FROM INFORMATION TO ACCOUNTABILITY-
This is the story of a struggle of ordinary people living in Central Rajasthan to influence the political parameters of their lives by acting to remove the existing barriers to their own participation, and strategically identifying the strings that connect local struggles to larger superstructures….
The struggle was sparked off by an initial demand for details of Panchayat* level expenditure, and it grew in four years to a burgeoning movement and campaign for comprehensive legislation at the State and Central levels. While the State legislation was finally passed on the 1st of May 2000, and the Central legislation was tabled in Parliament at the beginning of August, the movement has now begun to also focus on the related questions of accountability and control over decision making.
Situating the Demand for the Right to Information
The demand for the right to information may have been novel for a town like Beawar, but it was certainly not new to the academic debate on political reform. Transparency and accountability are two issues which have occupied national debate for a long time. They have now even become fashionable buzz words.
There are in fact two legislative measures of so called political reform which have remained suspended on the fringes of mainstream national debate, coming centre stage for brief moments, and then being brushed aside by the more pressing priorities of political parties. These are the Right to Information Bill and the Lok Pal Bill*. They are sometimes presented as twin propositions of reform in the corruption ridden Indian polity. With the right to information issue recently coming alive with renewed vigour, and the sprouting of grass root level efforts to demand disclosure of concealed government information, the same issue seemed to have resurfaced, only this time being raised by a different set of people.
A New Discourse on the Right to Information
In the context of the struggle in Rajasthan, a clear analysis of these demands becomes imperative. It is necessary to examine the similarity and difference in the demands that have emerged from the grass root struggle and the suggestions for change that have been made by policy makers and academics asking for political reform. While legislative and systemic change is the goal of both efforts, there is a vast difference in the focus, and perspective not only in the demand, but in the final outcome of such changes.
It is necessary to point out how critical the difference in approach is, to the perspective of the Right to Information movement and of the aspirations of the poor. By resting the sovereign rights with the citizen and making citizens action the focus, these grassroots level demands for the Right to Information (commonly labelled Transparency) and peoples audit (labelled accountability) radically alter the potency, use, and perspective of what seems to be a commonly understood term. It is clear to us that the demand for the peoples right to information emerging from a people’s struggle and campaign, is far more incisive than the comparatively limited assertion that the Right to Information is contained within the Constitutional right to the freedom of expression. Because it is rooted in action, facets of the issue have been thrown up which have altered its discourse in India.
There are related questions which are no less important. What do you do with the information once you have it ? How do you ensure corrective action? While the corollary to the Right to Information legislation suggested so far has been the Lok Pal Bill, the focus in the campaign has been to explore modes of social audit or a peoples audit. While one does not preclude the other, its priorities and suggested power centres are radically different.
A Peoples Response
Most often ordinary people stretch their ethics to make the system work for themselves. As they say in rural Rajasthan, ` ya tho jack ho , ya cheque ho .’ ( The only alternative to bribing your way through is nepotism.) It is in the context of this prevailing atmosphere of cynicism, apathy and despair that the story of the efforts for change of ordinary people in a small part of Rajasthan becomes remarkable and significant.
The question most often asked – by outside observers is – how is it that a set of largely illiterate and poor rural people have chosen to formulate, and so clearly articulate a demand for something as academic sounding as the right to information? The underlying assumption is that such a demand and its linkages to issues critical to the lives of the poor could only have been identified, formulated and articulated by intellectuals, politicians, and theoreticians – all of whom are the ‘real’ architects of political thought. It is also assumed that such architects will be people with an exposure to urban based institutions of learning. As a result, even those who have watched this movement emerge, tend to attribute its emerging ideology to the urban, formally educated people associated with the movement. To do so is a fallacy which would amount to ignoring the roots of the movement. The potency of these demands have emerged because they have been rooted in a commitment to articulate paradigms of change through action and a healthy respect for the instincts of those with a vested interest in such change. The nature and character of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) gave space and opportunity to the poor to articulate their priorities and suggest changes. The self confidence and conviction of the members of the MKSS that they alone were best placed to make the final judgements about decisions concerning themselves, allowed them to draw upon the support of a range of people without any loss in their sense of equality.
The MKSS and its Sphere of Work
The MKSS was an organisation formed in 1990 with a stated objective of using modes of struggle and constructive action for changing the lives of its primary constituents – the rural poor. In the period leading up to its formulation it had taken up issues of land re-distribution and minimum wages. These are traditionally seen as the two basic issues of the rural landless and poor. It was natural that an organisation of peasants and workers would initiate struggles on minimum wages and land. In the search for tools to fight the near impossible battle to obtain minimum wages on even Government sponsored employment programmes, the right to information demand emerged. It was a means to an end which grew in import and complexity as it began to be exercised. The battle has now been transformed into a means of monitoring ethics in political practice; exposing the hypocrisy and doublespeak between policy objectives and policy as it is implemented; and finally as a route to ensure modes of participatory democracy. But it all began as a tool to give voice to the legitimate demands of the poor.
The growth of the MKSS has been fashioned by issues chosen by the collective. The peculiar dependence on government programmes for employment despite large scale migration, and the relevance of development programmes for meeting minimum needs are typical of the area. In some other part of the country where primary sustenance comes from agricultural occupations, the issue would have probably taken on a different texture.
Minimum Wages and the Right to Information
For the MKSS, the seeds of the Right to Information demand lay in the struggle for minimum wages. There is a statutory minimum wage under the Minimum Wages Act, which every State Government has to conform to. Notifications should be issued from time to time revising it in conformity with prices. For the poor, this is one of the most important pieces of empowering legislation. It has also been used by organised groups like the trade unions and even NGO’s working in rural areas. The judiciary has taken a firm position through judgements on the implementation of the law and decreed against violations. In the state of Rajasthan, this law takes on additional importance, because the state regularly runs drought relief programmes. After a drought has been declared under the Famine Relief Code, works are opened to provide relief through productive employment. Most often because of mismanagement and corruption, minimum wages are not paid. Government norms for payment of wages on its own employment programmes are so designed that, the minimum wages declared under the law are the de facto maximum wages.
It was in fighting for minimum wages under these programmes that the MKSS first understood the significance of transparency and the right to information. It was necessary to access records, to prevent corruption, to try and obtain the minimum wage, and to ensure that infrastructure actually got built. Every time the workers made a demand for minimum wages they were told that they had not done the work, as proved in the records. When the MKSS made a demand to see the records, they were told that these records are government accounts and therefore secret. During two struggles for minimum wages when the MKSS sat on hunger strike, first in 1990, and then in 1991, the importance of access to government records became clear to the whole group.
In search of an Appropriate Platform – Jan Sunwais
If people are to come together, apart from the ideological commitment and agreement on the issue, the modes and platforms for mobilisation are also important. A mode had to be identified to bring an eclectic group together to allow for different kinds of expression, for different approaches, and most importantly, allow open participation. For groups like the MKSS who are continually in adversarial positions, conflict and protest offer platforms for one-sided communication of ones own understanding and demands. Protest also generates the emotion and energy which sustain the doggedness necessary for pursuing the issue further. However, modes of protest have their limitations. They fail to draw in those who are not directly affected by the sets of demands. They also fail to give people the space to come to their own conclusions. It was in the search for a more neutral and open platform for democratic expression that the MKSS hit upon the idea of organising village based public hearings. The Public Hearing or Jan Sunwai is an adaptation of an existing mode, which has been used most often by urban groups bringing together a well-informed group of participants to present comprehensively, and in many voices, their experiences and opinions for wider dissemination.
For the MKSS, organising a Public Hearing meant breaking new ground. For an organisation which had only organised public meetings, rallies and protests, there was a degree of apprehension about how the mode would be received and understood by the people. The very first question was whether people would turn up at all, how much space would it create for participation, and whether it would gain the legitimacy required to expose and deal with conflict-ridden local issues, including specific instances of corruption. Most importantly, it remained to be seen whether an atmosphere could be created where people would find the courage to openly speak out against those who had been exploiting them and the village even when they were present. Would this kind of democratic space be created?
The Jan Sunwai has turned out to be a very powerful mode. It has been conducted in a comfortable, informal idiom of conversation and exchange. Yet it has all the seriousness and impartiality of court proceedings. Every Jan Sunwai has a panel of judges with independent credentials, who can ensure that the proceedings are fair, allowing everyone a hearing. The people are a large jury, before whom hiding the truth is, for obvious reasons, more difficult than before the judge in court. The simplicity of the arrangements – a tent with a few chairs and tables for the panellists, a few durries, a mike set, loudspeakers and a video recorder are the only logistic requirements. These are simple, inexpensive to hire, and easily set up. Incidentally, the first Jan Sunwai was held under an old parachute brought home by an ex-serviceman and put up for the day, for shade.
