Demand transparency, assert sovereignty


The human lie or falsehood was alien to the wise race of horses, the Honhyhums, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In the absence of any word for lie or falsehood in their language that recognised only the truth, the Honhyhums called it ‘The Thing Which is Not’. Had they made a voyage of discovery through the mazes of government paperwork in contemporary India and seen them in the light of the material reality around, they would have been amazed by the most telling instance of ‘The Thing Which is Not’ – the so called ‘Development’.

We give it to the ordinary villagers of central Rajasthan who, afflicted nearly mortally by the great lie, could not, and did not, like the Honhyhums merely afford to contemplate and be amazed by it from a distance. It is nearly seven years now, since late 1994, that they have been holding up the light of their stark reality to shred the manufactured myth of development and ‘poverty alleviation’ layer by layer. Seven long years since peasants and workers in the villages of central Rajasthan have been taking up headlong with those who rule them in their name the question of accountability and transparency in development expenditure.

Account for our money, they have asked, we give as taxes for our collective material development. Or the money that comes for us from all over the world as aid. Show up in quality and quantity the assets you have built for us on the ground, not on paper, they have asked. They are angry, not amazed, at what they have found. And what have they found?

Ghost entries in muster rolls of famine relief or other rural development work gobbling up wages of real residents in the village who are too poor to buy themselves two square meals and are without any other job. Schoolrooms non-existent in reality but entered in the records as complete. Wells dug only in the documents while women fetch water from miles. Stones never supplied to build a small path bridge, roads never repaired, sums never loaned out to the poor for self employment but embezzled by petty village officials and the rural rich, and so on and so forth – all forming perfect entries in government records. The great lie of development is certainly not harmless ‘Fiction’ as in literature and art, to regale and enlighten (though it does that in an ironic sense), but a cover up for the greed of a few at the cost of the collective good.

How do the poor know what happened to the minimum wage that would have made them survive one more day in their life? By demanding information contained in the official documents. Only after exercising their right to know can the poor strive to get back the so many minimum wage days snatched from them, the so many days of their life snatched from them, in fact.

By exercising their Right to Know or the Right to Information collectively through a long series of Jan Sunwais or Public Hearings on development expenditure in their villages, the poor peasants and workers have taken a step towards shifting the local power balance in their favour. They have made corrupt people return the embezzled money in many cases and instilled a sense of fear in the permanent and elected local government functionaries. Through these Public hearings, the poor have sought to fight corruption, demand accountability from those who rule in their name, have sought to reclaim development done in their name and exercise their sovereignty over a government run in their name.

Apart from taking a step toward a shift in the power balance in their favour, the poor of central Rajasthan, helped by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an organisation of peasants and workers active in that area, by their Public Hearings and a historic agitation in 1996-97 for a Right to Information Legislation in the state of Rajasthan, also effected a significant shift in the discourse on this subject in India. It brought home that the Right to Information was essential to the basic human right to life and livelihood. Hitherto in India, the middle class liberal opinion and the Courts too, in the wake of this country’s tryst with overt dictatorship and pre-censorship during the emergency of 1975-77, had defined the Right to Information as inhering in the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

Triggered by this shift in the discourse and practice of the people’s Right to Information by the Rajasthan movement, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information was formed in 1996 following the 40 days long historic sit in strike in Beawar, a small town in Ajmer District of Rajasthan. The NCPRI intends to extend the Rajasthan vision into other areas of governance and policy, also all public sphere including areas abdicated by governments in favour of the Corporate Sector and NGOs in this era of economic liberalisation, across the country.

A campaign of advocacy by the NCPRI and other groups has effected the passage of right to information laws in many states and a national law on the subject is also on the anvil – even though in nearly all cases, the powers that be have succeeded in subversively diluting these enactments through deliberately left loopholes and have even sought to restrict the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed in our constitution.

It was in this context that the NCPRI commemorated the 1996 Dharna or sit in strike on its fifth anniversary at Beawar from April 5 to 7 this year. Likeminded people from all over the country gathered in hundreds at Beawar on this occasion and drafted a Beawar Resolution to articulate this vision of the People’s Right to Information with reference to various policy areas vital for the people.

The moot question the Beawar Resolution addresses is this: How do the people exercise their sovereignty over the State and other Institutions on a continuous basis, and not just periodically when they vote? The resolution observes with dismay the veil of secrecy that the vested interests weave to surround the Institutions, which a sovereign people created to serve as instruments for their own betterment. Behind this veil of secrecy these very Institutions are subverted into conspiracies to manipulate and subjugate the people. But the dismay in the Beawar Resolution does not lead to despair. Instead, it turns into a resolve to enhance the strength of the people and the democratic Institutions that characterises the vitality of the real India. In the challenge to expand the available democratic spaces in every field, the Beawar Resolution recognises the significance of the Right to Information as an important weapon.

The surreal context of hunger amidst plenty – a stock of 50 million tonnes of grain in government godowns and starvation deaths in many parts of the country – lent to the Beawar Resolution a tone of urgency. As the Resolution observes, it is through an insistent inquiry into the details of policy and implementation that create this irony can the people ensure that the State does not abdicate its responsibility towards ensuring people their basic Right to life that includes their right to food. The Resolution recognised that the Right to life demands the democratisation of health and medical services and the need to rid them of their elitist and gender bias. This also requires persistent inquiry by the people to breach the pall of mystery surrounding the health and medical policy and processes, often controlled by the pharmaceutical cartels.

A similar insistent inquiry is also needed into the politics of displacement – into the logic of the mega projects that oust people from their homes, livelihood and cultural habitat, into an explanation of the ‘national interest’ that is supposed to prevail over the people who constitute the nation and into the mundane details of land acquisition and rehabilitation that actualise the robbery. Along with these the Beawar resolution sought to take the battle for transparency to the realms of educational rights, custodial and law enforcement institutions of the state like the police and the jails and the way they affect the civil liberties of the people, the electoral system (for instance transparency in electoral expenditure, assets and income of the candidates and their criminal records, if any), judicial appointments and functioning, the media (including the linkages media groups and individuals have with politics and business) and also  voluntary agencies and citizens’ associations who claim to serve the people selflessly.

Interests and processes controlling the lives of the people are becoming more and more remote from the people in their decision making seats – be they international regimes or transnational business and political interests that shape them. Recognising them, the Beawar Resolution sought to take the battle of transparency into all aspects of globalisation and economic liberalisation and the international regimes they have engendered.

Like in other countries, Defence and Nuclear Establishment are most resistant to the idea of transparency and democratic accountability. They feed and grow on disinformation chauvinism. Hence, the Beawar Resolution recognised that subjecting these establishment to a close public scrutiny is all the more necessary. For the people must ensure that their life and its real security is not hijacked in the name of Security. Though the Beawar Resolution confined itself to India, this last point is equally true for the contemporary world, particularly in these troubled times.

In these times of a manufactured militarisation of minds and the accompanying culture of secrecy, it is all the more essential for the people of the world to assert their democratic sovereignty over rulers run amok and trampling human lives with scarce concern. Demanding to know, the people of the world can confront the falsehood of war and assert their will to live and grow in dignity.

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