People’s movement

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Aruna roy, along with Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh (in the back row), celebrates the 20-year struggle that resulted in the passing of the RTI Act, in Beawar in June 2015. Photo: PTI

On the MKSS’ long journey, from 1987 to 2005, in fighting corruption and ensuring transparency and accountability in administration.

THE book under review chronicles the many ups and downs faced by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), led by the indefatigable Aruna Roy, in its struggle and demand for people’s right to information (RTI). The grass-roots movement’s relentless campaign from 1987 resulted in Parliament adopting the Right to Information Bill unanimously in 2005.

The RTI Act, which came into force in October 2005, is a significant landmark in independent India’s constitutional history.

A radical legislation in conservative times, there may still be trouble ahead for the RTI and the MKSS.

The length of the book and the involved discussion spread over 30 multiplex chapters make it necessary for the reviewer to summarise the story focussing on the core arguments.

Aruna Roy was a member of the Indian Administrative Service from 1968 to 1975 when she resigned her position to join the Social Work and Research Centre, a rural development agency in Rajasthan, to work for the poor. After nine years, she left the agency to live and work with the people of Devdungri village in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan and help them access basic political and democratic rights. Her eminent companions in this task were Shankar Singh, who had an innate understanding of rural politics and was concerned about exploitation, poverty and inequality in rural Rajasthan; and Nikhil Dey, who gave up his studies in the United States and joined Aruna Roy in 1983.

The book narrates the vicissitudes of the prolonged struggle.

Initially, Aruna Roy and Shankar Singh participated in a successful minimum wage struggle with Aruna Roy’s friend Naurti in Harmara panchayat in Ajmer district in 1981. The team of three constituted a bunch of activists who shared their “political ideologies, principles and lifestyle values”. Their aim was to help the rural poor understand the role of democratic institutions and the rights they had under the Constitution. They wanted to work outside the political party system in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Achieving freedom from hunger, untouchability, violence and poverty called for sustained mobilisation of people to help them appreciate their constitutional rights.

Minimum wages in Devdungri

Aruna Roy’s team moved to Devdungri, eight kilometres from Bhim, a small town on National Highway No. 8, connecting Delhi and Mumbai. In 1987, the team took up studies on minimum wages with funds provided by the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur, and visited villages to hold talks with the people collectively and individually.

The main demand of the people was work, which they called “famine”, a word they borrowed from “Famine Relief Code”, the official term formulated by the British in 1878 to open public work in drought-hit areas. The Famine Relief Code continued even after Independence.

The code did not provide for the payment of a minimum wage, but the Minimum Wages Act was introduced in 1948. The Harmara case led to a Supreme Court decision in 1983 to the effect that public work should be accompanied by payment of the prescribed minimum wage.

“Dadi Rapat” was the name given to a large “famine” site near Talai village in Devdungri district, where Aruna Roy and her team began their first major effort to secure minimum wages for workers. They organised the workers to claim their full wages. This established the reputation of Aruna Roy and her team, and the rural poor could rely on them to fight for their basic human rights.

The next story relates to land rights of the rural poor. The landlord and Sarpanch Hari Singh of the Sohangarh village (about 12 km from Devdungri) had combined feudal authority with newly acquired political power under the panchayati raj system to continue his illegal control of over 1,000 bighas of land in defiance of land ceiling laws.

The land records of the local Revenue Department were under Hari Singh’s control and the residents faced oppression from Hari Singh and his family every day. Aruna Roy and her team, with the support of local workers, managed to obtain these records and put pressure on the unscrupulous landlord, resulting in his arrest. This was the second major victory for the campaign launched by Aruna Roy and her team, which now came to be called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, or Workers and Peasants Solidarity Organisation.

The MKSS organised its first hunger strike in 1990 demanding payment of minimum wages at Bhim. The sangathan leaders met the Rajasthan Chief Minister, who promised to take action to enforce payment of minimum wages to workers. The MKSS demanded transparency and disclosure of land records, saying that they were public documents and should be open to public scrutiny. It organised a Convention on Minimum Wages at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur. The second hunger strike launched by the MKSS near Bhim, which was well attended, taught the organisation the importance of accessing official documents for getting justice to the rural poor. The issues of transparency and arbitrary governance came into focus.

Forms of struggle

In 1994, the MKSS found that hunger strikes were ineffective since the bureaucracy was not interested in safeguarding the lives of the poor. Therefore, it started a process of public hearings in villages and towns to popularise its demand for transparency and fairness in development project implementation.