Most important of all, this forum breaks the heavy dependence on the Government for redressal. The face to face dialogue brings home very powerfully the need for accountability, and the urgency and importance of citizens participation in matters of governance.
The issues raised in a Jan Sunwai have to be clearly articulated and asserted. Waffling, and raising issues that are irrelevant will be shouted down or defeated through non-participation. If people leave the Jan Sunwai, it will be a final judgement of the irrelevance of the happenings. If people stay to listen and participate, the issue has to be of importance to them, and sustain their interest. The Jan Sunwai finally makes the organisers publicly accountable. As a result, the organising group has to have moral credibility.
The First Jan Sunwai – Let the people decide
In the search for a breakthrough on minimum wages and corruption, the MKSS was able to access the records of some works in Raipur Tehsil, Pali District. This was coupled with a decision to hold the first set of Jan Sunwais in December 1994. These records related to the Panchayats of Kot Kirana and Bagdi Kalalia. The records were initially examined on the complaint of a poor, middle-aged man about underpayment of wages. A co-operative bureaucrat who held temporary charge of the Block Development Office, allowed access to the documents. The contents were copied out by hand, under the disgruntled gaze of the office staff.
The copies of the muster rolls, bills and vouchers pertained to works like check dam construction, deepening of tank beds, and construction of school buildings. These records were part of the Desert Development and Drought Prone Areas Programme , and other development schemes being executed by the Panchayats. The stated objective of these employment programmes for the poor was to build infrastructure that would prevent drought. Members of the MKSS team took the information from village to village, verifying details. The reactions were beyond all expectations. The persons involved were outraged. Dead people had been paid. The fictitious names on muster rolls included the names of persons who had migrated, middle class women who never went for wage work, the names of an anganwadi (crèche) worker, a Public Distribution System shopkeeper, a person employed in the Railways and one in the Roadways Department. None of them knew that their names were on the muster rolls. Their names had been copied from the electoral rolls of the village. As the muster rolls mirrored the mistakes of the electoral rolls, it solved the mystery of why and how the names of non-residents and even those long dead were listed as manual labour hard at work in the village!
There were also stark examples of incomplete works certified as complete. An over billing racket resulted in payments for materials never supplied.
All hell broke lose after the Block Development Officer (BDO) recorded statements of all those defrauded. The local political big-wig, once Deputy Speaker of the Rajasthan Legislative Assembly was quick to understand the distress of the lower bureaucracy. He also had a vested interest in sabotaging this effort, as his relations, the Panchayat Secretary and the Junior Engineer would lose their jobs. He quickly assembled the local ‘goons’ to pressurise those who had testified, to retract their testimonies. Non-co-operation it was made clear, could even make them victims of some violent incident.
In the midst of this frenetic activity, the first Jan Sunwai was held in Kotkirana on the 2nd of December 1994. There was tremendous tension in the village. The local Mafia which was trying to prevent it from taking place, threatened to beat up the MKSS members. Alcohol was freely supplied to would be disrupters. But the enraged citizens of Kotkirana, including retired police and military personnel, and school teachers, were equally determined to ensure that the Jan Sunwai would be held. The combination of the workers demands for payment and the local middle class anger at being defrauded on development works, began a formidable if slightly awkward alliance that has continued to grow ever since.
Sitting under the tattered parachute that served as the tent, the panellists who had come from Jaipur and Ajmer to witness and impartially record the proceedings, and the lone journalist who had been cajoled into attending the Jan Sunwai, saw a historical happening take place.
The BDO and police sat some distance away, near the incomplete land records office. Ironically, this building had been shown as complete on record. They were the lone representatives of the State Government, and despite invitations to them to join the Jan Sunwai, they refused to move from their observation post. All the district Officials including the collector had been formally invited, but did not come.
In spite of threats and a misinformation campaign that the Jan Sunwai would not be held, over a thousand people collected to state their cases and listen to the stories hidden in the papers. Person after person came to the mike, to say that their name was fictitiously recorded on the muster roll; that they were away on migration; that they did not do manual labour; that the names of their dead fathers and relatives had been entered. Names were even shown as present at more than one place at the same time on the same day and so on. With bills and vouchers too, there were discrepancies which amounted to blatant fraud.
Money was shown as having been paid for purchasing stones that were never supplied for the Land Records Office, as the old building had been pulled down and the same stones were re-used for the construction of the new one.
The people were the jury, approving as correct or shouting out against the rare incorrect statements made by the person at the mike. It was very difficult to lie in front of the whole village where everyone was an eyewitness. When the Jan Sunwai was over, the people still lingered. They were held by the issue and their personal involvement in it.
The Lessons From the First Jan Sunwais
For the MKSS there was fundamental learning from the analysis that ensued. For the first time in the lives of many of the activists of the MKSS, the people had been able to concretely perceive the links between their personal lives and the political processes of democratic functioning. They saw the link between the check dam and the debate over State allocations, the planning process, and the implementation machinery. While lack of money was a reason for denying a number of genuine demands, but even from the funds available there was gross misuse. By exposing a fraud of a few lakhs of rupees in their little Panchayat they had raised an implicit question of the quantum of fraud in the nine thousand Panchayats in Rajasthan. They saw their simple acts of courage as an answer in the issues under national debate. It was an occasion where poor people and common citizens felt that they could be a part of the forces that led to the making or running of the country. In a state which was preoccupied with stories of traditional valour of kings and wars, the people saw their acts as worthy of valour in a social and political sense also.
The Jan Sunwai put forth four formal demands: for transparency of Panchayat functioning; accountability of officials; social audit; and redressal of grievances. These became the fundamental demands on which the campaign for the right to information was built. Social audit became important because many of the frauds were discovered after financial audit had been completed, and because it became increasingly clear that there would only be enforceable accountability when the controls lay with the people themselves.
The physical access to records and examination of the financial statements brought in a new dimension into peoples lives. They understood, in terms of democracy, the role each citizen would have to play to participate in decision making. They began to see the need to strengthen forums in the Panchayat, and understood that they would have in fact have to monitor the works to see that they were properly implemented. Their role in political participation did not begin or end with the vote. This led to the continued involvement of people in that area, in struggles ranging from the local level, to battles which have gone up to the state capital, Jaipur.
The transformation of the Jan Sunwai into a more universal and systemic mode, was a concern of the MKSS. The social audit of accounts had to gain institutional legitimacy and result in systemic changes. The Jan Sunwai in Kotkirana was followed by four more in late 1994 and early 1995.
The Bureaucracy Reacts
India’s bureaucracy has inherited all the colonial reactions to dealing with people. The gut reaction of a bureaucrat to any demand from a citizen is to view it with suspicion and mistrust. There is very minimal identification with the people outside the pale of government functioning. Given a choice between justice and self protection, i.e. protection of the coterie, even `honest’ civil servants waver on the issue of publicising the misdeeds of colleagues. It is, therefore, natural that they should feel highly threatened by the whole concept of transparency and the right to information.
Unfortunately for the civil servant, the issue has caught them on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, in a democratic framework, there is no tenable position that can allow the withholding of information. It is absolutely within the constitutional rights of every citizen of this country to demand both the right to inspect and to take copies of documents related to decisions taken in their name. On the other hand, there is a loss of a kind of power that currently exists, that allows arbitrariness and lack of accountability. It is ironical that what is viewed as the most powerful government service, the IAS, should complain of all sorts of reservations and fears, including witch-hunting and blackmail. Free availability of information in fact prevents both.
At the panchayat level as well, it was the panchayat level bureaucracy that first expressed horror that they would have to share their information with citizens. It was the lowest unit that immediately grasped the dire threat posed. All the state panchayat secretaries went on strike against supplying information to anyone but audit parties and superiors after the first three Jan Sunwais had been held in 1995. The senior bureaucrats, including IAS officers have had the time to mask their negativity. On the surface, they have paid lip service to the cause, but behind the scenes it has been a different story. Barring the notable exceptions who are genuinely committed to open governance, they have indulged in bureaucratic sabotage. This was most obvious at the time of formulation of the law, and in the intricacies of language used in the draft legislation bureaucrats prepared.
