings. But given the absence of advocates in most cases, and absence of appeal against the conclusions reached, it would appear that the discretion given to the judges can be overbearing and coercive, especially if the claimant in question is poor and otherwise disempowered. A compromise is no doubt willingly reached by all parties concerned, but due to the subjective nature of the judge’s discretion, and the general notions of justice on which Lok Adalat is based – rather than juristic legality – unequal power equation between the claimants, or between the claimant and the judge, can raise questions about the ‘fairness’ of the compromise arrived at. This is made more serious by the fact that a case can be transferred to the Lok Adalat if a court judge feels that a compromise can be reached, even if the claimants themselves do not feel so.

To be sure, these are not questions unique to Lok Adalats. Some of the regular courts also suffer from these and other problems. And even if in theory there are problems that can be identified, Lok Adalats have in practice disposed of cases with an efficiency that regular courts will have difficulty matching. But judicial efficiency is not the same thing as justice. And there are studies that show that this is not entirely a theoretical concern (For instance see here and here). Also, one can think of other important ways of ‘disciplining’ our regular courts, which can have substantial results in speeding up the delivery of cases as well. At which point one needs to wonder if availability of alternative dispute settlement avenues like the Lok Adalats could actually be diluting the constituency for these important reforms within our judiciary.

Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative