Is knowledge power?: the Right to Information Campaign in India Amita Baviskar Delhi, India Web Version September, 2007



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Is knowledge power?: the Right to Information Campaign in India
Amita Baviskar

Delhi, India
Web Version

September, 2007
http://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/Part/proj/pnp.html


This paper was prepared for the project on Citizen Engagement and National Policy Change, coordinated by John Gaventa at the Institute of Development Studies and Gary Hawes, of the Ford Foundation.  We are grateful to the Ford Foundation for its support. We anticipate that shorter versions of the papers will be forthcoming as a printed volume.


Other papers in the series include:
Cultural Adaptations: The Moroccan Women’s Campaign to Change the Moudawana
Protecting the Child: Civil Society and the State in Chile
Mexico Case Study: Civil Society and the Struggle to Reduce Maternal Mortality
Reforming the Penal Code in Turkey: The Campaign for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code from a Gender Perspective
The Extraordinary ‘Ordinary’: The Campaign for Comprehensive AIDS Treatment in South Africa
The National Campaign for Land Reform in the Philippines
Urban Reform, Participation and the Right to the City in Brazil

Introduction

All over India, along dusty rural roads and city streets, one can now see signboards in the local language announcing ongoing construction works. Whether repairing a road, building a school or bridge, or digging a check-dam, the government prominently displays basic information about the work undertaken. The signs make public a project’s purpose and its technical specifications, its cost and source of funding, the executing agency, and the date of commencement. They declare the government’s commitment to transparency in public expenditure, acknowledging a demand that has been vigorously voiced by various social groups in India in the last decade, more recently under the rubric of the National Campaign for the Right to Information. Through the signboards, a major achievement in the struggle for greater accountability in governance is writ large across the Indian landscape.

Mandated by the government as a response to public pressure, the signboards would be meaningless if the process of mobilization that led to them was not sustained. In the past, these signs would merely have served a cosmetic purpose. Even the literate few who could understand them would have found it almost impossible to negotiate their way through the labyrinths of government procedure to verify whether a project met its stated parameters. Take road works, for instance. Each year, a municipality spends millions of rupees on road repairs. Generally, projects are sub-contracted to private firms who often corner jobs by bribing the appropriate municipal officials and corporators to reject more competitive bids. Once their bid has been chosen, these firms short-change the public by using substandard materials and by cutting corners in the work process. Another round of bribes at the time of inspection ensures that the work is approved and their payments cleared. Confronted with roads that become pot-holed barely a month since repair, most citizens could do little besides fulminating against the rampant corruption in public works. The signboards would get only a passing glance.

This dismal state of affairs received a major jolt when citizens’ groups in various parts of India began using the Right to Information (RTI) to inspect government documents. Upon payment of a nominal fee and photocopying charges, any citizen can now ask for specific information and the competent government authority is required to respond within a short period. If information is not provided, or if it is inaccurate or incomplete, citizens can complain to a Public Grievance Commissioner. If an officer is found delaying or withholding information or supplying wrong information, s/he can be fined a fixed amount for each day of delay. In the case of the repairs on a potholed road, how did examining the public record help? Comparing government papers with physical inspections of the work and examining building materials against their official specifications showed precisely where the records had been fudged and by whom. Not only did it enable groups to demand that incompetent and corrupt officials be prosecuted and collaborating firms blacklisted, their vigilance and continued public scrutiny ensured that future projects were less likely to be undermined by corrupt practices. As a result of these efforts, greater probity and efficacy in public works is much more likely.