The Politicians Response
The colonial bureaucracy lays claim to understanding democracy better than the common man, because they feel it’s a concept imported with western education. In its most elementary though fundamental role of holding the elections successfully the bureaucracy has played an efficient and necessary role. But the spirit and fruits of democracy have been contained within the nexus of the ruling elite, be it bureaucrat or politician. The representative sent to put forth the peoples point of view has been co-opted into the sharing of spoils without much persuasion.
Nevertheless, the politicians played a different game of hide and seek. They too were caught in their own dilemmas. As elected representatives in a democracy they were obliged to respond to the peoples demand by making appropriate and immediate positive noises. For the ruling party, the reluctance to part with information was also quite clear. The only initial difference was that many of the political parties saw that this would give them political mileage. In an environment that spoke for liberalisation, free markets, and the triumph of Western democracy, this was not a demand which could be denied on the surface. But they too got caught in the contradictions between statements and intent. So, the right to information found its way into many party manifestos at the time of two general elections to the Lok Sabha and became an election issue in the Rajasthan State Assembly elections.
The Emerging Lessons
Traditionally, rulers have seen the people as subjects – unintelligent, uninformed, incompetent, incapable. The best of the ruling elite fears that once the people, often referred to as the `mob’ take over, all administration will collapse. They feel that collectivism is impossible. Feudal patriarchs with deeply entrenched roots, which would be further uprooted by genuine democracy, agree with this point of view. So, transparency and information sharing are seen as leading to chaos. The business of governance has been so mystified that the simple task of looking at a muster roll in their minds needs skills that the common man is incapable of possessing or acquiring. Simultaneously, a range of arguments are put forth that the burdens this right would create far outweigh its theoretical advantages. It has been suggested that the system will be inundated by applications for information so that functionaries will only be answering queries and not be in a position to do their own jobs. Governance will therefore come to a standstill. Right to information and transparency are understood by them as important concepts, but they are emphatically dismissed as neither practical nor relevant in a country like India.
What the MKSS and the right to information campaign activists have been able to do through their experience with Panchayat records, is to question not only the upwardly directed, secret, internal accountability mechanisms in governance; but also work out details of people accessing information and analysing it in a manner in which most of these myths are substantially and logically destroyed.
The Development Scam
Every year the Government of India spends (we are told) some 8000 crores on rural development and poverty alleviation programmes. In the 8th plan period the total expenditure has been […] Where, everyone asks, has the money gone ? The common answer invariably contains one of the most oft quoted statements made by an Indian Prime Minister while in office: Rajiv Gandhi while talking of the failure of rural development programmes said, that of every rupee spent by the Government for poverty alleviation only 15% actually reached the people. The rest he implied was wasted and pocketed en-route.
Everyone knew that between the information being dished out by the Government about development expenditure, and the reality, there was a yawning gap. It was not a revelation that there was fraud in almost every government work. But the information in the Kot Kirana and subsequent Jan Sunwais provided the missing link which would prove the where, the when and the how of the misappropriation; prove the crime, and help shatter the façade created on paper. These first set of Jan Sunwais showed that the quantum of fraud amounted to at least 30% of the money even reaching the panchayat level. This led to some very quick calculations which showed that in areas where poverty (and its alleviation) was big business, this would be by far the biggest scam. In the nine thousand panchayats and one hundred and eighty three municipalities across Rajasthan and in the hundreds of thousands across the country citizens were being taken for a ride, and here finally was a way for people themselves to expose it.
Similarly, the right to information campaign has helped expose and remove the many impractical norms in development programmes. Incorporated into the manuals and rules to ostensibly increase efficiency and reduce corruption, many of them end up doing the opposite. The products of a closed, top-down system of implementation, such requirements are only met by fudging records. Reminiscent of the Emperor in his new clothes, such falsifying of records is condoned, and becomes the perfect guise for a more widespread swindle. The right to information campaign and Jan Sunwais exposed the degree to which this method was being used, and forced the Government to change some of the impractical requirements.
The Electoral Sham
The second phase of the Jan Sunwais exposed and threatened one of the foundations of the unholy alliance on which the Indian electoral edifice is built. The panchayats and their heads are seen by members of Parliament and the State Legislatures as vote bank managers who can organise and deliver votes at the time of elections. In the increasing alienation of the people from those they elect, the panchayat heads (Sarpanches) are a surviving link who play the role of agents. There are no funds provided by the party for panchayat elections, and very little is provided from party funds for local level expenditure during state and national elections. For the services these sarpanches perform of organising meetings, managing election campaigns and delivering votes, the MPs and MLAs ensure that their “agents” get access to development funds. The sharp upward curve of money available to and being demanded by MPs and MLAs in the discretionary quota under the head of MP and MLA Local Area Development is indicative of the importance of these relationships. The sarpanches provide the votes and the MPs provide the funds. The sarpanches are supposed to use the funds to keep their supporters happy, recover their expenses and be compensated for their troubles. That these “adjustments” are illegal and amount to blatant robbery from the poor is an open secret; but they are considered a small price to pay for democracy. The MPs provide the protection from any enquiry that may take place, and of course everyone knows, but there is nothing anyone can do about it. This is where certified copies of details of development expenditure provided another breakthrough. The MPs and MLAs, who wanted local votes could no longer be openly associated with those sarpanches who stood exposed. And the sarpanches who had to do the dirty work of forging records, wanted protection and had started asking questions as to why they should organise votes during elections at all.
The Attention To Detail
This struggle also raised what at first glance seemed a fairly small and innocuous demand to see bills, vouchers and muster rolls. Innocuous though it seemed, it was the specificity that made the Government uncomfortable. The bureaucracy is used to feeding people generalities while they themselves deal with the specifics, and in so doing control everything. There was genuine horror that such specific information needed to be shared at all. The bureaucracy controls even the ruling politician, by just this specific attention to detail. Appearing to take a leaf straight out of the BBC Programme of Yes Minister, the Indian bureaucracy has applied in spirit and structure the same machinations that gave Sir Humphrey so much power and joy.
The people on the other hand have to understand that the specifics have to be understood, sometimes challenged and always monitored. The struggle to extract information also had to contend with the culture epitomised by the Official Secrets Act, where all information, even the most mundane is enshrined in the pall of secrecy. The power the petty bureaucracy derives from such secrecy is easily perceived and has been repeatedly condemned. That is why the specific demand and its wider implications received rapid and comprehensive popular support. It was the threatened bureaucracy, the technocrats and the politicians who combined to stall the demand.
There is plenty of information available or even forced upon the people by the State. Regarding development works and expenditure for instance, there is a whole compendium of aggregates and information about schemes which amount to nothing more than government propaganda. It is important to understand that there are certain kinds of critical information the exposure of which raise uncomfortable questions, prove certain realities, and sometimes even help in changing perceptions. These nerve centres of information need to be identified. As with anything related to struggle for change, it is those people whose lives are most affected; those who are struggling for change, who can most effectively pinpoint the information that can help change their lives.
Controlling the Scams
The people, including those who had never been to school, understood the tremendous power that lay in certain documents. Members of MKSS, insisted from the time of early discussions that those documents had to see the light of day, if they were to prove that they had worked, that corruption was rampant, or that there were no ‘versions’. Truth is based on hard fact, especially if it relates to rupees and paise. Muster rolls have their own comic history. Muster rolls when they have been asked to be seen, have been ‘eaten by cows’, ‘disappeared with a strong gust of wind’, concealed inside the vest of a ‘mate’ from where it could not be snatched, and very often not there at all, but replaced by a mini diary, which acted as a substitute.
Vouchers were not shown at all. As a result, it was easy to cook-up material bills and have them booked on development works. The discovery of the ghost company “Bheru Nath and Sons” in Bhim is illustrative. The company jointly owned by development department officials and members of their families, cooked-up bills, approved them, and pocketed the money. This fraud of several lakhs in the Bhim Block was only discovered when the records came out. The auditors only examined the meticulously maintained paperwork. Therefore, they had no difficulty in placing their stamp of approval on the records of the works where material had been billed but not supplied. Public access to records could have prevented this kind of fraud.
On a larger scale, fraud like the Bihar fodder scam could not have continued unchecked for the fifteen years it did, till the defalcation added up to a whopping thousand crores. Auditors and Government Inspectors became party to the scam, but the people in the villages who were supposed to have received the fodder, would have blown the whistle had they only been allowed access to distribution registers which showed them receiving the non-existent fodder. The power of public access and overseeing expenditure was beginning to be palpably felt by the people in the MKSS area.
