What does it take to make a somnolent bureaucracy responsive to citizens' needs? Several things, obviously, as participants heard at a workshop on Developing Institutions for Public Accountability in Urban Services, organised by the Water & Sanitation Programme of the World Bank in New Delhi in February.

Arvind Kejriwal of the Delhi-based NGO Parivartan recounted how a daily wage labourer in East Delhi had tried to obtain a duplicate ration card. For three months, he was fobbed off from one department, and from one official, to another, in what appeared to be a futile and frustrating exercise. Once Parivartan intervened and asked why this wasn't being issued under Delhi's Right to Information law, which was introduced in 2001, he obtained the card in four days.

Under the Delhi law, which is probably not as strong as Maharashtra's or Goa's, all 119 departments of the government have a senior officer designated as the competent authority to provide information. Anyone who solicits information is given it within 30 days, failing which the official pays Rs 50 per day as a penalty. Kejriwal clarified that Delhi was at present fortunate in having a Chief Minister like Sheila Dikshit, who overcame the strong resistance within the bureaucracy to the right to information legislation with a view to promoting transparency in her regime.

Debashree Mukherjee, Goa's PWD Secretary, detailed how despite far better coverage in water and sanitation in her state, there were still deficiencies. Goans received water for eight hours a day on average and 80% of the state has sanitation facilities. So it came as something of a surprise, she reported, that there was a hepatitis epidemic in urban areas, due to the groundwater being contaminated. Goa still depends to a large extent on wells, which ought to have been insulated from such contamination.

It is legally established that the lack of funds cannot serve as a pretext for inability to deliver services. Thus every municipality has to collect garbage and provide water and drainage.
Unlike other states, water isn't provided free to anyone in Goa, whether in rural or urban areas, which is a reminder that this state has probably the best human development indices in the entire country. Even so, there was a Rs 10 crore loss annually on water supply, which is why Mukherjee stressed the need for accurate information, and in the correct form. On sanitation too, she questioned which people had been left uncovered. The government had spent Rs 100 crore on providing toilets in homes, which was an engineer-driven programme, with no contribution from the community. Due to the lack of maintenance, septic tanks often collapsed, forcing people to defecate in the open.

The reforms she advocated in her own department included information-gathering and the stress on accountability. When it came to the provision of water, there was public scrutiny every day - if the supply stops, there is instant feedback. She had commissioned a consumer preference survey in this sector which, she imagined, would demonstrate a preference for water of the desired quality for health reasons. However, the people opted instead for more regular supply throughout the day as their first priority. There were now standard formats for disclosure on the part of the bureaucracy. A water helpline ensured a timeline for each problem: for instance, a leakage had to be attended to within six hours.

"Information is necessary even within the organisation," Mukherjee added. As part of this sector's reforms, accountability was built into the PWD's internal processes, to ensure internal transparency. Benchmarking - setting standards for functions by which to measure performance - actually empowered not only the consumer but a utility as well. Significantly, the department is now engaged in drafting a vision statement, after wide consultations with NGOs and others, and this will be widely disseminated.

Ashish Kundra, CEO of the Delhi Jal Board, which came in for flak from Parivartan for not disclosing the report by the international consultants Price, Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), rumoured to concern privatisation of the utility, explained that the board's initiative was a public-private ownership, while the ownership of the assets would remain in private hands. The World Bank had at the outset of the workshop admitted that it had learned "the hard way" that it was wrong to leave the delivery of water and sanitation to the private sector. According to Kundra, the board's policy was guided by the political leadership, which included MLAs and MPs in this case.

"Provision of water, electricity and roads affects a government's survival," he pointed out. The board, in the interest of transparency, placed its technical reports on its website. In the case of the PWC report, the reports concerning institutional reform were not disclosed because this was "dangerous": political lobbies could thwart the reforms, he believed. The board spends Rs 700 crores a year and has 90 divisions, with 27,000 employees; details regarding all public works were placed on the website. Its proposal to have water supplied 24 hours every day was to be undertaken with a public-private partnership. There had been a consultation with 150 politicians, because it was necessary to educate them on the issues. Its memorandum with the Delhi government, setting targets for the year, had also been made public.

The veteran consumer rights activist, Dr Manubhai Shah of the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education & Research Centre, pointed out that after the Ratlam Municipality judgement some two decades ago, it was legally established that the lack of funds cannot serve as a pretext for inability to deliver services. Thus every municipality had to collect garbage and provide water and drainage. Mumbai activists who have publicised the right to information law are trying to compel MPs to disclose their expenditure under their Local Area Development Scheme (LADS), funded to the tune of Rs.2 crore per MP a year: most either do not spend it fully, or fritter it away in wasteful projects. The corresponding figures are Rs.50 lakh per year for a MLA and Rs 20 lakh for a municipal corporator, all of which amounts to a few thousand crores a year for the country as a whole - when elected representatives ought to be making policy and not spending money on their own.

Other very useful suggestions included report cars for undertakings - an exercise perfected by Samuel Paul, who chairs the Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore and spoke about new directions in accountability at the opening of the workshop. There were now suggestions that such report cards be issued for each ward, if not for each slum cluster. Anjana Mehta, a consultant from Delhi, argued that there ought to be a water regulator, similar to the electricity regulator in Maharashtra. A representative of the powerful activist body, Lok Satta, based in Hyderabad concluded with the sober disclosure that the Andhra Pradesh elections showed that as many as 60% of sitting MLAs regularly lose their seats, which means that they are accountable to the people, after all.