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LET THEM BE HEARD

Poonam Singh Rawat, 63, couldn’t get any answers to his repeated queries on the delayed arrival of cereals and kerosene in his village’s public distribution system (PDS) shop every month. “The ration shop owner used to blame the officials at the tehsil level, and the tehsil people in turn blamed the block level officials. I was going around in circles looking for answers,” recalls the farmer from Kahari village in Bhim tehsil of Rajsamand district in Rajasthan.

Then, almost a year back, Rawat took advantage of a law called the Right to Hearing Act, and filed his grievance with the public hearing officer (PHO) at the local tehsil office. Within a week, a public hearing was held and officials explained the reasons for the repeated delays. They also promised to take care of the problem — which is what they did. “It’s been a year now, and the cereals are always on time in our PDS shop,” says a proud Rawat, who is now a Right to Hearing (RTH) activist filing grievance petitions on behalf of people from his own village and those nearby.

The Right to Hearing Act was passed in Rajasthan in August 2012 — the only state in the country to do so as yet. It gives citizens the right to be heard with regard to a complaint within a stipulated time and to get information on the decision made in that hearing.

Kerala too is slated to adopt a similar law as early as the next session of the state Assembly. According to an official at the Kerala chief minister’s office, when it comes into force, the law would “ensure time-bound hearing and disposal of complaints related to governance”. “The intention is very simple. Every citizen who has a complaint against any government service will have the right to be heard within a stipulated time,” the official says.

According to Section 5 of the RTH Act of Rajasthan, the state has to establish information and facilitation centres for efficient and effective redressal of grievances. The RTH law also stipulates that customer care centres and help desks will be established at all levels to collect complaints and pass them on to the PHOs.

The state government boasts of some impressive figures that show how successful the law has been. Rajasthan Guaranteed Delivery of Public Services (RGDPS), an organisation that tracks the implementation of various laws related to public services in the state, says nearly 60 lakh grievances have been filed under the law.

But not everyone feels that the law has been implemented to its full potential. Shankar Singh, founder member of the Rajasthan-based Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a non-government organisation (NGO) that works in the field of empowerment of rural poor and one that led a movement for the RTH Act, says that time-bound hearing and service of delivery as promised in the law hasn’t been followed in letter and spirit. “Complaints have to be looked into within a fortnight, but not everybody does it. Erring officials have not been hauled up either.”

Singh also points to the fact that in contrast to the appellate authorities under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, who as information commissioners are independent and have vast powers, RTH has only government officials at all levels. “They will never want to punish their own department people,” he says.

Section 6 of the act states, “Any person who is not provided an opportunity of hearing within the stipulated time limit or who is aggrieved by the decision of the public hearing officer may file an appeal to the first appellate authority within 30 days of the expiry of the stipulated time limit or from the date of the decision of the public hearing officer.”

The complainant can approach the second appellate authority if he or she is not satisfied with the first. The first and second appellate authorities have the same powers as those vested in a civil court while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure. This means that they can summon government officials and also call for any document or other material objects as evidence.

As for penalties, the second appellate authority can impose a penalty if it feels that the PHO has not provided an opportunity of hearing a grievance within the stipulated time limit without sufficient and reasonable cause. The penalties can range anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000 and are recovered from the salary of the erring PHO.

“That is one thing the officers fear the most. They don’t want any negative marks on their career records and, of course, the penalty is also a deterrent. But this needs to be implemented strictly,” says Singh.

Although the law lays down that facilitation centres should be set up at all levels, that hasn’t happened. So people in villages have to travel to government offices in towns and cities to submit their grievance — and that entails travel expenses and loss of wages.

Experts point out that one of the biggest drawbacks of the law is that it hasn’t been publicised properly. “Many people don’t even know that such a law exists. Unlike the RTI law, RTH hasn’t been publicised by the state government at all,” says an official of RGDPS.

Singh agrees. “The law could have been more effective had the government set aside some money for its publicity. The onus is on NGOs like us to spread awareness, but we can’t reach all parts of Rajasthan,” he says.

Meanwhile, activists and government agencies in Kerala are looking at Rajasthan’s RTH law closely before enacting a similar law in the state. D.B. Binu, an RTI activist from Kerala, says that the state government should examine the Rajasthan law and understand its shortcomings in order to come up with a strong law. “How effective the law will be depends on the state government,” he says.

The chief minister’s office says that although it is inspired by Rajasthan, its own Right to Hearing law will be Kerala-specific. “I don’t think it will be a photocopy of the Rajasthan law. In fact, the chief minister wants it to be much more effective than the one in Rajasthan,” the official in the chief minister’s office says.

Perhaps that’s a cue for other states to implement Right to Hearing laws in their own domain?