All stages of the struggle for information have underscored the fact that an elected government has to be accountable to its people. . After the first phase of Jan Sunwai in 1995, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan made promises culminating in a statement in the Rajasthan Assembly in April 1995, promising the Right to Information for the people of Rajasthan. The MKSS and NCPRI held the Chief Minister accountable to his electorate, and went through a long agitation and struggle to get him to accede and the Government to amend the Panchayat Raj Rules to allow people to access information. The struggle which took over two years, served as a forum for education and expression to people about their democratic rights and responsibilities.
Following the announcement in the Assembly, the MKSS tried to get access to records based on the Chief Ministers assurance. It was when a series of year long negotiations failed at levels from the District Collector to the Chief Secretary, that the MKSS began the Dharna at Beawar in April 1996. Reacting promptly to the pre-dharna notices, the Government. of Rajasthan hastily issued an order allowing manual inspection of panchayat records. It was immediately and promptly rejected. Illiterate members of the struggle for instance, pointed out that it was impossible to sit and copy muster rolls and bills and vouchers. In any case, without authentication these records had little meaning. The `photocopy’, therefore became a synonym for an authenticated document in the common terminology of the struggle.
The Beawar Dharna
The dharna at Beawar lasted forty days. In the last ten days, the dharna continued simultaneously at Jaipur and in Beawar. The main participants were thousands of Rajasthani villagers who stayed a few days and nights, on a rotation basis. At any given time a couple of hundred people ate and slept on the dharna site, bang in the middle of the busy market place at “Chang Gate” in Beawar.
Over four hundred organisations gave their support in writing. The significance of the numbers of people and organisations who came to express support only confirmed the enthusiasm of people who were ready to join a movement if they were given a platform. Tired of empty promises and weary of elections that seemed to be no different from the previous one, not knowing which candidate to choose, exhausted by continued pressure of corruption and graft, the people of Beawar were drawn slowly but very surely to the dharna. Baffled by the demand for information on the first day or two, but gradually understanding its significance, a huge cross section of Beawar began to extend financial and other support for what they had gradually begun to see as their own campaign. Apart from large amounts of grain collected from rural households, in a water scarce city where a small tanker of water cost Rs. 30/- the people on dharna received free water, free vegetables, free videography and tremendous good will. Women were given free access to three main dharamshalas for baths and toilets. The local and regional press supported the cause as their own. The visits of eminent journalists Nikhil Chakravarthy, Kuldip Nayyar and Prabhash Joshi to Beawar to join the campaign, not only gave the agitation national coverage, but also helped place the demand in a wider perspective. The significance of the doyens of ethical journalism making trips in the summer heat to the heart of Rajsthan was not lost on the people of Beawar, those on dharna, and others across the country. The late Nikhil Chakravarthy made a short but emotional speech explaining the importance of this relatively small dharna in a small town of Rajasthan. He said the Indian Independence movement began in small meetings like this one, where national leaders like Gandhiji exposed the loot of the Indian people by a foreign power. After fifty years of Independence, this struggle offered poor people a tool to expose the loot of the country by its own rulers. This message was sinking in.
The large numbers who attended the dharna at Beawar, did not only come to support the transparency of bills, vouchers and muster rolls in panchayat works. They saw that it was the thin edge of the wedge. Through the acceptance of transparency in one part of Govt’s functioning lay the road to complete transparency and the right to information. For the MKSS itself the specificity of the demand was valid only if there was an acceptance of the people’s right to Information. It would have been comparatively easy to get a government order for greater transparency in panchayat works than access to all government documents. It was the greater vision that enabled the MKSS to make the transformation from a small demand, to a campaign with far reaching implications with a demand for transfer of power to institutions where citizens could exercise control.
That is why the specific demand for information by wage workers on employment programmes was for copies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls. The demand did not preclude, but conceptually included the right to all information at the panchayat level, all information related to development spending, and in fact all information which could affect the public. By defining it specifically and illustrating its potential impact, those making the demand were able to draw into the struggle the whole range of people with other areas of concern, who could immediately perceive the importance of having a right to obtain and reveal certain critical kinds of information in their own fields. This alliance marked the maturing of a specific struggle, and the birth of a peoples movement. ########## The birth of a…
The Support Widens
Of the many trade unions and other associations that supported the strike, and for the professional groups like lawyer, doctors, engineers and even politicians, it was the larger vision that drew them time and time again to come to the dharna tent. It was also a platform for all kinds of expression. Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated from that tent. Poets gathered in the evening to recite their verse, singing groups came to sing their songs, elderly women came to sing their devotional songs uninhibitedly adding twists in their lyrics. In one hymn they punned on a local deity- ‘Bheru Baba’, and implored the Chief Minister of Rajasthan ‘Bhairon Baba’ to open the shutters and listen to the peoples demands. Lawyers came, to express both cynicism and hope, politicians came, rueing the fact that they had not thought of this as part of their political agenda, yet wondering where it would all end . They were drawn to the issue despite their understanding that it had the potential to upset the comfortable equations that existed. Poor peasants, vegetable vendors, rickshaw drivers, shop keepers and others pledged support and urged the MKSS not to give up.
One Phase Ends and Another Begins
The State Government’s outrage against any suggestion of a legal entitlement to information was followed by their allegations that the powerless bureaucracy was being hounded by the campaign and the press. Eventually the government brought this dharna to an end by conceding to the demand in principle, but setting up a committee to implement the assurance of the Chief Minister.
Even this committee got its terms of reference and began its sittings only after the MKSS staged yet another dharna outside the assembly and highlighted non-compliance. The committees recommendations, when submitted, were classified “secret.” The MKSS realised that another long agitation would have to be launched, and began the ground work for sustained support and widespread involvement. A contingent of MKSS activists travelled in the back of a truck to all the six divisional headquarters in Rajasthan – Kota, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Ajmer and finally ended in Jaipur, building public opinion through short three day dharnas. These helped involve larger sections of the population in the demand for information.
At the same time, the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed. The various divisional dharnas served as platforms for dissemination of information and education about the issue. Some people came to the dharnas out of curiosity and others out of a growing commitment. But the outcome was unanimous that transparency and right to information was a first step in accountable governance and the long battle for ethics in public life. People were tired with promises that were seldom kept, the continuous trivialisation of ethics, and acutely felt the need for responsible decision making. As a result, the interactions were lively and creative. The dialogues threw up a number of novel discussions and arguments for a better form of democracy.
After the debate and discussion in the six divisional head quarters of Rajasthan, the dharna in Jaipur began with a public hearing on the right to information. The MKSS pitched its tents near the State Secretariat, at Statue Circle, and began what turned out to be its longest dharna so far.
The Jaipur Dharna
Delegations from all over Rajasthan made presentations on the importance of access to information and the stumbling blocks they had experienced while trying to access information in various spheres. The immediate response of the Chief Minister was that the order giving citizens the right to obtain certified copies of any Panchayat documents would be issued in a day or two. But as with earlier assurances, the Government made commitments, which it did not keep.
All through the 53 day sit in from May to July 1997, there was a sense of confidence amongst the agitationists that victory would be theirs. The dharna was continuously used as a platform for education, – the government called it ‘propaganda’, so that with each passing day the issue took firmer root in popular perception. It became increasingly clear that the government’s intention to tire out the agitationists was boomeranging on itself.
As the agitation got prolonged, and the participation of workers and professionals from all over Rajasthan widened, and with it the right to information began to come alive as a right interpreted in many ways by different kinds of citizens groups.
The plurality of participation also enriched the modes of expression that the MKSS used. Drawing on peoples cultural modes of expression has always been a strength of the MKSS. Theatre, songs and skits, interspersed with the speeches common to every political protest, always managed to attract people to the dharna tent. In many cases onlookers watched, and were then drawn forward to speak on the mike. In Jaipur, seminars and discussions were organised on a range of issues related to transparency and accountable governance at the dharna site itself. The powerful voices of folk singers singing songs with adapted lyrics, intermingled with the sharp analytical comments of lawyers and ex-judges of the Supreme Court wafted across the lawns of the Statue Circle into the offices of the State Secretariat. The crowd of office staff who gathered at the dharna site during their lunch break grew larger every day. Even the policemen on duty were educated and entertained.
Modes of Expression
Every political happening elicited a response from the agitation. The most innovative of these emerged as a response to the then BJP President L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra* making an entry into Rajasthan with a call to wipe out ‘bhay, bhuk and brashtachar’ (fear, hunger and corruption). It was his party that had refused to legislate on the Chief Minister’s assurance on the right to information. His own attitude was no different. “Is this an issue to have a dharna on?” he asked a delegation of the agitationists who met him in Kota.