The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formally launched in 1996 at a gathering of more than a hundred activist organizations. Campaign leaders described their goals as ‘transparency in public life, empowerment of people, deepening of democracy, and fighting corruption and malgovernance’. Their primary focus was to campaign for a national law on the right to information. In the same year, the NCPRI and the Press Council of India sent the first draft of such an Act to the government for consideration.1 Since 1996, nine out of 28 Indian states enacted legislation to grant citizens the right to information (RTI), and on October 12, 2005, the central government led by the Congress Party made operational a national-level Right to Information Act that applies throughout the country to central, state and local government institutions. The Act is a major milestone in the Campaign’s ongoing struggle. As required by the Act, all government departments and public sector organizations are currently putting together the infrastructure needed to meet public demands for information. This entails appointing Public Information Officers and training personnel to answer queries. Such a flurry of bureaucratic activity in response to a new law is unusual. How was such a radical piece of legislation passed and notified?2

At the NCPRI national convention in Delhi in October 2004, a diverse array of people – rural development workers, anti-dam activists, urban slum-dwellers’ organizations, politicians from the Left and far-Left, advocacy and research NGOs, lawyers and legal activists, academics, and the odd bureaucrat – reflected on their experiences with trying to get information and deliberated on how to make the campaign more effective. What these discussions made powerfully evident was that the demand for the right to information had grown from tiny sporadic initiatives dispersed across the country to a concerted campaign. The forging of horizontal links was matched by the leap in vertical reach, from targeting local governments and small projects to securing legislative action at the highest levels of the state. Translating legislation into practice seems much more likely with the strongly mobilized grassroots organizational network of the NCPRI.

The recent successes of the NCPRI are all the more impressive because its constituent organizations belong to that most marginal political group – ‘people’s organizations’ that are neither NGOs who draw on donor funding, nor formal political parties. Some of these groups achieve a prominence out of proportion to the numbers they represent, especially when they address issues of national development and the environment (e.g. large dams), but the majority labour on in relative obscurity. How were these small localized groups able to sustain a long-term campaign that resulted in opening up the public sphere, enabling popular participation that made the government more accountable to ordinary citizens? What strategies of networking did they use to expand and consolidate their sphere of influence? How were they able to win over neutral groups and neutralize hostile ones?

There are also other intriguing aspects to the NCPRI. In the early 1990s, no observer of the social movement scene in India would have identified the Right to Information as a significant political issue. The top contender would have been the campaign against displacement by development projects, spearheaded by the movement against the dams on the river Narmada, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) or NBA. When the NBA, together with groups such as the Kerala Fishworkers’ Forum, started a coalition called the National Alliance of People’s Movements, it seemed that the next decade of social movements organizing would focus on fighting for livelihood rights and control over natural resources, uniting farmers, fishworkers, forest-dwellers against a developmentalist state and private capitalist corporations. The pattern of development that displaced poor local communities by usurping their land and natural resources was the centre of critique. Within this campaign, the question of citizens’ right to information did crop up repeatedly as social movements sought greater information on government projects. For instance, the Narmada Bachao Andolan had challenged the Official Secrets Act to demand access to dam-related documents and to assert the right to public protest in 1988. Yet, while the demand for greater public accountability was an intrinsic element of the social movements of the 1980s and early 1990s, they did not directly or explicitly focus on the right to information. From the vantage point of those years, no one could have predicted that the next major social mobilization, far more extensive and effective than the NAPM, would be the NCPRI. What has enabled the current campaign to act in a concerted fashion? How does it draw on the networks and political analyses created by the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements of the early 1990s? In what ways do its strategies diverge from those of previous campaigns?

Another curious aspect of the success of the NCPRI is the fact that it has occurred during a period when successive governments have firmly established the Indian economy on the path of economic liberalization. Neoliberal policies have resulted in the shrinking of poor people’s access to basic subsistence and in the denial of government goods and services to them. Does this context make the RTI an anomaly? Should it be interpreted as a democratic sop, meant to create political legitimacy even as the economic ground is being cut from under people’s feet? After all, what use is information if you cannot feed yourself? Left radicals may dismiss the RTI as liberal anodyne, and accuse the government of cold-blooded cynicism: If they don’t have bread, let them eat paper.3 What does the unexpected success of the NCPRI tell us about the Indian polity and about the workings of democracy in an age of liberalization? Also, what has been the role of the international conjuncture in shaping the RTI movement in India? Is it mere coincidence that more than fifty nations around the world have passed RTI legislation since 1990? When the neo-liberal global order, led by the IMF and World Bank also claims to promote ‘good governance,’ what strategies does the NCPRI chart in order to escape being co-opted as part of this transnational project?

