Bihar shows the power of accountability

Apparently, Pretoria is looking towards China for inspiration for its economic development ­strategy. But India is closer, politically as well as geographically. There are obvious similarities: grinding poverty and inequality, rampant corruption based largely on political patronage, identity politics and a persistent underlying threat of ethnic tension.

In India there is a sense of energy and innovation, driving the country’s extraordinary growth rate of the past decade, spectacular when compared with South Africa’s more modest figures. The progress and the benefits, like here, are unevenly spread. Bihar, the poorest of India’s 28 states, has a population of about 100-million and has traditionally been regarded as the country’s worst-governed state.

When you wander around Patna, its capital, there are signs of new middle-class prosperity. Billboards advertise luxury apartments and so on, but the scene beneath them is chaotic and miserable. As with everywhere else in India, you find yourself asking the questions: How on earth does this place hang together? And how on earth do you start to fix it?

Well, good leadership seems to matter a great deal. Bihar has experienced a sea change since 2005 when a new coalition government was elected to power and then embarked a wide-ranging set of governance reforms. Central to this effort was the reassertion of the rule of law. Bihar had long been considered a cowboy backwater, run by gangsters and mafia overlords, but now crime rates, especially for violent crime, have fallen dramatically.

Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar (equivalent to the premier), is the central figure in the coalition government and is receiving most of the plaudits for the turnaround. The World Bank and other development institutions are lauding the socialist politician for ‘reclaiming the state”.

But, interestingly, it is in the area of ‘social accountability” that both Kumar—now being spoken of as a possible national prime minister candidate in 2014—and the many interested observers of the Bihar reforms place the greatest emphasis. Of special note is the state Right to Information Act that was passed in 2006. The openness the Act promotes has been directed towards improving the responsiveness of the state government in its provision of public services for the poor.

It has been undergirded by two important mechanisms: first, a state information commission, and second, a call centre to assist citizens to overcome their difficulty in making right-to-information requests. From a modest start the call centre now receives as many as 20 000 calls a month. When it cannot locate the information or satisfy the person asking, the request is passed ‘on appeal” to the state information commissioner, who then has the power to rule quickly on whether the information should be given out or not.

There is much South Africa can learn from this story. First, nothing is impossible. Even the worst governance can be overcome with the right leadership. Second, instead of treating the right to information as a dangerous political threat, to be ignored or obstructed, which is the default position of most government agencies here, it can be regarded as a key element in public service delivery.

There is no reason why a similar set of call centres should not be created here. In a further innovation, Pretoria or a provincial government could work with MTN or Vodacom to provide copious amounts of information through cellphones. Why not? Even the poorest citizens have cellphones.

But the creation of an information commissioner is essential to underpin the system. One is needed on a national level, but if Pretoria is unwilling, then there is nothing to stop a provincial government from establishing one. It is time that provinces started to innovate, otherwise the case against them will become overwhelming.

After Patna, I spent a day in Delhi and attended a public meeting—a jan sunwai—of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. A Delhi municipality was being called to account. A year before, the national information commissioner had ordered that the local budgets be provided to citizens through public posters. There were two complaints. First, some of the posters had been written in chalk and washed away in the rain. Second, there was anger about the amount of money that had been spent on ‘fancy lights” in the local park.

As one witness who gave evidence at the hearing put it: ‘We don’t need parks. We don’t have time to walk in parks. We don’t even know where our next meal is coming from.”

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