The answer rolled out of the dharna tent in the form of a dramatic and satirical spoof on fifty years of mis-governance called the Ghotala(scam) Rath Yatra . In contrast to Advani’s air conditioned Rath, the “Ghotala Rath” was erected on a handcart that vendors use to sell their wares. Placed on the hand cart was a garishly adorned chair topped by an umbrella. This served as the canopy, from which hung several cardboard placards enlisting the notorious scams of the last ten years. A swashbuckling Kamdar reminiscent of the feudal past of Rajasthan marched at the head of the procession. The `neta’ sat on the chair, wearing a white pajama kurta, and a saffron scarf. The Ghotala Rath Yatra, shocked, delighted, and finally stimulated people to think. This histrionic procession drew big crowds, and with songs, speeches and an accompanying skit managed to convey the gist of the whole message in a most creative manner.
The ‘Rath’ became a vehicle to carry the campaign message to various localities in Jaipur. In the 63 localities it visited in different parts of the state capital it fetched both money and support for the dharna. Migrant workers working in Jaipur as cooks, saw the Yatra and insisted on making a contribution. They did so by cooking a rare feast for the 2500 protestors who had come to join the dharna for a day, and condemn the Government’s doublespeak on the occasion of “Pakhand Divas” (hypocrisy day) as declared by the MKSS. This was the day the Chief Ministers of BJP ruled States were meeting in Jaipur to put forth an agenda for better governance which included the Right to Information as one item on its list of recommendations. There was a hypocrisy day, a ‘kala divas’ black day, and after a daily seesaw of negotiations, a “victory day” when the Government finally made public the amended Panchayat Raj rules.
The Reasons for Success
There were two important factors that led to mounting pressure and the final success of this phase of the agitation. The first was the patience, stamina, and resilience, shown by the Campaign. In anticipation of a long sit-in, adequate preparations had been made. In fact, it seemed as if with each day that passed, the Government grew more weary and the agitationists more comfortable. When, with the advent of the monsoon, the regular tent was replaced by a rain-resistant one, the message went out clearly to the Government that this was one headache that could not be wished away.
The second factor was a growing understanding that this was not merely a limited single issue demand, but one with much wider political ramifications. This was significant for the long term impact of the movement. As the focus widened from corruption, to policy making and finally to governance itself, even the mainstream political opposition began to change its attitude. The fifty three days of being in the limelight allowed the ‘Right to Information’ to be understood as an issue related to basic political change. The campaign was now being recognised as leading to the wider movement for participatory democracy. This helped define the direction the movement would take as soon as the limited legal entitlement was granted. The critical links between localised action and wider political change became increasingly clear.
The Broader Alliances
The Beawar dharna brought national attention to the Jan Sunwai and the right to information effort in Rajasthan. Between the dharna in Beawar in May 1996, and the one in Jaipur in May-June 1997, this attention grew in a number of ways. As with so many novel grassroots level initiatives, the immediate questions asked were whether it had been replicated. As a matter of fact, one indication of it being a movement with an emerging potential was that it was not replicated but grew in different ways, and a range of converging initiatives have emerged in the last three years.
The formation of the National Campaign for the Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi brought a broad spectrum of interested people together, with the twin objectives of having effective legislation passed at the State and Central levels, and supporting grassroots level initiatives for the exercise of the people’s right to information. The very close co-ordination between the NCPRI, and the Press Council of India resulted in an open debate on the contents and formulation of model legislation. Interestingly, because of some committed bureaucrats, the National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie also played a supportive and facilitating role in this process. The Press Council draft had inputs from a range of people, and became a base draft on which many bills were formulated.
Apart from the unique, almost activist role that the Press Council has played, and the positive contribution of the National Academy of Administration, there have been certain bureaucrats who have shown through their action that the shackles against transparency in governance can be rattled and even shaken off. A divisional commissioner in Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh, pushed through a series of local orders giving people the Right to Information in the Public Distribution System, employment, industrial pollution, transport , and development sectors. These orders, as expected, raised a storm in administrative circles. However, while they increased efficiency and reduced corruption, they have failed so far, to be an entitlement which is used enthusiastically by the people. Later on, the Bilaspur orders were to have an impact on the whole State as the Madhya Pradesh Government passed state-wide orders giving citizens the Right to Information in over forty five departments. This experience has shown that despite the Right to Information being an effective administrative reforms measure, it can become a paper tiger for peoples empowerment if it is not used and shaped by the people.
Alliances of people’s organisations like the National Alliance of Peoples Movements, the Rural Workers Campaign, and the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti in Karnataka saw the importance of the issue in their own struggles. It was clear that the struggle for information is an essential component of all movements. Any viable alternative had to be based on the presentation of an existing reality, where certain facts had to be procured, analysed and presented before the people.
Advocacy bodies like the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and the National Campaign for Advocacy Studies took up the issue up and by organising seminars and workshops, have led to a greater awareness of the Right to Information in different parts of India and South Asia. Their dissemination of papers, pamphlets and meetings have also drawn in a set of opinion makers whose support matters, but who tend to stay clear of dharnas and agitations.
This variety of efforts, the timing of the demand and the inability of a ‘Democratic’ State to oppose a concept like Right to Information has accounted for some extraordinary successes, in particular on the legislative side. Tamilnadu passed a very ineffective law in May 1997. Goa passed one based on the Press Council draft in October 1997. Madhya Pradesh passed a bill a year later which was inexplicably sent for assent to the President, rather than the Governor. The assent never came. Rajasthan passed a bill in May 2000, and the Governments of Delhi, Karnataka, and Maharashtra have made commitments to place bills before the assemblies in the next session. The Central Government has made a similar commitment.
There is a lot of value in comparing the relative merits and demerits of the legislation, as well as comparing the central legislation with what other countries have. However, far more critical is the direction the use of the Right to Information will give to the movement. Effective legislation creates certain legal spaces. It is important to realise at the same time that there is a degree of legislative overkill in India, sometimes as a deliberate strategy, where spaces that are built through popular protest are prevented from maturing by providing an illusion of such space.
Putting the Peoples Right to Information to Use
The Right to Information is an easy issue to demand in theory. It is the specifics which contain the seeds of conflict. That is why exercising the right is more important in many ways than the legal entitlement. What Rajasthan has had, which other states have lacked, is a concerted effort to not only seek, but also use the people’s right to information. Even today, there is a much larger body of people all over the country, demanding a legal entitlement, than the numbers of groups who are asking for and exposing hidden information in its detailed and comprehensible form. Exposing such information threatens the controls exercised by vested interests. It invites retribution and counter questioning. And it not only requires a commitment to follow up, but also calls for meticulous and tedious preparation. That is why the effort in Rajasthan has seemed so much more potent than elsewhere, and it is in the use of right to information that Rajasthan continues to break new ground. Goa and Tamilnadu have had acts on the books for longer than Rajasthan. The legal space created has encouraged groups to use it, but the momentum has been very slow. In Rajasthan, as soon as the Panchayat Raj rules were amended, the planned use of even that limited order has connected the issue rapidly with questions of state accountability. And once again, because of concerted grass root level efforts, the demands being made have the potential to fundamentally alter power relationships.
Jan Sunwais – The Second Phase
The procuring of the amended Panchayat Raj rules entitled people to access Panchayat accounts and procure certified copies. Armed with this, the MKSS began the second phase of Jan Sunwais. Even with a legal entitlement to procure copies within four days, it took the MKSS months to access the information. Between the gram Sewak and the Sarpanch and their disappearing acts, just meeting them and delivering the application was a problem.
There were no provisions of penalties for non-compliance. Therefore, the MKSS had to mobilise interested people in order to have the law enforced. The dissemination of information and verification was even more charged after certified copies were obtained. In Kukarkheda Panchayat, Rajsamand District, for instance, the sharing of information generated great tension and excitement. Every bill, voucher, muster roll, and every entry in the records was received with curiosity, suspicion, and an interest in details. People showed patience, a willingness to wait, to know, to verify, and to counter mis-representation.
