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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 29 New Delhi July 7, 2018

People’s Movement and the Story of the RTI

Monday 9 July 2018

BOOK REVIEW

by Rakesh Kumar Singh

The RTI Story: Power to the Peopleby Aruna Roy with the MKSS Collective; Roli Books, New Delhi; 2018; pp. 424; Rs 495.

The RTI Story: Power to the People is about one of the most powerful people’s movements in the late 1980s and 1990s which resulted in the passing of the RTI Act of 2005 giving indians the right to information. The book chronicles the career of the movement and provides its detailed treatment. The fascinating story needed to be retold to the new citizens for whom democracy may seem like a gift of the colonial regime but this story will help them locate their democracy in a more robust and participatory tradition of popular struggle against inquality and injustice—the national movement for freedom being the largest and most powerful. The story brings this democratic heritage of the people alive. Aruna Roy, in the thirty chapters of the book, has done a great service in presenting the trials and tribulations that the movement for the RTI Act had gone through.

The book discusses the history of almost the eighteen long years of struggle, begining in 1987 in Rajasthan. The movement, which demanded the right to information from the public offices, initially began with very few people, gradually brought a large number of people into its ambit and, as the author rightly says, “Log judte rahe aur karvan badhta gaya.†(p. 324)

The book also discusses the beginning of the struggle from Devdungri, the struggle for land at Sohangarh, and the eventual birth of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) which in the later years spearheaded the movement. The first hunger strike for the cause took place in 1990 followed by the Bhim minimum wages sammelan which in turn was followed by the second ‘hunger strike’ of 1991.

The book’s strength is giving us the details of the significant moments of this movement. The details of the popular mobilisation against many issues quite clearly exposes many of the myths perpetuated by those who argue for the free and open market which would, as is claimed, usher in tranparency. In fact it is quite often the new opaque and sclandalous secrecy in the dealings that people were protesting against and demanded transparency. The role of the MKSS and public hearings, and political promises by politicians and accountability played a crucial part in articulating this demand.

Dharnas and public hearings were the most influential modes both of protest and mobilisation and the book provides details of many such dharnas and public hearings, that is, the Beawar and Jaipur dharnas of 1996, the Rajasthan divisional dharna, the dharna in Jaipur, 1997. Similarly, the second set of jan sunwais, the challenge of elections, the public hearing of Umarwas, and government enquiry endorsing Janwad public hearings constitute the core of the narrative. The latter events also have been treated with utmost care and detail. Thus, the post-Janwad and response of the government of Rajasthan, Jan Niti Abhiyan, the formation of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) Act and its Beawar convention of 2001 followed by the discussion on the coming of the Rajasthan State Act, Freedom of Information Bill, 2000, Second NCPRI, 2004. The author has also done a great service in bringing out details of the RTI Law 2005 and the NAC (National Advisory Council) and also the RTI Amendment, 2006.

The enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in India in 2005, it was thought, would strengthen democracy. As the most important foundations of Indian democracy are in its secular and plural ethos and in many ways the popular struggle for the Act demonstrated that the ethos lay in people’s coming together for a common cause. In this sense the RTI Story is also a story of the celebration of pluralism. It found the government headed by Manmohan Singh a sympathetic one as it was led by a party, the Congress, which itself is a product of a popular movement. Thus, one needs to underline the significance of the political leadership of the Congress at the time in not only hearing the popular voice but giving the demand the shape of a constitutional frame and abide by it to the detriment of many of its short-term real political interest. As we saw, the political Opposition used the same RTI route to attack the government on its several acts of omission and commission.

The book discusses how the movement began in Devdungri in 1987 and how in three years a collective organ, that is, the MKSS, was formed in Rajasthan. Three individuals from different backgrounds, that is, Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey, chose to work and live in Devdugri of Rajasthan. One begins to understand and sympathise with their commitment towards the people when one also hears that Rajasthan witnessed one of its worst droughts in living memory that very year. And this makes their commitment a lesson for the younger generation who wish to be part of any movement for change.

