Believe that the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 is one reform in governance systems, which strengthened democracy and made it real and substantial like little else. In a very fundamental sense, RTI has changed the basic relationship between the governed and those who govern, making them accountable in direct and tangible ways that were unavailable, and in some ways almost unthinkable earlier. This is indeed the essence of democracy in practice.
Before the idea for the right to information took seed and grew, I had observed that for millions of the poor, the state of affairs in government departments was frequently oppressive and corrupt, but they were powerless to change this.
During the mid-80s, I worked as the district magistrate in some districts of Madhya Pradesh. One of the things that struck me was the enormity and pervasiveness of local level corruption and the complete helplessness of ordinary people. I was posted in the Durg district, which had seen 3-4 years of recurring drought. The state government had responded with large scale famine relief work. Almost one lakh workers were employed per day in this relief work. After I took charge, I went around the district to supervise the relief work. I discovered that on the ground, the corruption was of a spectacular level.
Every place I visited, where there was supposed to be a road or a water tank, there was nothing on the ground. When I ordered a verification of all the relief work by an independent committee, I had to face a mutiny-like situation from administrative officers and panchayat heads.
At the end of the inquiry, we found that Rs 10 crore was completely missing out of the Rs 18 crore relief fund. This is the mid-80s that I am talking about and a scam in this small district in central India was almost one-sixth of the Bofors scandal, the biggest scam of that time. This money was meant for helping people who were starving from a famine-like situation. This was how relief work was sought as an opportunity for runaway corruption. When I started registering penal charges, I was transferred within three months of my joining and things got back to what they were.
It struck me how we have allowed an administrative system to be built, where corruption, even in grave times of near famine, goes unpunished. It is for this reason that in the early 1990s, I heard about the movement in Rajasthan led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), it excited me enormously and I went to see it first-hand to know what it was all about. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey were old friends and I was greatly enthused by what I saw.
I believe that some of the greatest ideas are the simplest ones. The idea here was that people in a democracy are supposed to be sovereign and if they are suffering from this kind of corruption, which is impossible to be corrected by the formal systems of governance, then it is time that the people are armed with the power of informed interrogation; the right to get official documents. It might not seem to be such a radical idea for the young generation who have grown up with RTI. However, for those born immediately after independence, the idea that ordinary, poor women and men can question the State was a path-breaking and revolutionary idea.
The State has traditionally derived a great deal of its power from its opacity. Even today, if one goes to government offices, one can see people looking harassed, frightened and confused. It is this culture of non-transparent and unaccountable governance that allows government officials to carry on with impunity.
What the RTI has done is that it has begun to breach that tall wall of opacity from which the administration and the State has traditionally drawn its power. Two simple documents asking for a few details such as: who has worked on which dates, amount of wages paid and the bills of the material used, became the starting point of the right to information movement. The power wielded by the documents was such that it exposed the ongoing rampant corruption in my district in Madhya Pradesh.
The initial battles were around public projects such as relief work. For instance, the context of the MKSS struggle was famine relief work in Rajasthan. There, the villagers asked for two simple documents; the muster rolls and bill vouchers. The muster roll contained details of who has worked on which dates and the amount of wages paid to each worker. The first time the MKSS asked for records, some decent officers agreed. They organised a Jan Sunwai (public hearing) for the reading out of these documents. It was found that the muster roll contained names of those who were dead or those who had migrated, people who were shown to be working for days had not received any payment at all and the use of materials in construction was hugely exaggerated.
After understanding the power of simple information in these official documents, officials began to resist handing them out. They started saying that these were secret documents which ordinary people had no right to demand. This led to the idea that people should have a legally enforceable right to all official documents to hold the government accountable. From this seed, the idea of the right to information grew. But it was still a local movement confined to a few panchayats in a few districts of Rajasthan. When I visited my MKSS friends in those early days of the movement, we realised that this was a radical idea with a lot of potential for the whole country.