I shall examine these and other questions about what the NCPRI has accomplished and the challenges that it continues to face by (a) outlining a brief history of the campaign; (b) analyzing the reasons for its success; and (c) discussing its limitations. I have used detailed interviews with activists and scholars affiliated with the NCPRI to construct an oral history of the campaign and some of its constituent members, both organizations and individuals. Our conversations examined particular events that were critical to the campaign’s organization and efficacy, as well as conjunctures that created significant breakthroughs in terms of ideology and mobilization. I have also focused on two organizations that have been central to the NCPRI: the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that started the RTI movement in rural Rajasthan and the Delhi-based Parivartan that went on to become the campaign’s leading activist group on issues affecting the urban poor, to chart the changes in their practices and perspectives. I also draw upon interviews with activists and analysts not associated with the NCPRI who have a different view of its activities. Access to secondary sources – newspaper records, press statements, government orders – supplements fieldwork which involved attending RTI workshops, public meetings, and conventions.4
The National Campaign: A Brief History

The formal launch of the NCPRI in 1996 could not have happened without years of prior effort by its constituent members to secure the RTI on their own spheres of work.5 As stated above, many people’s organizations struggled to gain access to information about government projects, especially their social and environmental impacts. As those campaigning against forestry projects, large dams and mining discovered, the government rarely volunteered such information. Activists had to rely on ‘leaked’ documents and information gleaned from government responses submitted to the courts and to donor organizations such as the World Bank which had a more liberal public disclosure policy.6 Ironically the Indian government granted the right to information of multilateral funding organizations first, before recognizing the same for its own citizens. The government’s apprehensions that information made available to activists would be used to undermine development projects were well-founded. Through public interest litigation and by marshalling critical analyses from scientists and other technical experts sympathetic to their cause, people’s organizations were able to mount comprehensive challenges to development projects. In many instances, they were able to stop or modify or, at least, stall projects. However, in the welter of claims and counter-claims about development projects, their benefits and losses, the debate grew increasingly polarized. The state’s accusation that people’s organizations were not ‘constructive’ and that they did not want India to develop, was overwhelmingly supported by dominant groups in the country. As economic liberalization proceeded in the 1990s, to be met by opposition from the National Alliance of People’s Movements, the charge that the ‘anti-development lobby’ was backward-looking was voiced even more loudly. As the debate on development became increasingly adversarial, the middle-ground for negotiation and compromise eroded.

During the 1980s and 1990s, while some people’s organizations were concentrating on mobilizing against particular development projects or government decisions: the Narmada dams, displacement from national parks, the entry of corporate firms into agriculture and fisheries, others were engaged in more wide-ranging mobilization around rural development. Small localized jan sangathans (people’s organizations) occupied the social action field along with the jan andolans (people’s campaigns/movements). The sangathans were often members of andolans on particular issues. For instance, the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in western Madhya Pradesh, which worked on the issue of adivasi (tribal) rights to land and forests, reviving an adivasi cultural identity, and on access to rural development works, was also a part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan because some of the villages where the Sangath worked were threatened by displacement due to the Narmada dam.7 In turn, the andolans could fairly quickly activate affected populations by drawing upon the long-term political mobilization effected by the sangathans. While the andolans caught the media eye, the sangathans were more low-key, building networks of solidarity with others in their region while, at the same time, through their participation in the andolans, gaining a wider political canvas and becoming more media-savvy and aware of the importance of cultivating links to the intelligentsia.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

