Power to the People

Aruna Roy’s book on the RTI stresses on the grassroots activism that it arose from, the lived experiences of deprivation and injustice.

“When I send my son with 10 rupees to the marketplace, and he comes back, I ask for accounts. The government spends billions of rupees in my name. Shouldn’t I ask for my accounts?” The practical wisdom in this remark comes from Sushila, a young rural woman from Rajasthan who studied only up to class 4. Later in her life, she joined the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and was invited to speak about the Right to Information (RTI) at a press conference held on September 30, 1996. It was the day when a slim draft of the RTI bill was publicly released by Justice PB Sawant, ex-Supreme Court judge and Chairperson of the Press Council of India.

Don’t mistake the homely analogy as a cover-up for Sushila’s lack of political awareness. It was a confident demand for transparent procedures of record-keeping, full disclosure of relevant data, and accountability from the government for their use of public funds. She made it known in an idiom that was familiar not only to her but to thousands of farmers, workers, and other villagers who led India’s movement towards a landmark legislation that would guarantee access to information to all its citizens. This draft served as the blueprint for the Freedom of Information Act (2002), which eventually gave way to the Right to Information Act (2005).

Aruna Roy’s book The RTI Story: Power to the People, written with inputs from the MKSS Collective, puts the spotlight on people like Sushila who did the ground work for this struggle in Devdungri, Bhim, Beawar and many other parts of Rajasthan before it captured the national imagination. It shows that the movement arose from their lived experiences of deprivation and injustice in a region categorized as both drought-prone and semi-arid. With most of the land under feudal control, their survival depended on daily wages from employment in government-run programmes. Even the minimum wages mandated for this work were not paid in full, either because the labour was either measured inadequately or because money was siphoned off by keeping fake records that were hidden from public scrutiny. The frustration kept mounting but they were unable to see a way out. The MKSS helped them get organized, and steadily build a movement with clear goals.

Aruna Roy, who resigned from the Indian Administrative Service, and Nikhil Dey, who discontinued his higher education in the United States of America, are the face of MKSS for most urban audiences in India and abroad, but the book downplays their role. Instead, it celebrates Shankar Singh, proverbial son of the soil, who is skilled in using songs, folktales, puppetry and street theatre to communicate complex ideas and advance the movement. This seems like a good decision because a bleeding-heart narrative about good samaritans giving up their material comforts for a rural life filled with hardships would be too soppy for my liking. It is a choice they made, and continue to live with, because it brings meaning to the movement.

The grassroots history of the RTI movement is important to emphasize for it is fed by the sweat and toil of ordinary unsung people. Hundreds of villagers walked long distances to participate in rallies and public hearings. Locals gave whatever they could despite their meagre resources. Some donated vegetables, others volunteered to cook; some offered spare rooms to host guests from other villages, others served water and opened up their dharamshalas for the protestors to bathe. Without their sacrifices, we would not have had the RTI Act of 2005, which is now being used by urban individuals, civil society organizations and media houses to excavate crucial information tucked away in sarkari files. Although the colonial masters have gone, the India bureaucracy retains the British administration’s predilection for being secretive. It fears being exposed and put to trial by citizens who are vigilant torchbearers of a participative democracy.

The view from the ground is helpful but it would be foolish to discount the gains that followed from wider attention, and active endorsement of the RTI movement from luminaries like Kuldip Nayar, Harsh Mander, Rajni Bakshi, Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar, Prashant Bhushan, Arundhati Roy, Prabhash Joshi and others well-known in Delhi’s academic, activist and bureaucratic circles. As the book indicates, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information became a success as it drew on connections with editors of widely circulated newspapers, and courted the involvement of sympathetic civil servants. They raised their voice in solidarity with India’s rural citizens because constitutional provisions did not free them from the structural violence that collectors, land owners, money lenders, shopkeepers, policemen, local politicians and caste panchayats regularly inflicted on them.

Having outlined what makes this book a worthwhile read, it would only be fair to point out some shortcomings. Activists face the perennial dilemma of prioritizing between doing and documenting, and that is visible in the compilation of this book, which draws on collective memory and excerpts from various diaries, notes and publications. While an insider may relish these fragments, they might seem repetitive and cumbersome to a reader who is learning about the movement for the first time. The book demands a lot of patience because its pages are peppered with too many characters to keep track of.

Though the movement has been fuelled by debate and discussion, the book gives hardly any insight into the nature of internal disagreements among the people who made it their life’s mission to create a law that would ensure freedom of information. It seems unlikely that a movement of this size was marked by an absence of critical voices shaping the evolving discourse. The only time one gets a glimpse of some difference of opinion is when MKSS set up crowd-funded kirana stores to bring down market rates, break monopolies, and show that economic relationships can be based on transparency. They were told that activists cannot be shopkeepers, but they persisted and also tasted success because of their throwaway prices and quality products. However, the expansion process of the MKSS kirana store model had to be stalled as it was difficult to juggle supervisory responsiblities at the store with campaigning for the RTI movement. Two of the stores had to be closed down.

The book fails to address why there are significant barriers to the use of this law by India’s poor, though it was their struggles that led to the enactment of this law in the first place. There isn’t enough awareness of the rights granted to citizens under the RTI Act, particularly among marginalized communities. Many of them do not know how to make a formal RTI request, and their attempts to seek help are met with hostility from public officials who see the demand for accountability as an assault on their power. Though many scams have been brought to light using this law, citizens are also scared to use it because over 60 RTI activists in India have been killed for daring to ask for information that others did not want them to have.

Of course, some citizens have gone ahead and shown the gumption to ask the current Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to reveal information such as the following: the percentage of marks scored by him when he graduated from Delhi University in 1977, details of sick and casual leave availed of by him, his daily schedule since the time he assumed office, a full list of visitors he has met (in his office, at his residence and elsewhere), a list of phone calls made by him during his tenure, and documents to show that he is indeed the Prime Servant of India and not the Prime Minister. I am a bit surprised that the PMO chose to publish these requests on its website, but some laughter is always welcome.

Coming back to the book, it does manage to substantiate the claim that India’s RTI Act is a pretty strong piece of legislation that has emerged from a broad-based consultative process with the citizens of this country, many of whom are traditionally excluded from decision-making about their own lives. This Act has been used in a variety of contexts such as drought, displacement, hunger, education, human rights, electoral politics, judicial accountability, economic development, land rights, nuclear expenditure, and gender based violence. This, however, is only the beginning of its journey. It has miles to go, and it cannot afford to sleep.