By Bibek Debroy & Aditya Sinha
Public accountability is often used as a rhetorical tool to convey the image of good governance. But what is public accountability? Mark Bovens, one of the most cited scholars on accountability, calls it an institutionalised practice of account-giving. Boven’s public accountability framework consists of three elements: (1) the government/actor is obliged to inform the citizenry/forum about its conduct; this can be done by providing various sorts of data, the reports on the review of performance, etc, (2) this is followed by accountee debating and evaluating the performance of the government, and (3) finally, the accountee passes the judgement on the performance of the accountor, which can lead to formal or informal sanctions. In some cases, these sanctions come in the form of electoral defeat.
Is the government obliged to be accountable? Yes, in certain cases, for instance, the executive is accountable to the legislature. But in a few cases, it is voluntary. We are concerned with the latter. Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is one such example wherein the government voluntarily has become accountable to people at the grassroots. Launched in 2019, JJM aims to provide each and every household in rural India safe and adequate drinking water and through tap connections by 2024. JJM aims to go beyond building pipeline infrastructure to create sustainable water solutions; Rs 50,000 crore has been earmarked for the JJM in Budget 2021-22.
JJM has a mobile-friendly dashboard (bit.ly/3u3SYNf). It is a tool for voluntary public accountability for several reasons. (1) It has details of the number of households in which are taps are installed, and assured potable water is available in a state, city, district, village or block. This data is collected and updated in real-time. (2) The details of potable tap water connections in schools and anganwadis. (3) JJM empowers the local government and is based on a community approach. The dashboard also has details of the water utility management team of the village. This includes Gram Panchayat, Pani Samiti members, the person responsible for operation and management and most importantly, women identified for field test kit (FTK) testing. (4) It has a working e-grievance redressal mechanism. (5) It has details of samples tested in the last three months for contamination and whether the water has been found to be contaminated. (6) Sensor-based Internet of Things (IoT) solutions are being deployed, which will be able to gauge the amount of water being discharged in each and every water tank. Currently, this data is manually fed by the officials. (7) The ministry is working to develop a portable device to check water quality in villages, just like glucometers. Eventually, anybody could check the quality of drinking water.
Further, there are systems of checks and balances to ensure that data is not fudged. Like other government initiatives, this now has to be vetted by third-party scrutiny. Additionally, for the wider dissemination of this data, it should be made available in regional languages. As a result, intended accountees will be better equipped to evaluate the performance of the government.
As far as JJM’s performance is concerned, it has brought in sea changes in drinking water infrastructure in rural India. More than four crore rural households (as of March 30) have been provided with active tap water connection. This is more than double the number of connections from August 15, 2019, i.e. 3.23 crore connections to 7.24 crore connections. Goa (100%), Telangana (100%), Haryana (86.73%), Gujarat (82.96%), HP (76.03%), Punjab (73.73%) and Bihar (68.81%) have made large strides in providing access to tapped drinking water connection. West Bengal (8.93%), Assam (9.80%), Uttar Pradesh (10.96%), Chhattisgarh (12.46%), Jharkhand (12.48%) and Rajasthan (19.09%) still have a long way to go.
The disparities between the states emanate out of different starting points. As of August 15, 2019, 70.13% of the rural households in Gujarat had access to assured quality drinking water through taps. On the contrary, only 1.91% of rural households in West Bengal had access to potable water connections on August 15, 2019.
The government now has plans to extend the scheme to urban areas, but it is easier said than done. One would assume that it would be a low hanging fruit since urban India already has piped water infrastructure. In rural India, where population density is low, the unit of analysis for JJM is houses that are spatially separated. While in urban areas, there are also slums, chawls and other high population density clusters. The prevalence of closed urban spaces makes it difficult to track potable water’s reach in the desired quantities (55tcpd) to individual household within the slums. Thus, it will require a more innovative approach to ensure the desired outreach.
Regardless, the public policy interventions like JJM have brought in a new dawn of accountability wherein people can question those in power. It checks all the elements of Boven’s framework. Would the likes of Sir Humphrey Appleby approve of the public accountability the JJM dashboard offers? Probably not. But, it indeed makes the executive, including bureaucracy, more accountable to the people. And as Stephen Covey puts it, it is a sort of “accountability (which) breeds response-ability”.
Debroy is chairman, and Sinha is assistant consultant, EAC-PM