Sarkari Secrets | Govt knows. We should, too

Last Updated 27 February 2021, 19:24 IST

Last week, the Andhra government suspended six officials in East Godavari district over irregularities in NREGA wage payments. Nearly 500 residents of Chirutapudi village were owed more than Rs 20 lakh. NREGA is supported by one of the best internet-based information portals for a government scheme.

Yet, it was proactive disclosure of worker and payment-related details from government files at the gram panchayat office, coupled with a door-to-door verification exercise conducted by a 50-member social audit team -- assisted by two local NGOs -- that blew the lid on this scam. It also ensured the release of more than Rs 1.6 lakh in back-wages owed to some of the workers. Many more have waited for more than 20 months, despite the law guaranteeing wage payments within seven days.

Several advocates of transparency say that if governments can be persuaded to put up more information about their working in the public domain, there would be few RTI applications to deal with. This hypothesis is not backed by sound empirical research. If anything, the reverse is true. Transparency is often demand-driven -- the more people seek information formally, the greater will be the pressure be on the administration to put it all out, especially that which is critical to ensuring accountability.

The correctives applied in Chirutapudi were preceded by multiple RTI applications filed by activists seeking information about the irregularities. Instead of getting the data, they received demands for exorbitant fees for it.

The social audit team discovered bundles of muster-rolls lying in the houses of local officials without being handed over to the Block Office for updating the portal. Ultimately, it is the paper-based disclosure of payment details that did the trick. Worker after worker challenged the official data. The success of a transparency regime depends less on the disclosure of information that babus deem harmless and more on that which is critical for calling out the administration for its actions and omissions.

The expansion of publicly accessible information on the PM-KISAN scheme through RTI interventions is an example. Since June 2020, this author has submitted RTI applications to the Union Ministry of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmer’s Welfare seeking more detailed information than what the scheme website displayed. The first RTI request sought gender and caste-wise statistics of beneficiaries of this Rs 6,000 per year pay-out scheme for farmers. Information was also sought about payments made to those who were excluded from the scheme under the ineligibility criteria. The second sought state-wise data of cases in which pay-outs to farmers had failed during bank transactions. In both instances, this author sought proactive disclosure of all information as per Section 4 of the RTI Act.

When the initial RTI application failed to get any response, a first appeal was submitted challenging this silence. The Appellate Authority agreed with the contention that all the information sought should have been disclosed voluntarily. He directed the National Informatics Centre and the National Farmers’ Welfare Programme Implementation Society to publish it without delay. Now, the PM-KISAN website is displaying gender and caste-wise details of pay-outs to beneficiaries as well as information about money transfer failures. A sarkari secret has become information that is publicly accessible to anybody.

Additionally, data supplied to this author by the ministry showed that the government had doled out Rs 1,364 crore to two million-plus persons who did not satisfy the PM-KISAN eligibility criteria. Recently, the government told Parliament that such pay-outs to ineligible persons actually amounted to nearly Rs 1,000 crore more at Rs 2,327 crore.

Those responsible for taxpayer funds going into the pockets of undeserving persons must be identified and held accountable. The first step in this direction is to expand the PM-KISAN portal’s contents to include data about such goof-ups in real time. Will MPs insist on such disclosures? That remains to be seen.

(Published 27 February 2021, 18:17 IST)

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