The MKSS followed the conventional modes of mobilisation. It used pamphlets or parchas as the mode of communication to disseminate information. The area, rich in visual forms of communication, also helped them innovate with painting on walls for communicating messages. In fact, Aruna Roy very significantly points out that this proved as useful for rural communication as social media in the urban area today. (p. 37)

One of the strengths of the MKSS movement was its evocative and powerful coinage of slogans. The books gives some samples, that is, Nyay samta ho aadhar, Aisa rachenge hum sansar (We will create a universe with justice and equality). And, Jab tak bhukha insaan rahega, Dharti par tufaan rahega (as long as people are hungry, struggles will continue to storm the earth. (p. 38)

The most crucial issue for the Sangathan was that of bringing transparency in the public offices at the local and district levels where most of the acts of corruption affects human livelihood. The Sangathan wanted to provide a possible answer to this institutional lack of transparency. Through popular struggles around this issue, it took them finally to realise and stabilise its demand on the firm legal ground for information-sharing between the public and public offices. It also brought them closer to a position of a legal guarantee of employment through the MGNREGA in 2005. Asking for information was an effective method to establish the right to question, the right to equality and accountability.

But the system, hitherto used to be enjoying the fruits of the offices by not sharing information, was not happy at this sudden demand for information. It knew more than anybody else that information was power, and sharing power would reduce its control. So, the system always tried to hide information in the name of secrecy, and corruption took place everywhere.

It is here that the book’s emphasis on the movements, that is, the stories of different strikes and the public hearings, underlines the fact that the morale of the people against the strong resistance of those in the offices were sustained through these modes only. This gives the story a sense of irony: while people struggled, got RTI, the access to information through use the RTI for the public purpose involved the risk, even of losing one’s life, as the system, which has evolved by using an opaque system of secrecy, would hit back. Sometimes false cases were filed against them. In fact, in an unequal and iniquitous society, any demand for equality and participation, when it is effective, will always be seen as a threat.

RTI soon becomes, as it is shown, a tool which the poor learnt to use to realise their fundamental right to demand transparency from a system, known for its refusal to share information. The story that the book narrates also has another irony. On one side, the ordinary Indian citizen understands the right to information law. “A 2016 report said that since 2005, total of 1.75 crore RTI applications have been filed by users.†(p. xxiii) On the other side is the fact that the lives of RTI activists and campaigners are at risk. As Gopalakrishna Gandhi mentioned in the foreword of the book, ‘as many as 60 of them have lost their lives. They are martyrs to the cause of the good state, of public accountability, constitutional morality.’ (p. xv)

The RTI movement, as the book makes it so poignantly clear, has a significance in the country’s contemporary history. The first sign of this came when the movement could involve the leading public personalities. In 1996, MKSS decided to go on an indefinite public protest in Beawar to demand the RTI. Medha Patkar herself engaged in the movement for rehabilitation of the Narmada dam oustees, Nikhil Chakravartty, Kuldip Nayar and Ajit Bhattacharjea, the three most senior journalists and public intellectuals, too were present. Presence of these personalities and their words of encouragement gave the issue elevated significance and lent greater dignity to the demands of the poor.

Nikhil Chakravartty in his speech voiced his intuitive and historical understanding when he said:

“I feel that this struggle in which you are involved is historic. This right to information is historic and extremely significant. Not only for your region or your State but for the entire country. It will be a huge struggle. That’s why we have come here from Delhi.†(p. 133)

His words proved true. The Beawar convention of 2001 laid the foundation of a successful and appropriate platform for communication on the RTI law. In the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information Act (NCPRI) Convention, the Chief Ministers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Justice Sawant, retired judge of the Supreme Court of India and the then Chairperson of the Press Council, and others were present. Justice Sawant addressed at Chang Gate and said: “In a democracy, the citizen is sovereign and no one can prevent his access to information.......†(p. 252) He further said: “Information is people’s wealth and their capital. The Government is just trustee.†(p. 252) Digvijay Singh, the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, inaugurated the convention on April 5. The inaugural session had Bharat Dogra, Justice Sawant, Prabhash Joshi and Ajit Bhattacharjea. Digvijay Singh made two important points: ‘Peoples’ representatives should begin their political career as Ministers with taking an oath to transparency rather than to secrecy.’ He also said, ‘In a democracy accountability to people cannot be questioned. My power lies in sharing information.’ (p. 254)

At the 2nd convention of the NCPRI in 2004 at the University of Delhi what was demanded was an Act stronger than the present Freedom of Information Act, passed in 2002.

