Seekers, finders, keepers

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How have ordinary people used the RTI Act to transform lives? Shriya Mohan travels to the villages of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to find out. Photographs by Vijay Pandey

Full Circle Sarpanch Kallu Ram with his fellow villagers in Vijaypura Gram Panchayat, Rajasthan
Full Circle Sarpanch Kallu Ram with his fellow villagers in Vijaypura Gram Panchayat, Rajasthan

THE VIJAYPURA Gram Panchayat is a clutch of nine villages 280 km south of Jaipur city. Of the more than 5,000 people who live there, most cultivate maize, urad and bajra. The village walls are painted in bright colours, as are the walls of the single- storied two-room Panchayat office. But these paintings are no folk motifs. They are charts that bear detailed records of the income and expenditure of the Gram Panchayat.

 No secret The walls of Vijaypura Panchayat display the income and expenditure of the village

No secret The walls of Vijaypura Panchayat display the income and expenditure of the village

On one wall are painted the familywise annual break-up of the workdays and payments under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Painted on another are the Panchayat’s annual income and a break-up of the expenditure on its various development activities. The rules of the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 are painted on the walls of another house.

Outside the Panchayat office muster rolls of villagers, tacked to a pin-up board, flutter gently in the breeze. It feels surreal – a kind of a utopian world that RTI activists fantasise of, one in which every rupee is accounted for and transparency is a fundamental creed. I ask a schoolboy passing by to show his family’s name on the chart and find how many days his father found work under the NREGS. Pronto, the boy picks out the information on the sheets and reads it aloud.

“There is nothing to hide here,” says Kallu Ram, the 39-year-old soft-spoken Sarpanch of Vijaypura. “After all, we work for the people.” Ram won an historic election to his post in January 2005 on the back of three campaign promises: corruption-free administration, total transparency and minimum wages for all villagers.

“We elected Kallu Ram because he couldn’t be bribed,” says villager Mota Ram. Kallu Ram is the brain behind the signboards and the charts painted on the walls. On an average, up to 15 people check the charts every day. “The records tell us all about the money paid to us,” says villager Nayla Ram.

Kallu Ram’s public life dates back to 1992 when he joined the then fledgling grassroots organisation, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Founded by, among others, IAS officer-turned-activist, Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy, in the Rajsamand district, deep in the hinterland of Rajasthan, the MKSS arose from the villagers’ frustration with the refusal of the bureaucracy in the state to publicly disclose information on government expenditure.

Endless wait Ashok Bharti of Goradia village in Uttar Pradesh has waited for a year for a response to his RTI
Endless wait Ashok Bharti of Goradia village in Uttar Pradesh has waited for a year for a response to his RTI

The first battles the MKSS fought aimed to secure minimum wages for labourers. Soon, however, they realised that the real problem lay in a lack of transparency within the government. “We launched the slogan ‘Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisaab’ [Our money, our account] and demanded that everyone has the right to know how public money is being spent,” says Nikhil Dey, a law graduate who co-founded the MKSS with Roy and another campaigner, Shankar Singh.

Over the years, the movement began to resonate across the country. When Parliament passed the RTI Act in October 2005, it was the pinnacle of a 15-year nationwide struggle against bureaucratic corruption and injustice. The Act demanded total transparency in financial transactions and held virtually all government officials answerable to the public. Says Lucknow-based rights activist, Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, himself an RTI activist: “The right to question is a prerequisite for a country to call itself a democracy.”

‘The right to question is the prerequisite of a democracy,’ says Sandeep Pandey

Predictably, there was much resistance in the bureaucracy to passing this law. Since then, tens of thousands of Indian citizens, in cities and villages, have invoked it to demand greater accountability from the government. The bureaucracy continues to play hide and seek even as the people battle it tirelessly and with resilience. The best way to defeat such moves from the bureaucracy is to make greater use of the RTI Act. “I wish for more power for local governance,” says Kallu Ram. For now, his authority as Sarpanch ends with monitoring the construction work and the NREGS in his village.

