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Janne Ka Haq

The Struggle for the Right to Information

Shailesh Gandhi (shaileshgan@gmail.com) is a former central information commissioner.

The RTI Story: Power to the People by Aruna Roy with the MKSS Collective, New Delhi: Roli Books, 2018; pp xxiv + 375, ₹ 495.

 

Initiated by Anders Chydenius, a Finnish clergyman, the first right to information (RTI) law was passed on 2 December 1776 in Sweden. However, most countries around the world began enacting such laws, codifying the right of citizens to get information, in the last seven decades only. Merely 19 countries enacted such laws till 1995. Now, however, over 100 countries have laws recognising and codifying the citizens’ right to information. In India, the first clear statement recognising this right is credited to Justice Mathew in the Raj Narain case (State of Uttar Pradesh v Raj Narain 1975), wherein he stated,

In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security.

Subsequently, there were numerous Supreme Court judgments which stated that citizens have a fundamental right to information as per Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

MKSS Movement

It comes as a surprise to many that the idea and the demand for the implementation of the “right to information” grew in rural Rajasthan through local conversations, discussions and agitations. Three extraordinary people got together in 1987 to work on converting our elective democracy into a truly participatory democracy. This was an unlikely combination, joined together by their ideals and commitment to democracy. Aruna Roy was a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who had left the administrative service to serve the disadvantaged directly. Nikhil Dey was a young lawyer who had been trained in the United States (US). Shankar Singh belonged to rural Rajasthan and was extraordinarily talented as a communicator and an artist. They started staying in the small village of Devdungri and inspired people in rural Rajasthan to recognise their rights, as the sovereigns of democracy. They stayed in a small hut and started working with the villagers, discussing and evolving ways to get them to transform democracy—from an elective and defective democracy into a participatory democracy which empowered them. The main reason we call India a democracy is the reasonably fair election system, which gives the power into the hands of its citizens once in five years. The citizens, however, do not get the respect due to them in the in-
between period of elections.

While writing this book, Aruna Roy displays a talent, which she uses very effectively when communicating and discussing matters of great importance like democracy and rights—that of a master storyteller. She gives us an idea of the extreme poverty and hunger while describing how the children of a family survived without food in the hope that the little hundi (cooking vessel) tied to the rafters of their mud home had grain, and when their parents would come home, they could cook and eat it. When they realised that it had no food, they died. The poor often survive on hope. There are numerous such accounts and stories in the book. These display humour, philosophy and pathos linked to the earthy soil of Rajasthan.

Roy introduces us to Mot Singh, Narayan, Chunni Bai, Lal Singh and many others in the first chapter itself. As we read the book, we start empathising with them and get to know of their deep understanding of political and social concepts and processes. It is characteristic of Roy to almost make her contribution invisible as a leader and a catalyst in the evolving democratic concepts; instead, she lets the various characters of this fascinating narrative speak. She describes the struggles which started against the oppression of the disadvantaged and their organising themselves to resist exploitation. We get a ringside view as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) movement moves from Dadi Rapat to Sohangarh, Bhim and other places. We can feel the pain and share the shock of the Planning Commission team when it sees that a woman is filling her famished stomach with a roti made from ground thorns; despite the government’s claims of providing work and alleviating sufferings of the people, in the midst of a drought. We relive the moment when Roy learns that diminutive Kakiji had worked with Gandhiji at Sabarmati Ashram.

We begin to empathise with the disadvantaged, who are being cheated of their rightful minimum wages by devious means. We wonder what independence from British rule has actually come to mean for the poor. The villagers had doubts that they were being cheated out of their fair wages by manipulation in the muster rolls. This led to the demands raised through dharnas (sit-ins) and negotiations, to see the muster rolls. The villagers begin to develop this wisdom that access to government records is absolutely essential for them, so as to secure their right to life and to attack the arrogant insolence of the officials who exploit them. We witness how villagers use their earthy logic to understand the importance of information from the government and the legitimacy of their right to access it. In simple words they say—“hamara paisa hamara hisab” (the money is ours and hence we must get its accounts). The fact that the government belongs to the citizens and that the public servants are holders of public records acting on their behalf, unlocks the key to the meaning of democracy. This is reiterated in their slogan—yeh sarkar hamare aapki, nahi kisike baapki (this government belongs to you and me and is not anyone’s father’s property).

