BAREFOOT The story of little-known activists who use the RTI as their main weapon, and the dangers they live with everyday.
The most significant governance reform since Independence is unarguably the Right to Information Act of 2005. Overnight, the statute created potentially a billion Lokpals, because every citizen acquired the right to seek information and documents from government, in order to interrogate the integrity and justice of official actions.
But many doubted if citizens would stir and organise themselves to actually use this right: it required the careful and tedious study of government procedures and rules, combined with patience and persistence. However, people proved the sceptics wrong. Many times more than any official oversight body, ordinary citizens held local officials to account in ways that were unthinkable even a decade earlier. In villages and small towns across the country, the law has sparked a million tiny non-violent mutinies.
Upsetting the status quo
Wherever battle lines are drawn between those who benefit from corruption and those who suffer from it, it has challenged power. Honest officials are more fearless. Some are learning to function more carefully within the boundaries of rules and prescribed procedures, or at least to leave fewer obvious footprints of malfeasance. Some are paralysed into inaction. But there is evidence also that the beneficiaries of corrupt administration are also fighting back. It is increasingly commonplace to hear of attacks, sometimes fatal, on little known RTI activists from distant corners of India’s hinterland.
In the middle class imagination, what is described as “civil society activism” tends to be dominated by the larger-than-life persona of a few well-known, highly celebrated fighters. Many, therefore, do not recognise the extraordinary heroism of several battles for clean and fair governance, fought by tall “little” warriors, with scant protection and even less public glory.
One of this multitude of faceless combatants is Ramesh Agarwal, intrepid middle-aged activist committed to struggles for justice for persons dispossessed and displaced by private mining and power companies in the forested tribal district Raigarh in Chhatisgarh. On July 7, 2012, I was stunned and grieved to learn that two men armed with a loaded pistol had driven to the cyber cafe that Ramesh ran for a living, and shot him after an altercation in the thigh. At the time of writing, I heard to my great relief that surgeons in Raipur had worked on his wounds, and declared him out of danger.
I have known Ramesh for over two decades, from the time I served in Raigarh in 1990 as the District Collector. I was privileged to lead a campaign for Total Literacy of the district, an exhilarating mass movement which successfully canvassed more than 30,000 youth volunteers to teach 300,000 non-literate adults in the district. The idealism of throngs of young women and men was infectious and heady. For some, those intense months of collective service and camaraderie altered the direction of their lives forever. Among these was Ramesh, who joined hands with several comrades to constitute an organisation called Lokshakti, dedicated to carrying forward the radical idea of “conscientisation” of impoverished and oppressed people. Building on the foundations of new-found literacy, they tried to build awareness of rights for collective, democratic resistance to injustice.
In 2005, Ramesh and his old literacy activist partner Rajesh Tripathy, launched a separate platform called Jan Chetna Manch. A number of large industrial houses had acquired and occupied enormous tracts of forest, tribal and farm land to establish a dense battery of coal mines, thermal power plants and ancillary industries. Rajesh and Ramesh were worried by what they believed to be the unjust, illegal and often brutal forceful expropriation of the resources of lands and forests, the pauperisation of their people, and the destruction forever of the natural habitat which had nurtured them for generations.
They discovered an invaluable democratic weapon for effective non-violent challenge to their immeasurably more powerful adversaries, of RTI applications, and they deployed these tirelessly, fearlessly and imaginatively. Through their applications, they exposed that large tracts of forest and farm lands had been mined without being legally being diverted and transferred; mandatory consultations with gram panchayats were bypassed, manipulated or falsely recorded; lands and standing trees were grossly under-valued to drastically reduce compensation claims; legal land acquisition processes were routinely subverted to benefit private companies; and land was illegally acquired from tribal landowners even though this is prohibited under the law. Their first victory in village Rabu for a captive dam was to force raising of compensation from Rs. 10,000 rupees per hectare to up to Rs. 10 lakh.
Not surprisingly, their exertions were not welcomed both by the private companies and complicit government officials. Initially they were offered bribes to end their confrontations, by lucrative transport contracts, or employment in “corporate social responsibility” enterprises. Some of their colleagues succumbed, but not them. When these inducements failed, they were often openly threatened. Ramesh’s cyber cafe was ransacked. He was attacked and injured. Rajesh’s motor cycle was almost run over on many occasions by transport trucks. Their police complaints were rarely registered, even less acted upon. But a complaint from a private company employee claiming that they threatened to take his life led to the arrest of both Ramesh and Rajesh, and they spent three months in jail in 2011, before they were finally awarded bail from the Supreme Court.
I met them in Raigarh a few months ago, deeply worried about the continuing threat to their lives by their stubborn and unwavering struggle. They responded without bravado but with quiet resolve: “We take precautions now: we do not announce in advance our travel plans, we use different vehicles each time, and so on. But these are poor people’s issues, and we cannot let them down. We have to continue to struggle. What has to happen will happen”.
There is no law to protect information warriors like them, and little public outrage or solidarity when they are assaulted.
As I heard them, I wondered how much India deserves them. And thousands of information warriors like them: unsung, unprotected, unassuming. And heroic.