One such sangathan, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers’ and Farmers’ Power Union) or MKSS, was formed in 1987 in Devdungri village in southern Rajasthan in western India by Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh, and Nikhil Dey who began organizing poor farmers in this semi-arid region to secure access to land and state services.8 In a region marked by frequent droughts and extreme poverty, state services also include drought relief works that provide employment to those in distress. The MKSS activists found that corruption was rampant in these programmes with local officials and contractors pocketing money by adding fictitious names to the ‘muster roll’, the official attendance register of workers employed on a relief work, while turning away those desperately in need of wages. In other cases, the stipulated minimum wages were not paid to workers. Drought relief had become such a lucrative business for government officers and those colluding with them that, in other parts of semi-arid India, it had cynically come to be called teesri fasal (third harvest).9 When MKSS activists demanded that they be shown the muster roll and other records, so that villagers could check whether the names on it were genuine and whether the record of employment tallied with the wages that they received, they met with flat rejection. Such documents were apparently covered under the Indian Official Secrets Act of 1923! Rallying with the slogans: ‘Hamara paisa, hamara hisaab’ (Our money, our accounts), and ‘Yeh sarkar hamaari hai, nahin kisi ke baap ki hai’ (This government belongs to us, it’s not anyone’s personal property), and holding dharnas (sit-ins) at the Block, tehsil and district headquarters, the MKSS would succeed in securing occasional access to records.

From corruption in drought relief works, the MKSS proceeded to investigate all development spending at the village level. In the early 1990s, there had been a nation-wide decentralization of the panchayats (village-level elected government), with the smaller, more representative panchayats being vested with greater power to undertake development works. Decentralization did not automatically bring with it greater accountability. The funds sanctioned for development would disappear into the pockets of elected representatives and government officials. While the papers filed in government offices recorded community halls built, roads repaired and hand-pumps installed, there would be no trace of such public facilities in the villages. Instead, the sarpanch (panchayat leader), the panchayat secretary and the block development officer would come to acquire new motorcycles or fancy extensions to their houses.10 The MKSS then widened the scope of its mobilization to demand access to records of all development expenditure in the villages.

Using the information thus obtained, the MKSS began to organize jan sunvais (public hearings) in villages to compare official records with actual employment and work done, detecting fraud and demanding that corrupt officials reimburse the money that they had embezzled.11 The jan sunvais proved to be a remarkably effective technique of organizing people for the right to information and demonstrating its effectiveness. Each public hearing was preceded by rigorous preparation. After getting government records about public works in a particular village, the MKSS verified its accuracy by physically inspecting the work done and by cross-checking with villagers. In the jan sunvai, the information is read out in front of all the gathered villagers and people present their testimony before the public. All claims can be challenged and verified during this process. A panel of independent observers, usually lawyers, academics and journalists, is invited to attend the jan sunvai and examine the evidence. The responsible government officials are also invited to respond to the findings and to take action.

The jan sunvais brought to light the huge discrepancies between the official record and actual practice. Scams relating to fictitious works, forged muster rolls, over-billing, and under-payment of wages were uncovered, and the culprits identified. The effect was often dramatic. In 1998, for instance, the sarpanches of Kukarkheda (Rajsamand district), Rawatmal and Surajpura (Ajmer district) apologized for committing fraud and publicly returned money after being confronted with incontrovertible documentary evidence at a jan sunvai. The fear of public humiliation led some sarpanches to approach short-changed workers and pay them in full, to persuade them to not take their complaint to the hearing. Villagers who had been denied payment despite repeated visits to the sarpanch and who had given up the hope of ever receiving their dues, found that their accounts were speedily settled, when a jan sunvai was scheduled for their area. The jan sunvai also prompted action against officials found guilty of embezzlement.