The difference between the accessing of information for the first set of Jan Sunwais and the second, was that this time there was a demand and not a request for information. In the initial stages, information was procured with persuasion and protests. The Government at the district and block level had to make it available, though they often claimed ignorance of the new rules. The Jan Sunwai at Kukarkheda on Jan 9th 1998 was watched with great interest by the entire area, including contingent blocks or Tehsils in Ajmer Bhilwara, Pali Rajsamand districts. The Sarpanch, was a woman called Basanta Devi who, backed by her family assumed aggressive postures in the beginning, and refused to part with the records. An erstwhile teacher at a primary school, she only succumbed when she realised that it would be worse if she did not give it. Between her, and her father-in-law a retired teacher, they began lobbying with the MKSS to not make it a ‘public’ hearing as it would lead to loss of face. The MKSS took a clear stand that embezzlement of peoples money is an offence, in which the Government and the voters of the Panchayat will decide on the course of action. Eventually, the MKSS could only promise to not register a First Information Report (FIR) with the police, if she returned the amount embezzled, or took responsibility to get it returned.
In a historic Jan Sunwai, the Sarpanch of Kukarkheda publicly returned rupees 50,000 and promised to return 25,000 in two subsequent monthly instalments. This would cover the 100,000 rupees which had been proved through the documents and public depositions as having been defrauded from the Panchayat. She sat through the day long proceedings, as scores of people came to make depositions, about false names on muster rolls, fudging of bills, and so on. The whole area was buzzing with the news. ‘Laloo or Jayalalitha did not return stolen money, but Basanta Devi has.’ A wave of excitement and hope that matters can be set right resulted in a palpable feeling of empowerment.
From Information to Accountability.
The local district administration was pulverised . Imminent fears of the system being upset gripped them. Emergency meetings were held in Bhim, the Block Headquarters. All Sarpanches were summoned and told, ‘on no account should you return money. That is an acceptance of guilt. You must keep quiet. Let them file complaints and FIRs. We are the ones who will conduct the enquiries, and nothing will come of it.’ As for Basanta Devi, she was severely admonished, asked not to return the balance Rs. 50,000 she had promised to deposit, and was infact told to withdraw the 50,000 she had paid up.
Meanwhile the Sarpanches of Surajpura and Rawatmal also paid up amounts of Rs.1,14,000 and Rs. 1,47,000 respectively as a fall out of the Public Hearing held ten days later in Surajpura on 19th January 1998. V.P. Singh, former Prime Minister of India, who, as Prime Minister, tried to have a Right to Information Law passed, also attended this Public Hearing. Eminent journalists, civil servants, researchers, social activists, and respected citizens from Ajmer, Jaipur, Delhi and Bombay were the panellists at these two public hearings.
The MKSS was aware of the pitfalls of leaving the fixing of accountability with the same system that made the mistakes. Past experience had made the organisation acutely aware of the inherent flaws of the government’s accountability machinery. The agency responsible for the fraud is the one which conducts the investigation. The experience of the MKSS in the case of Basanta Devi, and indeed almost every complaint of corruption it had made, clearly exemplified the complete lack of intent of the Government to book even proved and obvious cases of embezzlement, and fraud. There seemed if anything to be a vested interest in protecting the corrupt. This posed a serious and complex challenge about the follow up if existing systems of accountability had to be relied on. The cases filed with the anti-corruption department met with a similar fate. Even when Sub Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) investigation reports found fraud, the District and the State Governments slept on them. One FIR lodged by the District Administration Rajsamand, is still lying with the Anti Corruption Department, and the police closed the case on the rare FIR lodged by the administration with the police itself in a proved case of fraud in Baghmal, Asan Panchayat, Ajmer District. That is why the return of money electrified the area, and threatened those in the development administration. But some very relevant questions raised by critics had to be answered. They questioned the locus standi of the MKSS to move beyond a public hearing to what now amounted to a people’s court. Would it not encourage the formation of kangaroo courts, if not here, then in other areas. The MKSS had also been asking itself these questions, and there was an obvious need to find a method of institutionalising the process of the Jan Sunwai. There was a need for a legally empowered peoples audit.
Institutionalising the Peoples Audit
Two simultaneous demands were made in a public dialogue with the Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj in Jawaja on 18th September 1999. The first was that the Gram Sabha, or the general assembly of the citizens of a Panchayat be further divided for purposes of creating a viable unit of face to face democracy into their constituent wards. The corollary demand was that this ward Sabha be vested with substantive powers, including comprehensive powers of social audit. This would shift the systems of accountability away from the implementing hierarchy to the people themselves. The ward Sabha being a general assembly of the citizens of a ward, also had supreme democratic legitimacy. On the second of January 2000, the Rajasthan government issued an ordinance, which was passed as an amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act by the State Assembly in May 2000, amongst other things, creating the legal entity of the Ward Sabha and vesting it with powers of social audit. The Ward Sabhas and Gram Sabhas also have been given the right to remove the ward Panch or Sarpanch from office before the term is over. This is perhaps the only instance in India of the right to recall elected representatives. From the first of May to the 10th of May 2000, the first Ward Sabhas were held in Rajasthan.
There were several extremely significant aspects of the Ward Sabhas. Even with the limited administrative arrangements made by the Government to conduct this vast number of meetings, reports indicate that people did attend. The manageable neighbourhood size of the Ward, seems to have made it a natural and viable unit for face to face Democracy. If even a portion of the over hundred thousand Ward meetings did actually take place in the State of Rajasthan, it has enormous potential implications for the demands that will be placed on the Government machinery. Expectedly, there has been no flurry of Government activity to act on the resolutions of the Ward Sabhas and Gram Sabhas, but it is likely that these meetings will provide people a platform to put pressure on the Government functionaries to perform.
The social audit powers that have been conferred on the Ward Sabhas are even more significant. Even with the slipshod manner in which information was provided to the people, there is enough evidence to suggest that large numbers of resolutions have been passed by Ward Sabhas in Rajasthan refusing to give a stamp of approval to works completed in the past because of proof of corruption. Here again, there is no evidence of Government follow-up action, but in the case of the social audit process, people are likely to demand greater authority and powers for the Ward Sabha to order recoveries and disciplinary action against those found guilty of corruption. This demand has great implications for modes of participatory democracy.
The Right To Information Act in Rajasthan
On the 1st of May 2000, the Rajasthan State Legislature also passed a Right to Information law. The MKSS and NCPRI had contributed substantially to the process of the formulation of the initial draft bill. The more significant contribution was the fact that the government was persuaded by popular outcry that there was a need for a comprehensive law, rather than the executive orders, which were under consideration. The Government committee, which was given the task of preparing the first draft, invited the campaign to present its model legislation. In a unique exercise involving people from all over the state in the formulation of legislation, open debates and meetings were held in all the divisional headquarters, with simultaneous street corner meetings to mobilise public opinion for a comprehensive and effective law.
The bill, when it was presented to the Assembly, looked completely different from the one presented to the Government by the campaign. It has some draconian restriction clauses, which give bureaucrats substantial discretionary powers to refuse access. It has very weak penalty provisions, and an appeal mechanism where bureaucrats are the appellate authorities. It could not possibly be a surprise to learn that the Bill that was passed into an Act by the state legislature was formulated almost entirely by a group of bureaucrats who knew precisely what they were doing.
Despite the successful bureaucratic sabotage, it was a landmark occasion. Just three year earlier, as a long sit-in was under way on the lawns outside the State Secretariat, the same bureaucrats supported by the ruling politicians at that time had said it was impossible and impractical to give the citizens the right to information even for Panchayat records. The Act in Rajasthan now gives the citizen a legal entitlement to seek and receive information in any sector of Governance.
The passing of this piece of legislation made more news than when it had been passed in Goa, Tamilnadu, or Madhya Pradesh, mainly because of the energetic campaign in Rajasthan. More important however, was the knowledge that this Act will be put to use in Rajasthan and there is a sense of anticipatory expectation about what implications that would have. The campaign in Rajasthan has shown that an effective way to attack weak provisions is to point out and challenge the weaknesses as the entitlement is put to use. The spaces now created are too substantial to be lost by only focussing on the spaces still not available. Democratic space must be used and constantly expanded.
Solutions and Conclusions.
Towards Participatory Democracy.
The current crisis in democratic governance and rising dissatisfaction with agencies of the State has highlighted the need for political change. Are there any ready solutions? Does the riddle posed by Indian socio-political conditions allow any answers?
This campaign has shown that effective answers can be sought and provided based on the determined efforts of people at the bottom. There is a basic agreement that despite all its conceptual limitations, basic democracy and democratic spaces are precious to the citizens of this country. It is a question of defining the kind of democracy we would like to shape for ourselves, and choosing the paradigms of change.
The answer provided by the grassroots level right to information campaign is that Indian democracy needs its citizens to ask more questions and demand answers. Citizens in India, particularly the poor, are not apathetic or cynical. Given an opening, they will seek to participate in governance. The entitlement of the people’s right to information gives them one such opening.
