There are times when diverse dreams come together and are plaited to address the issues which concern us as human beings. The right to know is the key to all democratic rights we enjoy. One of the lessons that the social history of India has handed to us is that large-scale, sustained public action is possible only if we listen to and acknowledge the thoughts of people. The ordinary citizens on the street and the workers doing what we call “manual” work are the ones who think with pragmatism.
The RTI originated in this belief and the core of its understanding, which strengthened the struggle, came from a large group of people. It was therefore not surprising that the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), situated in central Rajasthan, should come to the conclusion in the early 1990s that without transparency of governance, none of their basic needs would be addressed.
There was a stark understanding that in this shrinking world where the village was no longer an insular unit, concerns spread across the country, vertically and horizontally. Panchayats did not share information, as people soon found out. However, the disease of secrecy was rampant everywhere. It often began with the powerful elite who controlled governance and who received their share of the spoils. The demand to see development records in the panchayats invited huge negative reactions from the chief minister downwards. The bureaucracy was also startled out of its complacency of non-accountability to anyone not directly senior in the line of command.
The RTI has been whittling away not merely the corrupt system but in so doing has been able to foster the much-needed right to question. In a society hampered by a feudal system, a caste hierarchy and the remnants of a colonial system, it requires immense courage from the ordinary Indian people to question those in authority.
Though acknowledged as sovereign in the opening lines of the preamble to the Constitution, the people have only remained sovereign in an idea encapsulated and preserved in rhetoric. If the sovereign was not allowed to question the representative sent by vote to look after collective concerns, or the “public or civil servant”, the term ceased to be of interest. The RTI addressed this deliberately fostered dilemma with its famous formulation — in the proviso of section 8 of the Act — when it said “information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person”.
The success of the RTI in beginning the process of asking for transparency in governance and establishing it as a democratic entitlement is now fairly established. The killing of over 40 RTI activists in the last 10 years, in a brazen and deliberate manner, proves that corruption or the arbitrary use of power cannot be sustained if questions have to be answered in the public domain. Questioning rattles the system as nothing else does. When the process of questioning then becomes a right, bureaucratic evasiveness is not possible. The violent means used by the powerful remain a tragedy and a question unaddressed by the system.