The right to no secrets

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How Indians have linked the Right To Information to their livelihood and survival

By Nikhil Dey & Aruna Roy

Founders Shankar Singh, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey
Founders Shankar Singh, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

ON APRIL 10, 1996, the highly respected journalist Nikhil Chakravarty, or Nikhilda as he was known, travelled from New Delhi to the town of Beawar in central Rajasthan to lend his support to an unusual dharna for the people’s right to information. The indefinite dharna, organised by a small peasant and workers organisation – the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in central Rajasthan had intrigued him and his younger colleague Kuldip Nayar enough to draw them to Beawar. A group of peasants and workers were demanding, through democratic protest, something that had only been discussed by intellectuals in seminars, amongst policy makers, and in courts of law. Despite being a bread and butter issue for the press, no group had managed to go beyond theoretical discussions steeped in legalese. Their trip to Beawar began an alliance which shaped the RTI movement in India, led by the concerns and activities of poor and marginalised people and strongly supported by democratic activists of every hue.

At the dharna, strategically located in the market place of Beawar, Nikhilda made a short but historic speech. He urged the very poor, mostly illiterate villagers present to see their struggle as something that could potentially shake the structures of exploitation and corruption in India. Nikhil da said that he had come to Beawar because he was curious, but had seen enough to be deeply inspired and moved. He said to his audience: “You have begun one of the most important struggles of independent India. I was a part of many of the struggles that Gandhiji led, and it was in small meetings such as this one, attended by a few hundred ordinary people, that India’s freedom movement took shape. The struggle for independence was built around exposing the looting of the country by foreign rulers. Your struggle is in essence the same: exposing the looting of the country by our own rulers. This was a right that should have come with independence. It is not going to be easy to win this entitlement, but you must not give up. This is like a second battle for independence.”

‘The RTI movement is a second struggle for independence,’ said the late Nikhil Chakravarty

Nikhilda and Kuldip Nayar had spent the preceding hours talking to some of the men and women on dharna. Amongst them were people who had demanded information about the school in their village and how much had been spent on its repair, about their road and why it was in such bad shape, their check dam and why it was leaking. The struggle for minimum wages raised many questions. Parsa, a poor peasant from Kot Kirana, came to the MKSS in 1993 because he couldn’t understand why he had not been paid minimum wages for some panchayat work. The demand to see the records of the work he was involved with led the MKSS to persist and access records from the Block Office in Raipur, Pali District, and hold the first of a series of five Jan Sunwais (village-based public hearings) on December 2, 1994, in Kot Kirana Panchayat. The people of Vijaypura in Rajsamand district demanded expenditure details of their aanganwadi, including the quantum of rations to be provided to young children. They also asked for information about who had got pattas for homestead land, and through what process. The questions asked by the people of Amner Panchayat in Bhim exposed a fraudulent company that had been supplying material only on paper. Poor people in Jawaja (Ajmer District) forced middlemen to return bribes taken for Indira Awaas yojana houses. In all these cases, people demanded that the records of their dues be made public, obtained some records through informal means and placed them in the public domain.

Lost amidst stories of urban individuals’ use of the RTI is the poor rural person demanding answers

The records revealed dead people’s names on muster rolls and fake receipts for delivery of materials and exposed how corruption and the arbitrary use of power were denying people the right to survive. The roar of anger, angst and disapproval that followed established the trail of political empowerment and understanding that bore fruit in a series of live-wire Jan Sunwais held in 1994 and 1995. It was clear that these ordinary people were information activists who had caught hold of the nerve centres of information.

PRABHASH JOSHI, who came to support the dharna went back to Delhi a few days later to write a seminal column in Jansatta titled ‘Hum Janenge, Hum Jiyenge’ (the right to know, the right to live). It was clear to all those who came to the dharna that the discourse on the right to information was changing, and the RTI was being redefined in powerful, effective ways. Here, in the villages of central Rajasthan, people were clearly and tangibly linking information to their livelihood and survival.

Nikhilda, Kuldip Nayar and Prabhash Joshi were the first of a series of a concerned Indian citizens to support the dharna and take word back to the centres of legislative power in Delhi. The town of Beawar still vividly remembers the 40-day dharna where Medha Patkar, Swami Agnivesh, Bharat Dogra, GR Khairnar, as well as trade unionists, poets, theatre personalities, lawyers, doctors, activists and organisations of every hue extended their support to the movement. The connection they established with the struggle grew into a national campaign of which they became the founding members. One very important supporter of the Beawar dharna was Harsh Mander, who was Course Director at the IAS Academy in Mussoorie at the time. He came to the dharna, and as a serving officer made a memorable speech at the dharna sthal. He said, “I have come here after reaching the conclusion that it is my duty to express support for this cause. I am first a servant of the people, then a servant of the Constitution of India, and only after that a servant of the government. As part of my duty to my first two masters, and to my own conscience, I come here to extend support to the people’s right to information.” Harsh Mander went back to the Academy, and along with the Director, NC Saxena, helped organise the first discussion on a draft National Right to Information Law.

By August 1997, the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information had been formed, with a mandate to support grassroot struggles and advocate for state and national legislation for the people’s right to information. Apart from those who had come to Beawar, stalwarts from different fields like journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, former bureaucrat SR Sankaran, environmentalist Shekhar Singh and lawyers KG Kannabiran and Prashant Bhushan joined the campaign and gave it strength and substance from the early days. One of the most useful partnerships the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) immediately forged was with the Chairperson of the Press Council of India, Justice PB Sawant, who initiated a broad-based dialogue on the elements of an RTI Act. The first model people’s draft was sent out to all the chief ministers and the prime minister by Justice Sawant, and all the RTI legislation that followed can be traced back to these legislative origins.

The rest is history. The RTI journey has continued, with many state and central Acts, and a growing number of committed actors. As the Bills reached the legislative assemblies and Parliament, governments and party leaders began to play a bigger role. Today, the matter of the judges’ declaration of assets shows that the Act has ‘arrived’. The Rajya Sabha refused to allow the government to introduce a bill that made space for secrecy, and the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court ruled against the opinion of the Supreme Court – both quoting the sanctity of the people’s right to information.

However, the biggest endorsement of the Act is still its vigorous defence by ordinary citizens. The repeated attempts made by government to amend the Act have been thwarted with spontaneous determination. The Act is being used in a variety of ways – and in many cases has almost become the sole avenue open for grievance redressal. At a recent public hearing on the performance of the state information commission in Jaipur, the faces and stories of a number of elderly middle class people who had turned to the Act for individual relief from injustice showed that a new class of activists had been born. But lost amidst media stories of urban individuals’ use is the core element of the poor rural person asking questions and demanding answers from the structures of power and illegal authority. The rural poor ask questions which are fundamental. They still look for allies amongst the educated elite who are willing to break ranks and join the struggle against unjust systems, rather than just demand individual relief. They are the ones who have the potential to give the RTI in India a dynamic and truly democratic role.

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