Evaluating the Future Potential
The right to information will not only help control corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power – it will also merge with and strengthen the aspirations of people for participatory democracy. Conceptually speaking, there can be no argument about participatory democracy being a purer form of democratic practice, and representative democracy being only a practical necessity. The primary problems with evolving a functioning participatory democracy are related to its apparent impracticality, and absence of viable institutions. By energetically presenting the ward Sabha and social audit as a viable option, the Right to Information campaign in Rajasthan, has opened another door for more effective citizens participation in governance. Transferring power to the people can be more than an attractive slogan.
It is true that the passage of Right to Information laws in a few States has not led to a clamour for information. However, it must be understood that this legislation will only be effectively used over time. There are two separate important factors for consideration, when evaluating the potential and success of the movement.
The first is the effectiveness of the provisions of the legislation. How much does it really open to public scrutiny? Are there effective penalties for non-compliance? Does it apply to all institutions that affect public interest, including those bodies outside Government? How limited are the exceptions? What are the mechanisms for appeal? What are the mechanisms for making citizen’s access inexpensive, practical and effective? Does it help breach the attitude that all matters of the State are secret and sacrosanct. Or does it only apply to matters of governance? These are the questions that must be asked when examining any legislation. They are of great importance, and must be raised when the Central Bill is presented and debated in parliament.
Far more important however, is the need for citizens groups to assert that they have a right to information and make specific efforts to use that right. It is here that the right to information lets the cat amongst the pigeons, upsets comfortable but unholy alliances and opens the doors for democratic debate. The right to information ceases to be a limited measure of reform and transforms into a battle of the dissemination and transfer of power.
The most attractive facet is that it is an instrument that cleanses society because of its double-edged quality. Anyone who uses the right to information provisions must be prepared to face questions and provide answers themselves. It is one issue that symbiotically links democratic and ethical practise. In a poor country like India, this means the ordering of a society along far more egalitarian lines.
Where does one locate the right to information and social (public) audit campaigns in the various efforts for political reform? It is true, that there is if anything, an excess of information, and no subsequent action. However, recent developments in Rajasthan have shown that the social audit process is likely to force the state machinery to act. Even in states like Goa and Tamilnadu, where the law was not the result of a people’s movement, the space it has created is beginning to be used to enforce accountability. The eventual outcome will be a shift in accountability, away from hierarchical superiors to people themselves.
In these signs of healthy democratic processes, the right to information is only a first step. But it is a vital and essential step in the direction of restoring sovereign power to the people.
The Birth Of A Movement
It was April 1996, and summer had just begun. The residents of the busy market town of Beawar in central Rajasthan were puzzled. They had watched the thousand strong group of rural men and women , sporting banners, shouting slogans, and singing songs march into the busy market and occupy the centre stage of ` Chang Gate’. The makeshift shelter of the tents they erected, sent down the heat as it filtered through its thin fabric. While curious bystanders looked on, the protesting group busily made preparations for a long dharna (sit in).
They were campaigners from the rural hinterland. More than half were women, dressed in their colourful lahengas (long skirts) and most of the men wore the traditional dress of a rural peasant. Agitations were not unfamiliar for the people of Beawar, but this one was unusual.
Even more unusual were the demands of this motley and fairly bedraggled group. They did not seem to be making the familiar livelihood demands of roti, kapda or makan (bread, clothing or shelter) but of all things a right to information! The long procession wound its way through Beawar, chanting slogans, and handed over a memorandum addressed to the State Government through the sub-divisional officer of Beawar. This memorandum asserted the peoples Right to Information in general, and made a specific demand for the right to obtain certified copies of details of development expenditure.
Rumblings of this demand had been heard from the surrounding villages in the last couple of years. But for Beawar, as for the rest of the country it was a new addition to the lexicon of demands of rural people. Few could have imagined at that point that this was the embryonic stage of what would grow into a strong nation-wide movement for the right to information.
The demand for the Right to Information was simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, it took a while for the people of Beawar to understand that it was an effective tool to force open the doors of participation in governance. The connection between asking questions and demanding accountability, was slowly but surely worked out. It would help citizens sift through the layers of deceit, hypocrisy and half truths that had become a part of governance throughout India. More important was the understanding that it provided an effective opportunity for every individual and collective to break the prevailing sense of apathy and helplessness. The 40 days of the dharna coincided with the campaign period of the 1996 National Parliamentary Election. It offered to ordinary citizens a small glimmer of hope to break out of the vicious circle of choicelessness between undeserving candidates, which every election re-emphasised. During this election campaign in Beawar, democracy was being debated and redefined.
A realisation emerged that the right to collectively and individually ask questions and demand answers could begin to shift controls from the ruling elite to the people. It was a first step towards participatory governance, where the disadvantaged and the dispossessed could establish their right to livelihood, and in a democracy to effectively govern themselves. The reasons for the involvement of the poor in the right to information campaign began to be defined by them as an issue intrinsically connected to their livelihood and survival. One of the slogans born during the struggle is self explanatory – “The Right to Know, The Right to Live.”
Citizens of democratic India face a crisis. There are at least three areas where these are felt. To begin with, certain important institutions of democratic governance seem to have been taken over by forces that have succeeded in perverting their original intent. Elections seem to emphasise the lack of choice, rather than a choice between different ideologies. Corruption has permeated every level of governance and it is felt erroneously, that it is democracy that has given corrupt practices free reign
Second, there is a tangible crisis of resources, with fiercely competing interests for a dwindling economic pie. The fact that access to resources is increasing at the top, and reduces as you go down the hierarchical ladder, has led to rising dissatisfaction amongst the vast majority who exist at the bottom end. The competition for resources available with the State is more palpable than ever before.
The third crisis that faces Indian democracy is a perceived lack of participation in governance for the majority of the people. If democracy is quite simply the sovereign will of the people, then in India the vast majority of people do not perceive their will prevailing anywhere! The vote, once in five years is neither enough, nor a real avenue for reflecting their will. Governance is too far removed from the citizens. Sub national identities are attractive, because there is a feeling that peoples participation will only be ensured, if their own community holds the reins of governance in their hands. When this perception takes root , it is clear that democratic institutions are in need of urgent reform.
This is perhaps why there is so much talk of reform both at the top and bottom of the political ladder. Often the terms and language are deceptively similar at both ends. It would be a mistake , however, to see them as the same demand. The mere demand for change does not mean that the eventual objective is the same.
Power Relationships and Political Reform
Fifty years of democratic functioning is long enough to determine the system’s impact on the long established feudal, hierarchical, and patriarchal norms of rural society. All reform in India that has been driven from above has suffered from severe limitations. In the trickle down of political reform, rural India’s ruling elite only allowed that quantum of reform to percolate which would not threaten the basic structure of rural society. It is only when such reform has been forced by a strident demand for radical change from the oppressed, that some sort of reordering of governance and society takes place.
If political reform is going to (as it should ) radically alter power relationships, then suggested changes should come through genuine political processes rather than academic bodies and commissions. This is the only way to prevent even well meaning people from initiating innocuous or even retrograde measures. The danger of instituting far reaching reforms which are born out of an academic or intellectual exercise rather than mass based political movements are many. Potentially the most damaging factor is that they have emerged from an elitist process, and are therefore most likely to serve the interests of a select few. In a democracy , the litmus test for any idea, should be the enthusiasm of the people to articulate it as their own demand. At the very least, it must be subject to an open debate which involves all sections of society.
The Impact of the Colonial Past
There is a certain degree of prevailing confusion in all old civilisations which have a veneer of so called modernism thrust upon them without regard for their internal processes of change. Most external interventions into societies have not arisen from a desire to reform, but to make profit. And yet, every exploitative group likes to delude itself that it is actually reforming and improving the lives of those being ruled. This desire for rationalisation is complex, and results in many contradictions. The empire did not come to bring in democracy and the rule of law. But as happens with all interventions deliberate or accidental, the set of actions result in changes much wider than intended. The British empire brought with it a big package where profit had to contend with reactions both at the material and theoretical level.
Because of the need for a unified opposition to foreign occupation, the leaders of the independence struggle were forced to consider the questions that arose out of equity and social justice. Given the intricate, unequal nature of social structures in this country, an interesting brew was concocted, in which there were liberal dollops of a variety of pulls and pushes – both positive and negative.
