Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Dec 25, 2002
Standards & Benchmarks
Industry & Economy - Standards & Benchmarks
When will we have e-democracy?
G . Chandra Shekhar
AT A TIME when transparency in decision-making, good public governance and corporate governance are becoming the norm in many parts of the developed world, governmental decision-making in India is still shrouded in mystery.
Accountability seems very nearly absent. Even for stake-holders, information is rather difficult to come by and their plight is compounded by the style of functioning of the administrators. Of course, the situation is much worse for others, including the media.
The new buzzword "e-democracy" must catch on soon for India to have good public governance. Take the case of UK's Food Standards Agency.
All of the agency's policy decisions are made at open meetings, held throughout the UK, and the agenda and papers are published in advance on the agency's Web site. For the first time, on November 14, the agency met outside the UK, in Brussels, Belgium.
Most of the food laws that affect European Union countries, and UK consumers, are developed in the European institutions based in Brussels, and last month's agency board agenda included items on food labelling, GM (genetically-modified) labelling, and consumer involvement in policy-making. By holding a meeting in Brussels, the FSA board was able to extend its efforts to ensure that important decisions on food risk, nutrition and food labelling issues were taken in an open and transparent way.
According to the FSA, the meeting was webcast to an audience of 902, of whom 518 watched over a broadband connection and 348 over an analog connection. In advance of the meeting, 38 questions were submitted by e-mail, and during the meeting 25 questions were submitted online many from people watching the webcast. A total of 167 people attended the meeting in person.
It is interesting to note the constant endeavour of FSA, a public body, to extend participation and improve its functional transparency. The Web is being used as a key tool and as a means of engaging with stakeholders, including consumers. Contrast this with what is happening here in the Central Committee for Food Standards (CCFS), which functions under the Ministry of Health. The CCFS and its sub-committees are responsible for evolving food standards for the country's burgeoning food business.
There are complaints galore about the style of CCFS' working. While market conditions are changing rapidly, the government style is laid-back decision-making. Infrequent meetings, inadequate discussion, improper records and intolerance of views are said to characterise the committees.
Industry representatives complain that recommendations for changes in food standards take unduly long because of unseemly wrangling between persons representing technical and commercial interests. Consumers are most inadequately represented on the food standards committees.
Given its highly publicised infotech capabilities, India can surely move towards a more open form of decision-making in many areas of public governance. While an FSA webcast takes forward e-government and citizenship in the UK, Indian businesses and consumers are still at the mercy of a frigid bureaucracy.
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