That accountability is vital in a democracy was reinforced at a National Convention of the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information held in Shillong recently…

When the idea of a people's legal right to information took initial shape in the dusty villages of Rajasthan nearly two decades ago amidst people's struggles for work and wages, few could have predicted how profoundly this idea would alter and deepen democracy across this vast land. The State penetrates virtually every aspect of a person's life in modern India, and governments run many programmes which are critical for the survival of millions of impoverished people. But although governments are elected by the people in the Indian republic, they tend to function as masters rather than public servants. Like masters, they feel none ‘outside' government should have the right to question whether government decisions are honest, or lawful, or fair. How can masters ever be subject to such questioning?

Therefore, the Right to Information law passed by Indian Parliament in 2005 has proved to be the most significant reform in public administration since the people of India gave themselves a secular democratic Constitution in 1950. This statute established that people have the right to question all public servants who they pay with their taxes. It is an instrument in the hands of the people to claim democracy, and support and strengthen their struggles. It enables them to question — and battle without arms — their governments.

In so doing, it has transformed and deepened democracy in ways that were difficult to imagine when village folk first demanded and secured that piece of official paper — a ‘muster roll'. Armed with this humble document, for the first time in centuries of history of public works in famines and droughts, villagers were able to know who village officials claimed were paid wages and how much.

In my own years as a district official in impoverished tracts of India, I often agonised about the helplessness of poor people when public money intended for them was looted with impunity. This was money to feed them in times of drought, supply subsidised grain, run schools for their children and health-centres when they are sick, or offer pensions for the aged. People could do little more than petition government again and again, mostly to be turned away. The few battles against corruption by those in and outside public office seemed doomed to be lonely, eccentric and ultimately to collapse in failure. I wondered how democracy could so short-change the masses of the indigent and oppressed of our land.

Like all the world's greatest ideas, the answer was disarmingly simple. If governments do not investigate corruption, people should have the right and power to do so themselves. For this they needed to be armed with official information, which they should get as a right. And what were the limits to information which people could demand? Another simple but incontrovertible principle emerged. Whatever information people's representatives can demand in Parliament and the legislatures, cannot be barred from the sovereign people who elect them.

In the five years since the passage of this law, ordinary people have bravely, creatively, often anarchically breached bastions of official authority. In March 2011, in the crisp cool spring of Shillong, an extraordinary diversity of some of these motley ‘soldiers of information' converged from every corner of this country for a National Convention called by the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information. A Governor, retired Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and High Courts, and senior public officials rubbed shoulders with poor landless farm workers, young students and teachers, and activists, to celebrate — with speeches, slogans, song, parody and theatre — this law which gave them hope and power over corrupt governments.

Hard won

None of these battles was easily won, and the murder of at least 17 persons for seeking official information was a reminder of how perilous these efforts can be, how threatened remain these gains, and how resolutely they need to be defended. Every public official still takes a pledge of secrecy rather than of transparency when they assume office. Virtually every high office, whether of the President, the Prime Minister, the cabinet, and the Judges of the Supreme Court, have claimed at one time or another that they should be kept out of the reach of this law. Ninety per cent of Central and State Information Commissions are packed with retired civil servants, who come from an official culture which has historically resisted regimes of transparency. Delegates to the Shillong convention from every corner of the country testified how officials still routinely refuse to disclose information, and reported facing delay, stone-walling, evasion, discourtesy, intimidation and threats when they seek information.

And yet there were wonderful stories of small but significant local triumphs. People spoke of local exposures through people's audits of postmen who stole the pensions of the aged, village officials who built roads and wells only on paper, subsidised rice which reached mills and private retail instead of government subsidised ration shops, teachers who did not teach and pinched the meals of the children, and hospitals without doctors and medicine. All these have been the staple of life of the poor since generations. But today they know and can question. In Andhra Pradesh, social audits of village public works exposed corruption of the scale of 100 crore rupees, and 30 crores have been returned by corrupt officials and representatives.

Even more significant than battling corruption with RTI are new and unexpected ways to hold governments accountable for upholding rights to life and liberty, protecting against discrimination, and defending human rights. In Bhilwada, Rajasthan, a dalit computer operator offered water to an upper caste bus conductor, and was thrashed. The local police refused to file his complaint. He then filed an RTI application asking how many complaints are pending with the police of atrocities against dalits, and what action the police have taken on these. As a result, police filed not only his complaint but also 200 others which were long pending with them, under the SC ST Atrocities Act. Those who beat him up were arrested.

The Rajasthan government issued a circular in 2007 that all homeless persons were eligible for house pattas or tenure rights for the lands on which their dwelling units stand. But many Panchayats withheld these because of caste prejudice against dalits. Activists then filed RTI applications asking what Panchayats have done to implement these orders. As a result, 650 dalits got house pattas. They have now organised themselves to file similar RTI applications in all 32 districts of Rajasthan.

In Gujarat, survivors of mass communal violence in 2002 found that the entire criminal justice system — police, prosecution, courts — stacked against them, in ways that it seemed almost impossible to bring those who slaughtered, raped and burnt their homes to justice. But in our work with them, we discovered that RTI can even help resist this subversion of justice. For instance, police would record their statements falsely, erasing from these the names of the accused as well as the witnesses, so that later they could walk free. But now as soon as they make any statement to the police, they have learned to ask for copies immediately under RTI. They have filed several hundred RTI applications, and found that this has made police and courts recognise that they cannot openly flaunt legal processes to protect those who conducted the slaughter.

Effective weapon

These were exhilarating accounts of ways that RTI has brought accountability of the State to its common citizens, not just for official acts of corruption but also of discrimination.

But there was not just hope, but also despair. Delegates from Kashmir and Manipur wept as they spoke of filing RTI applications asking whether their loved ones who were abducted by security forces years earlier were dead or alive. They have knocked every door, but got no reply. These were sobering reminders that whereas RTI can help breach many citadels of official power, it has not yet altered its fundamental paradigms.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012