By bringing public pressure to bear in order to stop the abuse of development funds meant for the poor, the jan sunvais contributed to political empowerment in a profound way. The authority of the state relies on maintaining its distance. The more opaque the workings of power, the less likely that it can be challenged. As Nikhil Dey explains, certain commonplace hegemonic ‘truths’ – for instance, the assertion that public works are a failure because workers are chor and kaamchor (thieves, dishonest, lazy, shirkers), can only be maintained so long as they emanate from an authority that is beyond scrutiny.12 These claims are made on the basis of documents – bills, vouchers, muster rolls – to which workers had no access. As soon as the documents became available, it became apparent that it was not the workers but the sahibs who were chor (thieves). They were responsible for practices like including the names of long-dead people in the roll of workers employed on a project. It was officers like the Junior Engineer who gave certificates of completion to non-existent buildings. The collective examination of documents and their public analysis in the forum of jan sunvais punctured the hegemonic power of the state. From birth, the rural poor are compulsorily socialized to defer to those in power: upper-caste, upper-class men, especially government officials. As a political performance, where those of higher status are rendered accessible to investigation and critique, and where popular support gives courage to the poor to speak out against injustice, the jan sunvais are unparalleled. To enable the poor to literally speak truth to power is the jan sunvais’ great achievement.

Through the jan sunvais emerged the principles underlying the campaign for the right to information. They showed that the RTI was a fundamental enabling right, essential for the effective exercise of other rights. Access to employment and food, water, education and health, depended critically on people’s detailed knowledge about government programmes. As the MKSS slogan declared, ‘jaanne ka adhikar, jeene ka adhikar’ (the right to information was the right to live). Their ability to monitor these programmes and ensure effective implementation required the right to information. A working democracy demands public participation in decision-making. Greater transparency is not only necessary as a check on corruption, but essential for planning programmes that respond to people’s concerns. More broadly, the right to information fosters greater political discussion and debate, expanding political participation beyond the ritualized act of periodic voting to greater involvement in the public sphere from which the poor have so far been excluded. This realization led the MKSS to demand that the state provide the right to information more systematically, instead of its piecemeal approach thus far. A comprehensive law for RTI was essential.


This demand was strongly opposed by an administration apprehensive that public scrutiny would not only reveal corruption, but also enable the public to challenge the mismanagement of public funds by incompetent or careless decision-makers. Yet there was a certain degree of support for MKSS’ initiative from within the bureaucracy, from that section which was motivated by the ideal of public service.13 Roy’s background as an IAS officer familiar with the workings of bureaucracy, the credibility of MKSS as an uncompromising and disciplined upholder of poor people’s rights, the momentum gained through the well-publicized jan sunvais and well-organized protest meetings, and the indisputable logic of its argument that people had a right to know what was being spent in their name, all combined to persuade some members of the administration that the MKSS’ cause deserved support.

While gathering support from within, through discussions with senior officials, the MKSS also solicited the support of like-minded organizations in Rajasthan, Delhi and other parts of India, spearheading the formation of the National Campaign (NCPRI) in 1996. Their public demonstrations were joined by more than 400 groups over time. In April 1996, the MKSS organized the first decisive demonstration for the Right to Information. Peaceful protestors gathered outside the district headquarters in Beawar town, refusing to leave until the government made development records public. The dharna (sit-in), with songs and speeches to keep spirits high, elicited widespread support.14 It continued for forty days until the government issued an order stating that villagers could inspect records, but said nothing about allowing them to photocopy these. Dissatisfied with this limited access, the MKSS continued to protest. In May 1997, after a 52-day long dharna in Jaipur, the state capital, the government capitulated and said that it would amend the Panchayati Raj Act so that the public would have full access to village records. The MKSS then began to organize for a comprehensive RTI. In 1998, the Rajasthan government agreed to constitute a committee to draft a RTI law. The MKSS objected to this committee, a group composed exclusively of bureaucrats, asserting that public participation and debate was essential for drafting any law. After sustained agitation, they succeeded in participating in the process to a large extent. In 2000, the Rajasthan Right to Information Act was passed. The MKSS then worked to ensure that the administrative machinery to implement the Act was put in place.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the RTI campaign of the MKSS was accompanied by mobilization for the right to food and employment. An inadequate, inefficient and corrupt drought relief programme and public distribution system for basic provisions, which were anyway being rolled back by the state as a part of its neoliberal agenda, made survival even harder for the rural poor. Without a source of livelihood, and deprived of affordable food, the poor were left with no choice but to migrate in ever-widening circles in search of work. The MKSS, together with other organizations, campaigned for the right to food, resulting in the Supreme Court of India appointing a committee to recommend an overhaul of state welfare policies to provide subsidized food grains across in the country, including a system of public monitoring to prevent pilferage and diversion. It has also led the national campaign on the right to work. A National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed in 2005 by the Indian parliament.15 The energies of key activists are now focused on putting in place systems of public oversight to ensure that employment funds are used effectively and honestly. MKSS’ work seems to have come full circle – from attempting to enforce minimum wage legislation in public works, which led to the demand for RTI, the organization is again spearheading the struggle for remunerative employment for all, to be guaranteed by the state.