Mayawati has made it impossible for Dalits to seek redressal of their grievances through RTI

“I wish I could make school administration more accountable in their quality of teaching, or make ration shop dealings transparent.” Kallu Ram says he tries to spread the message of transparency to other departments. But he doesn’t have the powers to impose penalties on them for not complying.

Shekhar Singh
‘Officials who don’t reply to the RTI application in the stipulated time must be punished’
Shekhar Singh
Co-founder, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information

KNOWN FOR its leatherwork and handicraft, Jawaja is a small town some 130 km west of Jaipur. Staff members at the government primary health centre here stiffen at the mention of Susheela’s name. A mother of two, 46- year-old Susheela has gotten them into much trouble. Her RTI applications have virtually straightened out the health centre. Now, free medicines are easily available to the poor patients. Earlier, the staff pocketed half the Rs 600 a government scheme offers a pregnant woman upon delivering a baby. Susheela’s RTI campaign has ensured that every pregnant woman is now paid the full amount.

Both Susheela and her husband are daily wage labourers. They are members of Social World and Research Centre, an NGO better known internationally as “The Barefoot College” that has worked for the rights of the village poor for nearly four decades. Susheela is a “hardcore RTI activist”: in the last four years, she has filed more than 100 RTI applications. As a routine, the villagers of Jawaja turn to her for all their troubles. Once, about 350 labourers from her village approached her after they weren’t paid for two months.

She hired trucks and took them all the same day to the office of the Block Development Officer (BDO), the ubiquitous government official who represents all the faceless bureaucracy for the hapless villagers. “We sat crowding his office until he was forced to respond to our RTI application and pay the villagers’ entire wages,” she recalls with a chuckle. A year ago, Susheela travelled to Washington DC to attend a global summit after the UNICEF wrote about her in a book on women’s issues.

Prabhash Joshi
‘The information commission is in the hands of the bureaucracy. This is the first hurdle’
Prabhash Joshi
Writer, activist

Being the feisty campaigner she is, she ended up challenging UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. “I asked him why the US had no equivalent of our RTI Act despite being such a powerful country?” A fifth grade dropout, Susheela says the RTI is the only weapon the poor have and it doesn’t mean as much to the rich. “We earn only a few thousand rupees but someone else reaps the benefits,” she says. “The RTI gives us a reason to live.”

Rajesh Mourya, 38, lives in a village named Gokulpur, 60 km from Lucknow. After graduating in Biology, Mourya returned to his village to grow vegetables on his five-acre farmland. Right outside the door to his house is his small office comprising a a wooden table and a jute cot with a fat file of documents sitting atop. These pertain to his RTI applications on a string of local issues.

Mourya has secured marvellous achievements for his village – a pucca road; old-age pension for 23 widows; NREGS work for several villagers; brick houses for families living below the poverty line (BPL) under the government’s Indira Awas Yojana; and a proper public distribution system (PDS) for all the 1,800 villages in the district of Barabanki. “My goal is to help people,” says Mourya. “I want development for the masses.”

To be sure, that the right to information has been legislated into law doesn’t mean that the threat to it from the politicians and the bureaucrats has gone away.

SHOCKINGLY, UTTAR Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has made changes to keep civil aviation and the appointment of ministers out of the purview of the Act. She has also decided that RTI would not be applicable to the appointments of the governor and high court judges, nor on letters written by the governor to President of India. Her government has also made it virtually impossible for the Dalits to seek redressal of their grievances through the RTI Act.

Justice SN Bhargava
‘Even educated urban people don’t know how to file an RTI. It needs more awareness’
Justice SN Bhargava
Retd Chief Justice, Sikkim High Court

The havoc that the September rains bring in Uttar Pradesh is evident after two days of continuous downpour in a village named Gadora in Hardoi district, 100 km west of Lucknow.

