The right to information discourse in India – Neelabh Misra

Neelabh Misra

The Right to Information Discourse in India

(Experiences of the MKSS and other organisations)

For the past few years though, the discourse on People’s Right to Information has become particularly energetic in India thanks to the ordinary village folk of central Rajasthan, who in their quest for better governance seek to reclaim development carried out in their name, but often hijacked midway.

Since mid 1990s, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan(MKSS), an organisation of peasants and rural labourers, have tried to make various levels of the government, from the Gram Panchayat right up to the Centre, to sit up and take notice of this persistent voice of the ordinary village people in central Rajasthan. This voice endows a fresh perspective to the discourse on the Right to Information not just in India but beyond national confines by trying to present a model of accountable and transparent governance that would be meaningful to ordinary citizens in all democracies.

When workers on government employment works in villages of central Rajasthan found they were not being paid the standard minimum wage and that despite increased spending rural infrastructure was non existent or sub standard, they decided to demand copies of the accounts of money spent in their name either as payment of wages or on  infrastructure. This was the beginning of what is generally known as the MKSS movement for the people’s Right to Information in the mid 1990s. Under the slogan ‘Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisab’ the MKSS launched with the peasants and rural workers of central Rajasthan a movement that has had a direct impact on the lethargic and corrupt functioning that plagues the development machinery of our country. The struggle that began for copies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls of development works won a state law, even though not ideal, on the Right to Information. It has also expanded into a nationwide demand for a comprehensive law covering all spheres of democratic functioning.

Of greatest significance in this struggle has been the growing understanding even among the non literate people that this right is critical to their other livelihood entitlements. The struggle has illustrated that the Right to Information is not only a component of our Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression but is also a part of our fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution – the Right to Life and Liberty. The villagers of central Rajasthan have understood, and have made a large section of enlightened opinion in the country understand, that access to records of development work in villages would help in obtaining the minimum wage, the entitlement under the ration quota and the medicines the poor should receive in public health centres. It would also help in preventing abuse by the police, and even in preventing delay and subterfuge in implementation of other livelihood entitlements.

It is this perspective that led to the issue becoming a part of the mainstream political debate in Rajasthan, and led to the passage first of Right to Information provisions in the State Panchayati Raj Act and then of a State Right to Information Act. It is another story though that the Rajasthan RTI Act falls well short of the expectations of the people on several counts. And even this pales before the more dramatic lessons when it comes to the implementation of the Right to Information provisions in Rajasthan. It is clear to those who have tried to use the legal entitlement that bureaucratic opposition to it is strong and entrenched. Unless there is a very strong enactment leaving no loopholes, it will become just another provision adorning the statute but of little value to the citizens.

Collective Exercise of the Right to Information

Before addressing the question of a strong legislation on the Right to Information, it is worth drawing from some of the grassroots experiences in central Rajasthan, which illustrate both the power of the issue and the continuing opposition to it. In Rajasthan, the first demand was for access to records in Panchayati Raj Institutions. As a series of Public Hearings or Jan Sunwais in villages demonstrated the power of information in fighting corruption and ensuring accountability from public functionaries and exposed entrenched opposition to information sharing by the latter, the demand grew into a full fledged mass agitation. As a result, the entitlement was included in the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act Rules in 1996. Since then the MKSS, and the villagers of Rajasthan have made extensive use of these provisions through a series of Jan Sunwais or Public Hearings in fighting corruption, ensuring accountability from public functionaries and mobilising people for effective participation in democratic governance. One lesson is clear from this experience. It is only with the help of agitation and pressure from people that these provisions have been implemented.

The Jan Sunwais have demonstrated that when exercised collectivity the right to information can have an impact on development by plugging pilferage and has the potential to ensure people’s control over Panchayati Raj Institutions, especially if the entitlement is institutionalised through processes like the Ward Sabhas and Social Audit. How does a typical Jan Sunwai unfold? During the run up, the Sangathan and the villagers obtain photocopies of all the accounts relating to development works in a Panchayat. For this they make use of the public right to inspect and obtain certified photo copies of all official record available at the Panchayati Raj level as provided in the rules of the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Rules section 321-328. These accounts are then carefully cross checked through visits to the relevant sites, discussion with the villagers and inquiries from labourers employed on development works. This process generally uncovers many mal practices in different works that are subsequently described in detail in the general assembly of villagers. Then follow the testimonies from labourers employed on these works and other witnesses. Following this there are questions and statements from the public and cross examination from the panelists. With the government officials also present sometimes, an attempt is made for the administrative and legal correctives of the irregularities identified. Some of the varieties of frauds usually discovered in the Jan Sunwais are: Purchase Overbilling, Sale Overbilling, Fake Muster Rolls, Underpayment of Wages, and Tinkering with Labour-Material Ratio in the development works. The model, as we see, can easily be institutionalised as Social Audit through Ward Sabhas. Though the Rajasthan government has now given Ward Sabhas the power of Social Audit, the steps we witness in a typical MKSS Jan Sunwai need to be woven into the procedures of institutionalised Social Audit.