Parivartan

Parivartan was started by Arvind Kejriwal, an officer of the Indian Revenue Service, in the year 2000 in the working-class areas of east Delhi, to facilitate people’s access to government offices.16 For about eight months, Kejriwal focused on assisting people at the Income Tax Office where he was employed. The response from his colleagues was first encouraging, then hostile. Yet Kejriwal’s persistence did yield some systemic changes over the next eighteen months, due in part to a public interest petition on the issue. Feeling that assistance with income tax issues was a bit removed from his goal of helping the most deprived sections of the population, Kejriwal shifted his energies to the Delhi Vidyut (Electricity) Board (DVB), a public utility that touched the lives of most citizens. The experience of aiding people in getting electrical connections or sorting out their bills made Kejriwal realize that, while his efforts may have eliminated middlemen and touts and the chances of bribery, ‘we too were acting as brokers, albeit honest brokers’. If people were not encouraged to exercise their own agency, ‘they became dependent on Parivartan’. Now the organization insists that individuals or groups of citizens take action themselves, with Parivartan providing them with advice and information.

When the Delhi state government enacted the RTI Act in 2002, Parivartan decided to use it in its work in the lower middle-class localities of Lakshmi Nagar and Nand Nagri. The initial success was remarkable: When a consumer Ashok Gupta was denied an electrical connection, he filed a petition under the RTI Act to ask what action had been taken when and by whom on his application. He got an electric connection within 24 hours. However, the DVB was privatized soon after, so Parivartan had to shift its focus to other government departments.17 The organization used the Gandhian techniques of satyagraha, holding non-violent protests outside the offices of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in March 2002 to ask it to set up mechanisms for meeting the requirements of the RTI Act. Over the next three years, Parivartan began monitoring the working of ‘fair price shops’ that supply basic provisions at subsidized prices to households below the poverty line. Those running the shops frequently divert supplies to the open market to sell them at higher prices, telling their legitimate customers that the sugar or rice ran out or never came. This failure of the public distribution system hits the poor hard, making it even more difficult for them to make ends meet. However, without being able to check the records of the food and civil supplies department and individual shops, it is impossible for them to challenge the shop-owner’s claims and get their meagre yet essential due.

Parivartan activists had participated in a jan sunvai organized by the MKSS in Beawar in April 2002 and were deeply impressed by its effectiveness as a mode of public action for creating greater awareness and accountability. Kejriwal and MKSS activists discussed the possibility of using similar techniques of mobilizing public action in Delhi. In December 2002, Parivartan organized the first jan sunvai on the issue of ration shops in Sundar Nagri, a lower middle-class locality in Delhi, where a comparison of government records of supply with the records of the shops revealed massive fraud. As a result of the sunvai, the licences of several shops were taken away and the public distribution system in the area improved. The organization’s activists have dealt with threats and physical attacks by goons hired by irate shop-owners. Subsequent jan sunvais and other public meetings have been disrupted by disgruntled local leaders and others who were threatened by Parivartan’s activism. To pre-empt violence, the organization ensures that its meetings are attended by NCPRI notables whose presence lends legitimacy and decorum to the proceedings. Parivartan has now become one of the key constituents of the NCPRI. Although its initial work was facilitated by the Delhi state government’s initiatives on RTI and on the decentralization of urban governance: the bhagidaari (partnership) scheme where Residents Welfare Associations play a more active role in supervising service provision, Parivartan has since pushed beyond the confines of the participatory role prescribed by the government for NGOs. A head-on confrontation with the Delhi state government led to the scuttling of a proposed World Bank-funded water project (called the 24X7 scheme) which would have increased water prices by several-fold and deprived the urban poor of this basic resource. In this campaign, Parivartan drew upon the skills of NCPRI allies18 and demanded that the Delhi government live up to its much-hyped image as a transparent and accountable administration.