The book provides photographs related to the movement which enriches the sense of the collective spirit behind the movement, the photographs of activists involved in the movement; pictures of meetings, hunger strikes, pamphlets, newspaper reports, etc. will help us in remembering the important persons and events. Visual narrativisation is also most often inspirational.

IV

Since the passing of the Act the movement has motivated people from various facets of life to fight against corruption. RTI has given a sense of transparency, accountability, and monitoring of the public office a new sense of urgency and direction. RTI brought citizens closer to the government as people got empowered to know about decisions taken by the government and also to ask questions to the government.

There is a correlation between the RTI or right to accessing information and people’s well-being. For example, Amartya Sen famously discusses correlation when he showed that there has never been a substantial famine in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Inequality of access to information, he has argued, is a form of poverty.The RTI Act aims at removing the inequities in the access to information. In doing so it becomes a powerful tool in the citizen’s effort for a better society.

This RTI movement has also been intricately connected with the right to work. It is not a mere coincidence that the government at that point, led by the Indian National Congress, enacted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (later on, renamed as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in the same year. Both access to gainful employment and access to information have been found to be fundamental to enhancing capabilities.

Amartya Sen and Martha C. Nassbaum have been arguing in their numerous writings, and the movement for the RTI by the MKSS has shown in ample measure that enhancement of capabilities is required as the basic premise of development of the whole society. What Sen and Nussbaum’s theory lacks is in their posting the agency of the state in responding to the call for capability-enhancng steps. The Indian state during 20004-05 was receptive to the demand and implemented it. The story of the book adds another dimension to it by underlining the fact that even when the state is receptive and theories of capbility-enhance-ment are known, until there is a popular mobilisation for demanding those steps, most often things come to naught. In this sense, therefoe, Sen’s argument that expansion of the citizens’ capabilities bring human development can also be seen from the prism of poplar movements which help both citizenship expansion and human development. Freedom, as Sen has rightly argued, means increasing citizens’ access and opportunities to the things they have reason to value.

Access to information also, as this book suggests, enhances human dignity by empowering the common men and women with the citizenship right to equality. Therefore, while the MGNREGA aimed at giving dignity in providing dignified labour, the RTI made them dignified citizens.

Conclusion

The RTI Act has also brought new vitality in the local structure of the government in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in many parts of the country. Similalry, notwithstanding resistance by the bureaucracy to share senstive information, people have managed through this right to secure information on many issues where the public offices did not act in the interest of the people. The RTI Story: Power to the People will allow all of us to see the how the Act in its different provisions came about. An extremely accessible scholalry work, the book also reveals why the author, Aruna Roy, and her colleagues Nikhil Dey, Shekhar Singh along with her other activist colleagues Anjali Bhardwaj (and also not to forget Arvind Kejriwal who was a very active member of the RTI community) and the MKSS, have become synonymous with the movement of the RTI.

The book will be a definite reference-point for all those concerned with these issues. It will also help the younger generation to see their own potentiality as well as the potentiality of common men and women to fight within the system to change it and transform both policy and administration for the better.

References

Dreze, Jean and Khera, Ritika (2011), Battle for Employment Guarantee, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Gandhi, Shailesh and Kachare, Prahlad (2016), RTI Act: Authentic Interpretation of the Statute, Mumbai: Vakils, Feffer & Simons.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000), Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Pankaj, Ashok (ed.) (2012), Right to Work and Rural India: Working of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), New Delhi: Sage India.

Sen. Amartya (2001). Development as Freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The reviewer is a Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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