Right to know, right to live – Building a campaign for the right to information and accountability – Sowmya Kidambi
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)- Championing the “Right to Information” in Rural India – Soumya Kidambi
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan is a grassroots organization that was formed in 1990, working in rural Rajasthan. Its objective was to use modes of struggle and constructive action for changing the lives of its primary constituents — the rural poor. In the period leading up to its formation it had taken up issues of re-distribution of land and minimum wages. These were seen as the two basic issues of the rural landless and the poor of the area.
To understand the reason why the demand for minimum wages and the subsequent demand for access to records came about, it is important to try and understand the geographical as well as the socio-political setup of the area where the MKSS works. Rajasthan being a desert area, the people are faced more often than not with a drought. During the time that the rains fail, the only choices that people have to earn a living is to either migrate or work at the famine relief work sites. A famine relief site is basically the work sites that are opened up by the government to provide employment for the people. This could be building a road, digging a well, or desilting ponds/lakes etc. In most of these work sites it is seen that women are there in larger numbers than men. Men tend to migrate in search of livelihoods and the women are left behind to tend the family.
It was seen initially that the laborers at the famine relief sites were not paid their full minimum wage. When they demanded to be paid minimum wages on public works, they were refused on the grounds that “they did not work.” When the laborers questioned the authorities, they were told that the proof for the fact that they did not work lay in the records. The records in question were “measurement books” which were filled by the Junior Engineer. The laborers then demanded to see the records. At this point of time they were told very clearly and in no uncertain terms by the administrators that they could not see the records, because according to the Official Secrets Act (1923), a colonial legacy, all these records were state secrets and could not be opened up to the public. This infuriated the laborers who then said “till we get access to those records, we will always be told that we don’t work and the administration can never be challenged on that account. If we are to prove that what they say is not true we need to get those records!”
It was at this point of time that the movement for the “right to information” began. The need to access records was established and people began to think of ways and means through which they could get the government to give them the “right to know”. The modes that were adopted were diverse and the one important aspect was that the people identified totally with the cause. For them it was their battle, a battle for their survival. The struggle illustrated that the right to information was not just a component of people’s right to freedom of speech and expression but was also a part of their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution — the right to life and liberty. The villagers understood and made a large section of enlightened opinion in the country understand that the access to records of development work in villages would help in obtaining the basic living wage, the entitlement under the ration quota, the medicines the poor should receive in public health centers, preventing abuse by the police, and even in preventing delay and subterfuge in implementation of other livelihood entitlements. And from the understanding of that struggle came about a number of slogans that have been used time and again by the MKSS in its various phases of agitation. Slogans such as “Our money, our account”, “the right to know, the right to live”, “this government belongs to you and me, its no one’s personal property!”
In demanding a law for the “right to information” the people were establishing their desire to be part of the democratic framework in which they would be given a fair hearing and their views would be taken into consideration while forming policies. The goal was to establish the concept of “participatory democracy,” to make the people who ruled understand that the common man now wanted his or her share in governance.
The strategies that were adopted to achieve these goals by the MKSS were many. These included sit-ins, rallies, as well as lobbying with government. Culture and innovative ways in communicating the ideas were also used through music, puppets, street theater etc.
When the initial phase of agitation began with a sit-in, the government of Rajasthan very reluctantly passed an order (after much pressure) whereby the people were given the right to inspect records and later to get certified photocopies. At the time of inspecting the records of a village council, the MKSS found that there were a great deal of irregularities and malpractices. From this emerged the technique of the public hearing which has been used as a tool in uncovering and bringing to light many scams in development works.
Usually, in a public hearing the MKSS first obtains the records pertaining to the public works carried out by the Village Council in the last five years. Once the documents are accessed, the Sangathan then takes the records to each village where the work is said to have been executed and then testimonies are sought from the villagers and the laborers who were employed on the site. The MKSS also does site verifications with the laborers and villagers, and then on the day of the public hearing in front of the general assembly of the villagers the details are read out and testimonies sought. There is also the concept of having a panel of people who are invited to the public hearings, including lawyers, journalists, academicians and government officials. The panel is also allowed to cross- examine and ask for clarifications, and with the administration present attempts are made to try and bring about corrective measures for the irregularities identified. The malpractices usually uncovered are purchase overbilling, sale overbilling, fake labor rolls, under payment of wages and in some cases ghost works (works that are there on record but do not exist).
In many cases it has been seen that the public hearing causes a rapid escalation in payments. People who haven’t been paid for years, and have been denied payment after repeated visits to the Sarpanch (elected village council representative), all of a sudden find themselves being paid overnight. What is more in many cases the Sarpanch himself comes to the laborer and pays him, adding that now that the payment has been made there is no need for him/her to go and testify at the public hearing! There have also been cases where after the public hearing and an embezzlement being proved the Sarpanch has promised and has indeed paid back the amount into the panchayat exchequer. Action has been initiated against officials who have been found to be in compliance with the act of embezzlement.
The public hearing has been a rather effective tool in bringing to light corrupt practices and in trying to address the whole issue of leakages that exist within the system. The strength also lies in the truth that emerges in front of the people and their willingness to testify against the person in power, who very often belongs to a higher caste and has a social standing that can be intimidating. The entire battle for rights and the fact that people, irrespective of gender, are willing to testify against those in power shows that here is great potential in the mode of public hearings and in the demand for a comprehensive law on the “right to information.”
Sourced from “Championing the ‘Right to Information’ in Rural India” by Soumya Kidambi. This piece originally appeared in Samar 16.