We also get a view of the next stage when people recognise that access to records would also be a useful tool to expose and curb corruption. There cannot be better vigilance monitors than the citizens, to hold the government accountable. In the bargain they ought to get respect as the individual masters of the nation. The narrative also takes us to the instrument of “public hearings,” which the movement developed to ensure public participation and acceptance of the demands for rights and to register protests against oppression and exploitation. Many media persons and eminent people from the cities also came
to these hearings. Thus, the right to information started getting recognised as an important part of the functioning of democracy in the cities as well. The realisation of the need for a legal framework to get the right to information, and for this right to get recognised and codified emerged in the rural Rajasthan, and then travelled to urban India in this story of democracy.

In short, this is a fascinating narrative of the evolution of RTI in rural Rajasthan by deepening people’s understanding and ensuring their empowerment through dialogues, struggle and a commitment towards actualising the essence of democracy. The narrative recounts and acknowledges the contributions of government officials, political leaders and media persons who gave a big boost to the movement. It also records how the RTI has brought a change in the power equations in the country, and if properly implemented, it can make our democracy meaningful.

Spread of the Movement

The spread of the movement from Dadi Rapat to the 40-day dharna at Beawar to the move towards the cities, to a stage of drafting and making of the law, is narrated by linking these various stages in a manner that creates the excitement of watching a national movement growing through the pages of the book. This book reads like a novel that is difficult to put down. It recognises the role of other players like NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) and NAC (National Advisory Council) and their contributions in bringing about the RTI Act. It also recounts how the government, which made the law, found it so powerful that in less than a year, in 2006, it sought to amend it and reduce the power of citizens. People across the country opposed this move with such intensity that the government retracted. This was evidence enough that the movement had truly become a national one, involving citizens across the nation. Everyone concerned with democracy and interested in the narrative of the growth of mass movements must read this book.

We can also take a look at some other movements at this juncture, to understand the impact of the RTI movement. The Navnirman movement and the Jayaprakash Narayan movement were a call for anti-corruption and good governance, but they had a limited impact. The India against Corruption movement of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal also saw great support, but it did not result in any significant change in the nation. Narmada Bachao Andolan appears to not have met its short-term objectives, but it did leave a significant mark on the agenda of the nation. It brought about greater attention to the environmental concerns and to issues like displacement of people. RTI, however, offered an empowerment tool which was so simple in the draft of the law, that ordinary citizens could use it and become monitors for ensuring accountability from their government. More importantly, citizens across the nation took ownership of it and millions started using it. This has resulted in the initial success of the RTI and certainly MKSS has a big role in this. However, now there are also some serious threats to it. If these are vanquished, RTI has the potential to change the governance and to enable it to serve the people.

The concluding chapter in the book tells a fascinating story of rustic Lal Singh’s insightful and pithy statement to the civil servants, about what should be the primary concern for all—India. Now our country has got one of the best RTI laws in the world. It has been a movement for true democracy; recognising that it must be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. While citizens have internalised this essence, those in power from all sections, have been acutely discomfited by its actualisation in the form of RTI. The corrupt dislike it for obvious reasons, and the honest find it as an affront to their arrogance. By numerous illegal ways like blocking information, misinterpreting the law and information commissions taking a long time to take decisions, the law is being emasculated.

Those in power have been labelling the RTI users as undesirable scum by castigating them as “obstructing the national development and integration, or destroying the peace, tranquility and harmony among its citizens” (Para 37 of Central Board of Secondary Education and Others v Aditya Bandopadhyay and Others 2011). Many such obnoxious statements are being made. Complaints are lodged to the police against RTI users. Few institutions are refusing to give information which will expose their misdeeds by declaring RTI users as persona non grata. Such an ambience is making it easy to label citizens who are in fact using their fundamental rights, as blackmailers and extortionists. This is encouraging verbal and physical attacks on the RTI users. Sometimes this leads to murdering them. Statutory and constitutional authorities should develop the culture of transparency and recognise that the citizens are the masters of the nation, and they are duty-bound to uphold the law. Otherwise another movement may be required to safeguard RTI and the democracy.

Cases cited

Central Board of Secondary Education and Others v Aditya Bandopadhyay and Others (2011): SCC, SC, 8, p 497.

State of Uttar Pradesh v Raj Narain (1975): SCC, SC, 4, p 428.

Updated On : 11th Jan, 2019

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