Other organization and individuals

Through their struggles, MKSS and Parivartan have brought about the progressive widening and deepening of the Right to Information campaign. While these organizations democratize power by demanding information on behalf of marginalized groups, it must be noted that there have been other organizations and individuals that have also been active in pursuing the right to information, but from somewhat different perspectives. A brief discussion of a few RTI campaigners, not all affiliated with the NCPRI, will illustrate the diversity within this field of political action. In Maharashtra in the early 1990s, Anna Hazare gained widespread recognition thanks to his work in regenerating natural resources and the local economy in the drought-prone village of Ralegan Sidhi in Ahmednagar district.19 Hazare went on to lead a campaign against corruption in the state government, focusing on the issue of irrigation and rural development works. As a respected public figure whose protests relied upon a repertoire of satyagraha, Hazare received a great deal of media attention as a crusader against corruption. Hazare likened the RTI campaign in the country to a ‘second freedom struggle’ – ‘the first was against the white sahib; this one is against the brown sahib’ – the bureaucrat who lives off the poor.20 His efforts were central in forcing the Maharashtra government to repeal an earlier ineffectual Act and replacing it with a stronger version.

Maharashtra has a history of crusading public-spirited individuals whose imprint can be found on the shape the RTI movement has taken in that state. While Hazare has attracted a large following, he has led more by example than by mobilizing others for a collective struggle in the manner of MKSS. Another campaign by an individual, as opposed to a sangathan, that also received much acclaim has been led by Shailesh Gandhi, an engineer and the owner of a successful manufacturing firm who left this career to become a full-time RTI activist. In September 2003, Gandhi used the RTI Act to ask the Mumbai police commissioner for the names of politicians who had requested the transfer of police officials.21 Persisting in the face of much stonewalling, Gandhi succeeded in getting this information, resulting in a government enquiry into the scandal of the politician-police nexus. In 2006, Gandhi hit the headlines again, exposing how the Bombay Municipal Corporation had leased large areas of prime land in the city to corporate firms at ridiculously low rates. This longstanding deal, which resulted not only in huge revenue losses to the exchequer but also the misuse of public land, was uncovered by using the RTI. While Gandhi holds frequent workshops to train others in using the RTI Act, like Hazare he has not directly engaged in grassroots mobilization.

Shailesh Gandhi is on the Working Committee of the NCPRI, as are several other individuals who have waged solitary struggles for information. Among the founding members of the NCPRI are senior journalists Ajit Bhattacharjea (director, Press Institute of India), Prabhash Joshi (editor, Jansatta), and Bharat Dogra.22 The founders include lawyer Prashant Bhushan who formed the Committee for Judicial Accountability, highlighting corruption and other irregularities in judicial appointments and functioning. Along with K. G. Kannabiran of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Bhushan has been active in campaigning for greater transparency in the elections.23 The Election Commission of India has responded by making it mandatory for candidates contesting elections to disclose information about their finances and about their criminal record, if any. NCPRI’s founder-members include former bureaucrats S. R. Sankaran who retired in 1992 as Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, and Harsh Mander, who left the IAS in protest against state-sponsored communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.