Examples of some dramatic results of  MKSS Jan Sunwais are:

v  Sarpanch Basanta Devi of Kukarkheda panchayat in Rajsamand district returned Rs.50,000 against a fraud of Rs. One lakh that the people confirmed when development works of the last three years were evaluated by them in the Jan Sunwai. The other fifty thousand she planned to return in the two instalments in the next two months.

v  Rawatmal Sarpanch Chhaggan Singh agreed to return the embezzled money against a fraud of Rs. 1.50 lakhs in his panchayat in Ajmer district.

v  Sarpanch of Surajpura in Ajmer district agreed to return the money against a fraud of Rs. 5 lakh.

v  In Umarwas Panchayat of Rajsamand district, a big embezzled amount was recovered from Ward Panch Nain Singh and Panchayat Samiti member Kamala Devi, proxy leaders of the village who used the dalit sarpanch as a rubber stamp for their malfeasance, when fraud was unearthed in a Jan Sunwai.

Systemic Resistance to RTI

While the power of information unshackled in Public Hearings forced many Sarpanches to concede fraud and return the embezzled money to the panchayat fund,  it also exposed the fraud committed by the entire chain of development administration from the Panchayat Secretary to Junior Engineer, the Block Development Officer, the Pradhan and the District Administration. Not surprisingly, the system has shown such entrenched opposition to information sharing with the public underlining the lesson that any loophole would be exploited to deny people this basic entitlement. Hence the need for a strong enactment if the legislation is to be made meaningful on the ground.

While attempts by the administrative machinery to block information abound in the MKSS experience in Rajasthan, two cases really stand out as being representative of the phenomena:

  • Members of the Rajasthan Mazdoor Kisan Morcha, an ally of the MKSS and active in Kishangarh tehsil of Ajmer District sought information related to development works of Harmara Panchayat. They had to undergo the ordeal of visiting various offices from the Panchayat to the District Collector’s only sixty times between January to June 1998 in their quest for the information. Then threatening a State wide agitation, the RMKK announced a big rally on the eve of which partial information was released to them. Fearing that this information would establish irregularities, the Sarpanch of Harmara Panchayat disbursed to the entitled people money meant for but not spent on construction of houses under the Indira Awaas Yojana or for construction of laterines or payment of wages for work under Jawahar Rojgar Yojana and other her schemes.
  • Citizens of Janawad Panchayat, Rajasamand District were involved in a historic struggle to obtain information of the works done in the period 1995-2000 by their panchayat. When the Janawad villagers saw a board displaying the large number of works(u/s 323 of the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act Rules) that had been carried out by the Panchayat in the last five years, they were taken aback. The board showed large sums of money spent on development work supposed to have been undertaken in the village. But the works listed on the board were did not exist in reality. Some of the citizens then applied for information in Feb. 2000 u/s321-328 of the Rajasthan Panchyati Raj Act Rules, 1996. Inspite of a letter from the Chief Executive Officer, Panchayati Raj of the district to the Panchayat Secretary in May, 2000 to give information it was not given to the people for three months. Although a new Sarpanch took over in February, the Panchayat Secretary remained the same. The previous Sarpanch managed to pressurise the new Sarpanch into not giving information. He also got the gram sabha, which met only in name, and the gram panchayat to pass illegal resolutions that giving information would cause a law and order problem. The activists of the MKSS lodged a protest with the district and State officials against this and renewed the request for information. With the intervention of the Minister and the Secretary of Rajasthan’s Panchayati Raj department the illegal resolutions were cancelled. But even this could not ensure the implementation of the law. When the people of Janawad and the MKSS started an agitation about it, the Pradhan of the block issued an order that information need not be given for another two months as a committee constituted by him under the BDO would enquire into the case. Incidentally, the BDO would be one of the accused if the fraud of that Panchayat were to be exposed. The State Government once again issued orders in November, 2000 to the BDO that information be given to the people. This was also violated by the Panchayat Secretary and instead he made a new interpretation of the law by saying that citizens only had the rights to inspection and not obtain copies. When the State Government called for the records in order to give their copies to the MKSS, the Gram Sewak disappeared with the records and got a stay on the order from the Jodhpur High Court.

It was only after a long struggle that the people of Janawad could finally obtain early this year most of the information they sought and held a Jan Sunwai on April 4, 2001. The Jan Sunwai exposed a huge amount of fraud and embezzlement in government work. A subsequent government enquiry established corruption worth Rs. 70 lakhs out of development works of Rs. 1.25 Crores over five years. A total of  nine First Information Reports have been lodged with the police against the government officials and the public representatives concerned  by the state government. Let us see how long the course of justice takes.

Grassroot Lessons

The lessons for any national legislation sought to be enacted are inherent in such instances of flouting. In the absence of penalty for non compliance, independent appeal and specific liability for providing information, the Panchayati Raj Act Rules have proved toothless, as will the Rajasthan Right to Information Act. On their own, they are unable to ensure compliance. It is only through public pressure and agitation that the ordinary citizen can wrest information from the system. Hence the national legislation, pending with the central government and parliament bodies for three years now, must address these issues to grant an effective right to the people.

Meanwhile, impressed with the Jan Sunwai experience in Rajasthan, the central government’s ministry of rural development has planned a series of Jan Sunwais on development works in Panchayats all over the country. Initially these Jan Sunwais would be held in 15 states, one each in a Panchayat of every state, with the help of Action Aid, an international NGO. The first such Jan Sunwai is being held on Oct. 30 at Jharnipalli Panchayat in Bolangir District of Orissa. These central government Jan Sunwais should hopefully be a pointer to the replicability and sustainability of the Rajasthan experience elsewhere in the country.

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