Beyond RTI

Editorial in LiveMint, Posted: Fri, Jan 25 2008

In the third year of the Act, follow-up action against the corrupt is a must

It was exactly one year ago that the NDTV journalist reporting the brazen theft of foodgrain meant for combating malnutrition among children by the scheme’s staff in Uttar Pradesh, was bleakly told by an anganwadi worker:

“Your words or your camera will not change anything.” That’s a telling comment, if one was still needed, depicting just how pointless “spending” on anti-poverty programmes is in the absence of the right incentives for good governance.

Little surprise then that last month the NGO Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti found huge diversion of sugar, rice and other essential commodities meant for BPL (below poverty line) families to the open market in Assam. Or that in August, a survey found that of the Rs733 crore spent under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in 2006-07 in 100 villages of Orissa, Rs500 crore had been misappropriated by government officials.

This was linked to the death of hundreds of tribals who could have survived had they benefited from the wage employment scheme. Little surprise too, that this week, the Unicef report, The State of the World’s Children, told us more children under five die in India than in any other country.

It is evident that the most important government poverty alleviation programmes are failing because of rampant corruption. We have noted some cases above—ICDS (integrated child development scheme) in Uttar Pradesh, PDS (public distribution system) in Assam and NREGS in Orissa.

It is indeed not the lack of money, but the siphoning of it that is the problem. The outcome: More poor die every year, from hunger, starvation, severe malnourishment and the lack of livelihood. Corruption is, perhaps, the biggest reason why the most deprived sections of society continue to stay thus. Despite a drop in the number of people below the poverty line, the number of those who go to bed hungry is rising.

Corruption, coupled with bad governance, is the biggest reason for persisting poverty

It is against this backdrop that the January Transparency Review published by the Centre for Media Studies (a New Delhi-based research and advocacy body), argues that meaningful social change is not possible if there is no follow-up and road map for action. This comment was in context of the Right to Information (RTI) movement.

The problem, as the review highlights, is: “Exposes will have a limited impact unless they lead to those responsible being named and punished adequately.” It goes on to say: “It is hard to conceive of a worse crime than stealing food from the hungry. Yet, the only punishment we hear of seldom exceeds transfer.” Obviously, that’s why we have statistics such as: “Every year India’s poor are cheated of 53.35% of wheat and 39% of rice meant for them”—and this is just the official estimate.

The absence of a strong disincentive for misgovernance is much to blame for what one would typically term pervasive rent-seeking tendencies. But when it comes to their failure in ensuring these vital poverty alleviation programmes deliver what they are supposed to, the term for the responsible members of the legislature and executive would be no less than moral turpitude. It is thus clear that relentless exposure must continue and civil society—with the media’s support—will have to lead.

In this, the third year of the RTI Act, more momentum on the combined social audit-RTI force is needed to make those responsible on paper, truly accountable. Here, the lack of cooperation on part of the Rajasthan government for a social audit of NREGS last month by NGOs signals a larger hurdle. Hostility is likely in other states, too. If the government is serious, it will ensure cooperation and full information for social audits. And clean up its act on the Whistleblowers Bill to protect those who expose corruption from within. And penalize the guilty stringently.

(How can RTI help curb corruption in poverty schemes? Write to us at views [at]

Beyond RTI - livemint

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