Parliamentary Democracy in India
Parliamentary democracy, when it came with independence was an alien and strange form of governance for Indian society. The popular participation of people in the independence movement brought together nascent aspirations of all kinds of oppressed people to do away with the webs of oppression they were caught in. Despite the energetic debate that continued between leaders like Nehru, Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narain, and Ambedkar during the course of the independence struggle, they were all individuals who had undoubtedly been influenced by the model that they had seen first hand- one which their rulers had chosen to have for themselves.
It is of critical importance to understand the apparent attractions of a system that a democratic elite formulates for itself when it lives off the spoils of extortion and exploitation. Within a façade of openness and debate, exists a system where often those at the outer fringes of power raise uncomfortable questions which get glossed over as being petty and irrelevant. The ruling power centres like parliament are democratic, and similar democratic modes of functioning seem to exist from top to bottom, but the further one gets from the centres of power, the less democratic functioning there is. Little wonder then that those who are fortunate enough to be closer to the centres of power refrain from asking questions which threaten existing power relationships. These institutions ensure that there is a at least that degree of efficiency to ensure that the system continues its functions, seems democratic, and is sensitive enough to negotiate the more vociferous demands for change from below. The sensitivity to gauge the quantum of built up pressure; and the capacity to release pressure through sops, red herrings, and minor changes is part of the self determined mandate of such institutions.
At the time of independence, parliamentary democracy was not the system ideal for every group struggling for change. But it was the one most commonly acceptable to all. For the ruling elite in the country it represented a means of retaining the economic control they enjoyed while finding a legitimate means to step into the shoes of the British. The Indian Civil Service became the Indian Administrative Service, and the only real change in Lutyens’ New Delhi was the remarkable ease with which it made room for its new occupants. For an outside observer it would seem as if nothing had changed except the colour of skin of the people in power.
And yet, even for the most oppressed in India this was a historic moment. For the subjects in rural Rajasthan for instance, even the limited five yearly right to vote wiped out in a single stroke the stranglehold of centuries of pre-ordained feudal values: a network of kings and lords from the rulers of princely states, to village “Jagirdars” who headed and enforced the most oppressive of socio-political orders – the permanent hierarchy of caste. The Indian parliamentary system did not do away with caste, but it did provide an opportunity to break the hierarchies it had been designed to perpetuate. For the Dalits*, the vote, and the strength of their numbers was one opening. The other was the provision made by the Constituent Assembly under Part XVI of the Constitution, which for the first time allowed Dalits to gain entry to the centres of power. Reservation was an ingenious half measure. Parliamentary democracy in India showed with this very first step, its collective acumen and strategic elasticity by releasing the pressure built up by demands and emerging mass movements. It has continued through the years to play this role of resistance; co-option, and finally yielding to limited measures of change.
Most critical to this whole exercise has been the continued separation of the rulers from the people. The bureaucracy moved into such a role with consummate ease thanks to the colonial legacy and framework that continued post independence. In democratic India it is the narrow and self centred role that elected representatives have played that has determined the nature of such separation. It has now become clear after fifty years, that elected representatives at all levels from Parliament to the Panchayat, represent themselves and the club they have gained entry to first – and the people only when forced to. It is also amply clear that systems of accountability vis-à-vis the people of both elected representatives and the bureaucracy are so woefully inadequate that the ruling elite can continue to ignore the needs of an increasingly vocal and strident constituency. What influences policy decisions today are the requirements of an international economic order that is willing to let its agents have their share of the pie as long as they can ensure a “liberal economic regime” with an economic environment free of disruptive activities.
Internal accountability in India is only of the rulers to each other. For decades, regular sops are handed out in the form of half hearted land reform, poverty alleviation, public distribution measures, reservations, statehood, lip service to education and health… the list is endless. However, the demands now being made by ordinary people are not for a particular concession, but for a share of governance itself.
Democracy and the Poor
It is often said that the poor don’t need esoteric things like freedom and democracy- they need food. While it is obviously true that everyone needs food and the basics for survival, the poor have long been aware that they equally need a platform where they can protest about the lack of these basics. In fact it is the poor who really know and understand the critical importance of even the crude form of democracy we practice. They realise that even their once in five year vote gives them more political power than they have had for centuries. They are the ones who have fought for every freedom enshrined in the Constitution, and have taken to the streets to fight against the repeated threats to democratic rights. They realise that while the elite may have a voice under any system, it is democracy that has allowed them the little space they have to even express their distress.
Any understanding of India’s condition today will have to begin with a recognition of this strong will to keep the democratic system alive. But as a reflection of the extraordinary complexity of its texture, it is accompanied by dismay, fear and a sense of hopelessness. People despair of ever finding a way to sort out the contradictions, the corruption, and the complete lack of ethics that appears to have taken root, in public life in India today.
Democracy and Ethics
Ethics itself being the scientific basis for determining the right and wrong in Governance, cannot be left to the whims and fancies of the ruling elite. Ethics should be accepted as the touchstone of genuine democratic practice. Democracy without ethics is a hollow institution which will eventually collapse. For the poor and the marginalised in society, democracy is the only political system which provides opportunities for participation in governance. On the other hand, the safeguard against majority chauvinism is a commitment to ethical debate and practice.
Ethical principles must evolve from a widespread and rigorous debate, and must inevitably be based on a consensus. These principles must be continuously be open to suggestion and the test of open criticism. That is why ethics requires democratic debate just as much as democracy requires ethics. While this seems obvious, there is a growing gap between precept and practice in public life. Only fifty odd years after Gandhiji’s assassination, when his kind of politics is still in the living memory of so many in India, most political leaders today shelve ethics in action without compunction. To make matters worse, they are the ones erecting and unveiling statues of Gandhiji at all cross roads while making self righteous statements of integrity.
The bureaucracy has largely ceased to worry about the rule of law and the Constitution. Seizing opportunities everywhere from the highest to the lowest levels, they fail to even technically function within the framework of the law. If this were not so, the lawlessness that prevails would not have been possible. For every corrupt politician to succeed, there have to be many more conniving civil servants. They publicly blame each other and privately work together. The law enforcing machinery is a firmly entrenched bureaucratic system. The judiciary at the lower levels is tainted with the same brush.. What happens to the citizen?
India is a vast country with many geographic and cultural differences. It is a natural assumption that within a particular State the conditions will be more or less similar. But those who know India, understand that it is not so. The language spoken in Rajasthan has six distinct dialects. Apart from these major variations, the dialect changes every 50 kilometres. To compound this, the written language is Hindi. Within Rajasthan the terrain and the composition of castes and land ownership is also varied. The relationships are feudal. In most cases the overhang of the feudal controls have remained to continue cultural and social domination. In matters relating to land, Western Rajasthan continues to be the most feudal, whereas in other parts like Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Ganganagar land controls have pre-dominantly shifted to the landed peasantry, like the Jats. Each area has its own unique land relationships.
The MKSS working area covers about 60,000 square kilometers which forms parts of Ajmer, Rajsamand, Bhilwara and Pali Districts. These are traditionally drought prone areas, and are primarily inhabited by the Rawats, who form 80% of the population. The Rawats never fitted into the mores of feudal Rajasthan, as they operated historically as brigands who waylaid the traffic between Mewar (presently Udaipur and adjoining areas) and Marwar (presently Jodhpur, Naguar, Barmer, Bikaner and adjoining areas). The British settled them by paying money and giving them land to till. The land which falls in the middle of the Aravalis is uneven, and therefore all holdings are small. Not being an integral part of feudal Rajasthan, the Rawats do not have a tradition of obeisance or a sense of inferiority despite their economic poverty. Their society is more egalitarian in terms of class divisions. Interestingly, they are now caught in the predicament of upward mobility –with some calling themselves Rajputs, and others feeling the need to call themselves “Other Backward Communities” (OBC’s) to get the benefits of reservation quotas. They do in fact fit the criteria of an OBC community.
The MKSS membership reflects the population and the percentage of Rawats in the Sangathan would be over 70%. Therefore, the area as well as the composition of the MKSS has shaped the kind of mobilisation that has taken place. Yet, Rawats being a part of mainstream India, are connected to power structures and have the capacity to have a direct effect on them. What happens here, has an impact on the mainstream in Rajasthan more directly than in tribal areas. The internal composition of the MKSS is mixed, with a larger composition of Rawats and Meghwals (scheduled caste) than the other under privileged groups.
Small land holdings mean that, production is not even sufficient for meeting the basic requirements of staple foods for the family. As a result people migrate in large numbers seeking employment. A very large percentage of the construction labour in Delhi and other major north Indian cities come from Rajasthan.