One of the main observations about the working of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been that political decentralisation and empowerment of these institutions has not led to enough transparency in decision making. It was probably hoped that the very process of decentralisation itself would lead to transparent decisions, and certainly some excellent conventions have developed over the years in the functioning of Panchayati Raj institutions to this effect; for instance, the press is allowed to attend Zilla Panchayat (ZP) meetings where a full discussion takes place on a number of developmental issues. And yet, there is a growing feeling that the planning process that deals with a number of programmes that concern development, further complicated by a maze of heads of accounts and sub-heads of accounts, obscures real development issues from the gaze of the people. The formula for improving PRI functioning in this area would follow a four-fold path; simplify, inform, review and hold accountable for non-performance or mal-administration.

The planning process needs to be de-jargonised and made understandable by common people. Parallel with this, institutional mechanisms are needed through which the people can have a right to secure information about the execution of plans and programmes. The final aspect is that of providing an institutional mechanism for ensuring upward accountability.

Logically, the best method of accountability is to empower people with the right to be informed and the power to review and guide. The Working Group's strategy involves empowering the Grama Sabha as a part of people's empowerment. At the level of the Grama Panchayat, there can be no greater accountability than this. Yet, even given that the Grama Sabha would be substantially empowered, a right to recourse to an institutional mechanism that gives speedy relief to the aggrieved effectively bolsters such empowerment. Elements of direct democracy, which are practicable at the Grama Panchayat level cannot be applied at the Taluka Panchayat (TP) and Zilla Panchayat level. Grama Sabhas cannot be organised to whom ZPs and TPs are accountable; moreover, the clientele of these bodies are probably not as homogenous in terms of commonality of interest as a Grama Sabha. Thus while a particular focussed programme implemented by the ZP may not have any particular importance for the general public it may be vitally important for the target group concerned. Consequently, the importance of downward accountability mechanisms at the intermediate and district level is overtaken by the need to have mechanisms that provide for upward accountability at the Grama Sabha level.

Empowering the citizen through information
A vital and important aspect of ensuring accountability is to recognize the citizen's right to information and devise systems that ensure her easy access to it. Transparency is an organic part of the decentralisation process and when we re-engineer administration to facilitate decentralised governance, transparency should find an automatic place in the new set up. First, we must realise that we are not doing any great favour to the citizen by ensuring transparency. The right to information is already clearly enshrined in our democratic institutions in ways that we take for granted; the legislative process is open to the public and so is the Legislative Committee's system of examining the executive's performance. The basis of the judicial system is the right of information; all concerned parties have the right to know the documents that are relied on before a decision is taken and decisions themselves are backed by an explicit and detailed justification based on facts and precedents. In such a situation, the fact that the executive still should debate whether the people have a right to be informed is paradoxical. Surely, one does not doubt that several sensitive matters that concern sovereignty and national security cannot be made public, but it does not make sense to keep information on development, decisions on and expenditure of public funds outside the scrutiny of the citizen.

There is a greater urgency for putting in place an institutional mechanism to operate the right to information when we speak of PRIs. Eventually, it will be the PRIs through which power will flow upwards from the people to those who profess to govern. In our scheme of things, the empowerment of the Grama Sabhas will transform the collective body of people from passive recipients of aid and support to having a pro-active role in determining their developmental destiny. This empowerment cannot have any meaning if the flow of information to the people is restricted.

It is a natural presupposition that if the right to information is to have any meaning, information itself will have to be systematised and packaged in a manner that makes sense to those who seek it. But this is easier said than done. Just as in the case of most government offices, PRIs and the offices that work under them are hardly people-friendly. A thick veil of secrecy hides inefficiencies, arbitrariness, corruption and nepotism from public gaze. To worsen arbitrary decision-making, the process of recording decisions has deteriorated considerably. When there is a great deal of arbitrariness in decision making at the local level, records will not show how the choice was arrived at or whether various options and possibilities were analysed and on which criteria the prioritisation was done.

Two illustrations exemplify this unsatisfactory state of affairs. The first is the widespread preference for roads or other contractor oriented works under schemes such as Jawahar Grama Samvruddhi Yojana, Employment Assurance Schemes or Untied Funds. While some of these reasons for this preference may be justified, such as the visibility of the asset or technical simplicity of construction, quite a few of these works are driven by contractors rather than any local need. The second example is the widespread tendency to break up estimates for a particular work into sub-estimates that are individually below the threshold level where it is mandatory to call for tenders. This facilitates implementing agencies to go in for piecework - a practice that reeks of patronage.

Probably the most insidious ill effect of the secrecy that surrounds executive action in PRIs is seen in the selection of beneficiaries for subsidy schemes. The logical transparent sequence ought to be the laying down of the selection criteria, publicising them, calling for applications through the Grama Sabha, processing them with reference to the criteria, making selections and ending with publicly explaining the rationale of the selection made. However, we are not any closer to achieving this logical ideal even after fourteen years of decentralisation.

There are a variety of reasons that have contributed to this state of affairs - pressure of work, imprecise instructions from above, untrained staff, ineffective supervision, impractical procedures and corrupt intentions. When such is the case, some may argue that opening this maze to the common man through bringing in a right to information may not make any sense, least of all to him. However, the very existence of a legally enforceable and actionable management information system in the PRIs would remedy these maladies and initiate the process of educating the people in institutional management.

In these circumstances, we underscore the need to ensure that fairness at the cutting edge has to be seen and corroborated by full disclosure, whatever may be the inconvenience and cost involved for the administration. We also believe that such standards of disclosure have to be uniform at all PRI levels; it would be iniquitous to enforce transparency at the lower level while retaining unhealthy secrecy at a higher level.