Social Accountability

The credit for bringing Accountability to the centre stage of Indian politics should perhaps go to the eventual founders of the Aam Admi Party (AAP). They brought to our consciousness the concept of Social Accountability, which was gathering momentum across the developing world from Africa to South East Asia, thanks to the efforts of local NGOs, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and international aid agencies like the World Bank, which saw their aid efforts being eroded by the unaccountability of the ruling elites in these countries.

So who is accountable? The simple answer to that is ‘those who govern, and have the power and authority to do so.’ By this definition, the elected representative wins legitimacy by getting the political mandate in an election, and then the law of the land confers power and authority upon her/him. This constitutes political authority, which is in turn delegated to the bureaucracy as administrative authority. In this way are policies, programmes and decisions implemented, through a well understood and well regulated delegation of power and authority.

Through regulation, governments are both mandated by, and made accountable to society at large, putting all governance in an essentially social context – hence SOCIAL accountability. Further, this mandate confers the power and authority to use PUBLIC funds to run the country and its government, making those who govern financially accountable as well.

Accountability is an essential component of a democratic system. Accountability systems are based on periodic elections and different types of vertical and horizontal accountability arrangements that hold executive branches accountable to legislature; civil servants to politicians; and businesses to their shareholders.

Such systems comprise of a range of independent regulatory agencies, such as superior audit institutions and corruption commissions that scrutinise the actions and decisions of businesses, politicians and bureaucrats.

Accountability, therefore, is about holding people to account for the impact of their actions, and ensuring that those people who are impacted have the right to be heard and their views taken into account; that those in power have the obligation to listen and respond; and that a system of sanctions is in place to enforce these rights and obligations.

By this definition, one can also extend the concept of social accountability to the Private Sector. Although Corporates may feel that they are accountable only to their shareholders, staff and customers, their operations may impact much larger sections of society, sometimes directly, or sometimes unexpectedly. The most obvious and visible impact of corporate production may be pollution of the air and water in its vicinity, indirectly impacting the health and life expectancy of the people living in that area. The Bhopal Gas tragedy and its aftermath, is the most extreme example of lack of corporate accountability, which India has had the misfortune to encounter first hand.

Similarly, the much vaunted industrial development of Gujarat has come at a high price:

  • The Central Pollution Control Board of India declared Gujarat to be the most polluted state in 2010
  • Due to critical levels of pollution, the Central Government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 banned all new projects and expansion of existing ones in the industrial cluster of Vapi in Southern Gujarat
  • The Central Pollution Control Board in 2012 declared three Gujarat rivers to be the most polluted in India*

But which industrialist in Gujarat has ever been held accountable?

There are two ways in which Social Accountability can operate:

The first is known as demand-side Social Accountability and figures largely in the urban, educated middle class discourse on accountability. The best known mechanisms of demand-driven SA operate from the bottom up, and include means like Citizens’ Charters, Independent Budget Analysis, Municipal Participatory Budgeting and Planning, Sectoral Expenditure Tracking, and Social Audit.

All these demand-side mechanisms of Social Accountability essentially pivot around civic engagement. They presume an enlightened, empowered and enabled civil society, both willing and able to demand accountability from those in power, and bring the wayward to book. And that is why, despite sporadic attempts in metros, they have never really taken off in India.

In a developing country like India,  where vast swathes of the population are busy just surviving from day to day, who has the luxury of time to hold the powerful to account? Therefore it makes sense to look at the other side of the social accountability coin viz. government-driven or supply-side mechanisms, and how these can be effectively strengthened.

Some initiatives which have worked well in countries like Australia and New Zealand are:

  • Open Government which proactively seeks greater civic participation through information and consultation
  • Proximity initiatives aimed at reducing the “distance” between the governed and government by identifying citizen needs and preferences
  • Citizen involvement in making decisions which directly affect them, like municipal budgets
  • Emphasis on voluntary disclosure under freedom of information laws
  • Commitment to transparency on the part of public bodies

Signs of such an awakening in India are already visible, as almost every Central Government scheme now provides for some form of social accountability (like Social audits in MNREGA), and the changes though slow in coming, are beginning to happen, as we see from the various government-led initiatives like proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005.

In my next post we shall look closer at Corruption and its hidden aspects, such as Clientelism and Capture…Meantime have a look at: *http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/indiaatlse/2014/04/04/gujarats-troubling-environmental-record)

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