Harsh Mander’s involvement with the NCPRI is particularly important to note because it illustrates how the campaign has received crucial support from within a bureaucracy that, on the whole, has been hostile or indifferent to the cause. As an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, Mander was posted as Collector of Durg district in Madhya Pradesh in March 1987 at the height of one of the worst famines in decades.24 As the chief administrator of the district, he had to oversee the government’s Food for Work Programme that meant providing employment to one lakh workers every day. On reaching Durg, however, Mander found no sign of the money that had so far been spent on drought relief. Official documents showed that funds had been used for public works like ponds and tree plantation, yet there was nothing on the ground. As elsewhere, drought relief was a lucrative business for the powerful that left the poor to starve. Within fifteen days of his arrival, Mander instituted a full-scale inquiry and ‘all hell broke loose’. Local politicians immediately pushed for his transfer; he was accused of ‘insulting people’s representatives’. MLAs (Members of the state Legislative Assembly) and sarpanchs held a rally against Mander and threatened to resign en masse unless the inquiry order was withdrawn. However, Mander was supported by Chief Minister Arjun Singh who appointed a senior administrator to investigate. The resulting report in 1989 found that, of the 18 crore rupees spent on drought relief, ten crores was missing. When Mander began arresting those involved in the scam, he was posted out within three months.

As a crusader against corruption and for greater public accountability, Mander’s most important intervention was as Commissioner of Bilaspur division in MP in 1996. As with the Public Distribution System in Delhi, Bilaspur too had a flourishing black market in foodgrains, with subsidized rice supplied to the ration shops being diverted to the open market, denying the intended beneficiaries their due. Mander passed the first set of orders around the RTI, making it mandatory for the administration to provide copies of the ‘distribution registers’ recording the allotments made to each ration shop. Mander recalls that there was an enormous uproar against this order. His junior Collector colleagues were appalled, arguing that they were already over-worked and could not manage the additional burden of making information available. Mander arranged for loans to disabled persons, enabling them to set up photocopying shops to facilitate making records public. Curiously, these steps resulted in the off-take of grain by PDS shops coming down by half – faced with the possibility of being penalized for siphoning off supplies to the black market, vendors took only as much as they delivered to real beneficiaries. Other public disclosure initiatives in MP related to recruitment into government jobs, an area where supposedly rational-legal rules were being systematically breached by patronage and the payment of bribes.

However, Mander recognized that RTI initiatives from within the government had limited impact unless they were seized by a mobilized public. In Bilaspur, the PDS distribution registers were made public, ‘but no one was exactly queuing up to take copies’. Empowerment could not be bestowed from above; changed consciousness and collective action had to emerge through political processes undertaken by the poor themselves. Unlike Bilaspur, this process of mobilization was already under way in Rajsamand, Rajasthan, the base of the MKSS. Mander was ‘old friends with Aruna and Bunker Roy’ and had visited SWRC Tilonia as a student looking for meaningful Gandhian social action in the 1970s, before he joined the IAS. In 1993, Mander spent the winter with MKSS and saw their social audit work at first hand. He immediately felt that MKSS has struck upon something of national and international importance. ‘Life’s greatest truths are often the simplest’ – jaanne ka adhikar, jeene ka adhikar (the right to information was the right to live). At that time, Mander was posted at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, the premier training institute of the government.25 Encouraged by Dr N. C. Saxena, the then Director, Mander organized a national workshop on the right to information at the Academy, bringing Aruna Roy and others together with government officials, which was a key step in the decision to draft a national law and form the NCPRI for that purpose.

Harsh Mander, Shailesh Gandhi and several of the founder-members exemplify an important facet of the NCPRI that is generally not at the forefront of the Campaign’s public persona: the movement includes not only mass organizations but also well-placed individual activists and members of the intelligentsia. While other grassroots groups such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan have also cultivated sympathetic members of the intelligentsia and use their expertise and legitimacy to bolster a subaltern movement, the NCPRI is unusual in the extent to which the support of key members of professional elites is constitutive of the movement.

The combined strength of the sangathans and individuals that made up the NCPRI gave it national spread and regional representation as well as access to opinion-making intelligentsia in the capital. Besides state and national-level meetings and conventions, the Campaign organized yatras (journeys), a caravan of activists, ordinary villagers and students travelling from place to place with the RTI message, communicated through songs, skits and speeches. Printed newsletters in Hindi and English, pamphlets and e-bulletins kept news of RTI events and discussions circulating.26 The movement has also received a fair amount of attention from the news media.


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