Much more than an authoritative account of how the ‘right to information’ (RTI) came to be enshrined in Indian law, The RTI Story describes the building of theory through grassroots practice. Choosing to share the lived experience of poor people, Aruna Roy and her associates encouraged them to reflect on their situation, analyse and articulate the bases of their deprivation and exploitation, and to orchestrate collective corrective action. Demonstrating through practice the critical importance of information as a tool to lift people out of poverty and protect them from injustice, the process led seamlessly—albeit with many twists and turns—to the official recognition of information as a basic right of citizens: the Indian experience of a collective people’s movement for RTI is without parallel.
When Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh and his wife Anshi set up their home in a mud hut in the poor Rajasthani village of Devdungri in 1987, they had no clear plan of action nor an inkling of where destiny would lead them. Bound by shared political ideologies, principles and values, and a concern for exploitation, inequality and poverty in rural India, they agreed on the need to build people’s understanding of the role of democratic institutions and of their rights as citizens in order to facilitate their realization of constitutional rights.
Aruna had served in the Indian Administrative Service and resigned some years before to work among the rural poor; Nikhil dropped out of college in the US to return and work for the uplift of his people; Shankar, a rural Rajasthani, with keen political instinct and communication skills, provided the grounding for the team to establish base in a region he and his wife were familiar with.They lived as their neighbours did: drawing water from the common well, sleeping on the ground, cooking on an earthen chulha. But the outsiders were nonetheless objects of much curiosity and not a little suspicion. Situations of potential conflict inevitably arose which had to be handled with sensitivity and dissected for future lessons. As the villagers got to know them, confidences were shared, problems were discussed and trust grew.
Drought relief works organized by the government provided the opportunity for the first people’s mobilization and protest. Customarily cheated of more than half of the wages due to them, the workers refused to accept less than the full amount and demanded to see the records of payment. The realization of the value of coming together was further driven home by success in confronting and breaking the oppressive stranglehold of the local jagirdar who had manipulated the village land records in connivance with the administration.
The time soon came to form an organization. The Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was the articulation by poor people of the approach to challenge oppressive social and political structures. Established in the nondescript town of Bhim, near Devdungri, this was also the venue of the first hunger strike organized by the MKSS. Mobilizing people through street theatre, songs and slogans, the strike, which centred on payment of minimum wages in government works programmes, drew widespread support in the town. Although it ended inconclusively, it provided impetus to the discourse on bringing transparency to government systems in order to enable deprived people to access the benefits of governance and development.
The Sangathan helped its members to realize that ‘without access to information the common citizen could never access roti, kapda, makaan. The money that came for development was being siphoned off by the bureaucracy and the politician, leaving the poor exactly where they were.’ The corruption and arbitrariness of the system was bolstered by the bogey of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Even a request to see BPL (Below Poverty Line) entitlement lists, let alone disclosure of ‘muster rolls’ of public works programmes, were resisted on grounds of secrecy. The struggle to access public records for claiming entitlements to food, livelihood and shelter formed the core of the crusade that culminated in the RTI legislation.
The MKSS based its philosophy on the belief ‘that poor people think, and think as well as literate people do. In fact the farmer’s ideas are rooted in a common sense…….It is a belief in this wisdom of common sense that has strengthened and defined the campaign.’ In the political struggle for citizens’ rights, the MKSS insisted that the methods they employed must fall within the same framework of transparency and accountability that was being demanded of government, and that the means must always match the ends.
Recognizing the importance of dialogue and information-sharing in the public domain, the MKSS hit upon the idea of public hearings (jan sunwais). A series of jan sunwais was organized across the State, in the teeth of opposition from the administration, politicians and their goons. Public works purported to have been undertaken were scrutinized and lists disclosed of workers who had ostensibly worked on them. Outrage ensued when assembled villagers grasped the extent of fraud committed on them. Finally, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan conceded that corruption and opacity should be removed by providing for the right to information.
A year later, with little to show for the Chief Minister’s assurance, the MKSS embarked on an indefinite public protest in Beawar. The town’s inhabitants were astonished to see throngs of rural folk agitate, not for quotidian needs, but for the right to know and to question. The agitators were buoyed by the solidarity and support extended by activists from across the country, by doyens of journalism and by some senior administrators.The assumption that information was power came to be accepted as central to public discourse.
The agitation underscored the need to give effect to the right to information through legislation based on extensive public debate. Beawar marked the shift from local struggle to national movement, and gave rise to the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) tasked with drafting the legislation.
Based on widespread consultations by a group of experts coordinated by the Press Council of India, a draft bill was submitted to the Prime Minister in September 1996. While the Central Government responded by introducing cosmetic ‘good governance’ measures, in 2002 it pushed through a feeble Freedom of Information Act—which remained only on paper as it was never notified.
Bureaucratic subterfuge and resistance from various quarters raised continual hurdles, but vigilance and advocacy by citizens groups ensured that a strong Right to Information Act eventually came to be enacted by Parliament in October 2005. The law, the authors point out, ‘was surprisingly much better than any indication of its content in the preceding year. We thought that the parliament and Indian democracy had come of age.’
The RTI Story comes to a somewhat abrupt close with the passage of the legislation and does not discuss the aftermath. Clearly, the intention of the authors is to focus essentially on delineating the evolution of the unique participative process that led to enshrinement of RTI in Indian jurisprudence. However, since the book has been compiled more than a decade after the law came into effect, it would have been useful had it devoted some space to implementation issues.
Millions of RTI applications have been filed since the Act came into effect: irregularities have been exposed, injustices alleviated and iniquities assuaged. Inevitably, it has also met with opposition from vested interests which thrived on opacity and intractability of official procedures, and the system has pushed back: the bureaucracy has become adept at obfuscation, posts of Information Commissioners have been deliberately left unfilled, and the backlog of pending queries has reached such proportions as to virtually defeat the purpose of the Act. Worse, RTI activists are labelled as trouble-makers; many of them have been physically attacked. A RTI Amendment Bill has recently been drafted—and jealously hidden from public scrutiny—which allegedly seeks to curb the independence and authority of the Information Commission.
The book draws heavily on the MKSS diaries recounting daily events and analyses of those events, besides case studies, feedback of participants, observations of visitors and press reports. The diligent detailing will be of value to scholars, activists and others interested in the development of social movements, but may prove a tad tedious to the lay reader.
Despite her iconic status in the RTI saga, nowhere in the book is Aruna Roy projected as anything more than one among many equals. This review would be incomplete if her cheery humility and self-effacement to the larger cause were not underscored. Finally, to quote from Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s foreword:The RTI Story’ is a manifesto of truth-seeking, truth-telling and truth-living. Its author is no individual, no institution. Its author is the true word.’
Govindan Nair is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service.