Public Financial Accountability – Who Cares?
I found myself commuting into the city of Bangalore couple of weeks back on a Sunday. It was to join a human chain that would link their hands over a distance of a few kilometres. I had strong feelings about the subject of the protest.
The state government had announced its intention to build a flyover that would rise from the heart of the city and sail over six kilometres, to dump traffic onto the highway that leads to the Bangalore international airport. It was to be built in steel – to resurrect the fortunes of Steel companies in Karnataka, it is said – and to clear the way for it, about eight hundred trees, some a century or more old, were proposed to be cut. The announcement by the state government resulted in howls of protest from the public.The state government on the other hand, said that though the project was announced now it was approved by the previous government and that the majority of the public were in favour of the project. When investigated, it was revealed that around 250 or so individuals had responded online to the government seeking public opinion, which constituted about seventy percent of all respondents on the site. To counter this assertion of the government, a collection of NGOs, activists and politicians decided to organise a protest where people were exhorted to come together to link hands along the route of the proposed flyover.
As I stood in line, a large number of organisers, or roving activists, busily surveyed the build up of the chain. Politicians of various political parties walked around, meeting people, shaking hands and generally getting noticed. A Member of Parliament strutted around and when he tired of that, he got into a high end SUV and sped away. I looked around and noticed a sculpture on a traffic island nearby – fibreglass children ringing a concrete tree.
I fell into a reverie and the chattering round me faded away.
My thoughts turned back to conversations with Yamini Aiyar, when she was toying with the idea of starting Accountability Initiative (AI). Years back, when the seed of AI was sown, the prime focus was on investigating the flow of money from the higher levels of the government to various service delivery institutions; schools, hospitals, veterinary hospitals, police stations and suchlike. There was an unquestioned belief in the idea that if somehow, we were able to track the allocations and expenditures of government money and make it public, it would result in large numbers of ordinary people asking some tough questions of their governments.
Yet, as I contemplated the fibreglass children and the concrete tree - an appropriate sculpture for today’s Bangalore - I wondered whether we were not being too presumptuous, when we assumed that free knowledge of budget allocations and expenditures would ipso facto result in greater scrutiny of government actions.
Take the flyover project, for instance. Within days of the project being announced, the estimated cost of the flyover rose by about thirty percent. As the demands to see the feasibility reports that justified that the flyover ought to be built increased, the government came out with contradictory reports on them. When experts on traffic management said that the flyover would be unnecessary if better traffic management was adopted and public transport improved, the government brushed these opinions aside.
What makes the government so stubborn, in the face of protests by large numbers of people against such gigantic protests? It is not as if there are no other options. Anti-flyover groups argue that the entire paradigm of individual motor-car based traffic is wrong and that it will bring the city to a grinding halt, regardless of how many flyovers might be built. They assert that with the same money that is used for the flyover, if public transport were to be improved and rail connectivity established by using existing under-utilised railway lines, there would be much less traffic congestion. The government has dug its heels in and they say that the flyover is an immediate imperative if large scale traffic snarls are to be avoided.
When there were no signs that the standoff would cease, finally, it was left to the protesters to file public interest petitions in the courts. The latest news is that the High Court of Karnataka has stayed any action by the Bangalore Development Authority to implement the project, on the ground that procedural steps such as consultation with the Bangalore Metropolitan Planning Committee had not been undertaken.
However, regardless of the merits of the arguments of both sides, the question still remains; would the availability of data on government fund allocations and expenditures radically alter the way that citizens engage with their governments? What if the government – as is seen in the flyover example – disregard data supported arguments against the flyover and continues its efforts to build it?
What if data is available and used by the citizens, and still, the Government does not care?