A small village with about 300 Dalit families, the children walk about in knee-deep rainwater flooding the entire neighbourhood. Villagers here have no NREGS, school, electricity, toilets or roads.

Villager Ashok Bharti once got hold of some documents from the Panchayat office. He was stunned to find that they showed his village had a 400-meter-long tarred road, 150 latrines in various houses and 15 bore wells – all on paper. In truth, none existed.

Instantly, he filed three RTI applications demanding to know the dates of construction. Most importantly, he sought an inspection from appropriate government authority. That’s when the stalling began.

The Public Information Commission at Lucknow gave dates for the hearing. But every time he appeared, the village Sarpanch failed to turn up, forcing the hearing to be put off. For a year now, Bharti has travelled twice a month to Lucknow. Nothing has yet happened.

Ramesh, another resident of Gadora points at his dilapidated mud house, its walls appearing ready to give in to the incessant rain. “It has become a joke,” says villager Ram Shankar when asked if they regret voting for Mayawati, a Dalit herself. “We hoped she would do something for us. But the Sarpanch bluntly tells us: go to her.”

ANOTHER PROBLEM is that the complicated RTI application is not easy for everyone to file or understand, nor is it easy for most to comprehend the information obtained. “No one explained to me what these charts meant,” says 34 year-old Mani Devi in the Vijaypura Gram Panchayat in Rajasthan, referring to the paintings on the walls.

Seasoned RTI activists say it is not enough to file an RTI application. The key lies not in stating the problem but in seeking information that will be critical in holding the government accountable. And that takes some practice.

Crusader Susheela who filed a 100 RTIs in Ajmer has brought development in her village in Rajasthan
Crusader Susheela who filed a 100 RTIs in Ajmer has brought development in her village in Rajasthan

Not everyone, therefore, can file an RTI application without help. This lack of user friendliness has given a reason for middlemen to spring up and make a quick buck. “There is large-scale corruption,” admits Sandeep Pandey. “It is important to teach the people to draft the RTI application so that they are not dependent on the middlemen.”

Lucknow-based lawyer Indu Singh appears on behalf of RTI applicants at the Public Information Commission. Says she: “The misuse of RTI is a growing problem. People are using it as a moneymaking business.”

Nationwide, great battles have been fought and won using the RTI Act. It was an RTI application that brought a halt to Mayawati’s infamous multi-crore-rupee Taj Corridor project in which she wanted to build shopping malls, among others, near Agra’s Taj Mahal.

The arrest at the beginning of this year of corporate giant Satyam’s promoter, Ramalinga Raju, was a consequence of an RTI application filed to ascertain details of a real estate scam in which one of his group companies was allegedly involved.

The key to filing an RTI lies not in stating the problem but in seeking critical information

In Goa, plans for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) were shelved after an RTI application was filed questioning the need to apportion public land for the project. The stories are endless.

Trilokinath Sharma, a 71-year-old resident of Jaipur, has filed several RTI applications demanding to know the ownership of lands on which several temples are built in his city. Slowly shuffling a sheaf of papers, Sharma explains: “I defend temple lands. It is my passion to ensure that every temple in Jaipur remains protected and is not taken over by unruly elements.”

For 35-year-old Pawan Aggarwal, a jewellery shop owner in Moradabad, 380 Km from Lucknow, his life is under serious threat. A few months ago he filed an RTI application against MCX, a stock exchange in Moradabad, asking for a receipt for his trading. His life turned hell overnight with constant threats and false charges pressed against him. “It matters who files an RTI. I am not powerful enough to get justice,” feels Kumar.

In a touching song written soon after the RTI Act was passed in 2005, a campaigner of MKSS wrote these lines:

“Meri bhookh ko yeh jaan ne ka huq re Kyon godamon mein sadtey hain daane Mujhe mutthi bhur daana nahin”

(My hunger has the right to know Why are the grains left rotting in our godowns When I don’t even have a fistful to eat?)

shriya@tehelka.com

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