The wall of secrecy and mismanagement erected by officialdom for the denial of minimum wages began to be demolished. Parliament passed a law on minimum wages. The Central government began to disburse money for development, but it was siphoned off by politicians and the bureaucracy, leaving the poor where they were. The criminal justice system was misused to resort to arbitrary governance. This was not acceptable to the MKSS.

The first set of public hearings was held in 1994-95 despite stiff resistance from panchayat secretaries in several places. The experience of public hearings demonstrated the power of information in fighting corruption.

The MKSS’ struggles resulted in amendments to the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Rules in 1996, which enabled the rural people to fight corruption and enforce accountability. Some of the frauds discovered during public hearings related to overbilling in purchase and sales, fake muster rolls, tinkering with labour-material ratios and underpayment of wages.

Chief Minister’s promise

In April 1995, the Rajasthan Chief Minister made a promise in the State Assembly that action would be taken on the demand for transparency and accountability in the payment of minimum wages to the poor.

In April 1996, given the lack of will in fulfilling this promise, the MKSS went on a hunger strike in the town of Beawar demanding implementation of the right to information. The strike was preceded by extensive preparations. For 40 days, hundreds of people from all walks of life joined the protest chanting slogans and singing songs. Among those who participated were leading journalists and activists from New Delhi and elsewhere.

The Beawar action was followed by protest meets in Ajmer and Jaipur. Eminent journalists from New Delhi participated in the event in Jaipur and made powerful speeches. They said that the demand for access to information put forward by the MKSS stemmed from Article 19 of the Constitution.

The shift of the MKSS’ struggle to Beawar and Jaipur represented a move from the local to the national. Three points were emphasised: i) need for transparency and accountability in governance, which was represented in the slogan in Hindi “Our Money, our accounts”; ii) people’s right to information should be given a legal shape; and iii) in a democratic set up, the colonial Official Secrets Act has no place and must be scrapped. The Jaipur protest lasted 52 days.

A National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the demand for a law to provide the right emerged in 1996 as a result of massive public demonstrations in Beawar, Ajmer and Jaipur in Rajasthan. Three important developments followed: i) a consultation on the issue at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie: ii) a meeting at the Press Council of India under its Chairman Justice P.B. Sawant; and iii) a meeting of luminaries at the Gandhi Peace Foundation to give shape to the campaign.

The NCPRI was convened on August 1, 1996, in Delhi. The Press Council of India called a high-power meeting on August 10 to discuss the draft legislation. Justice Sawant circulated the Press Council’s draft to Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, and all State Chief Ministers. He released the draft legislation at a press conference. Deve Gowda set up a committee to examine it. The State governments were brought into the picture. Public hearings followed. The Rajasthan legislation came after some murky developments. The MKSS participated in the Rajasthan panchayat elections in 1999-2000.

Public hearings held in Umarwas and Janawad panchayats in Rajasthan in 2001 revealed instances of major corruption, and the State government was compelled to follow up. This was a major success for the MKSS.

RTI Law 2005

Even before the finalisation of the National Right to Information Law, several States had passed their own laws: Tamil Nadu and Goa (1997), Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001) and Assam (2002). The State laws contributed to the finalisation of the national law (2005).

The experience of failing to access information in Janawad village (Rajsamand district) in central Rajasthan for over a year underscored the need for the provision of a timeline in the national law, providing for penalty on non-compliance. An important shift in mindset occurred: from an adversarial approach to the State stemming from a context of inequality and discrimination to one of a more positive approach of reclaiming the State by pushing for the constitutional right to participate in democratic institutions.

The primary step was to engage with parts of the State and to understand this engagement as an assertion of the right to be part of the process of decision making. It was argued that representative democracy had betrayed the constitutional promise to deliver on social justice. There had been no accountability beyond the vote.

The Press Council draft received further comments and was placed in Parliament in June 2000. It was passed as the Freedom of Information Act, 2002, under duress, and was a weak and watered-down version. The law was not notified.

The fact that many State laws came into existence before the Central law was adopted made it possible to know the loopholes that existed in them. It was found that without a penalty provision, information could be delayed indefinitely.

Further, there was a need for an independent and powerful appeal mechanism outside the government in order to ensure the compliance of an obstinate system. Moreover, two important perspectives on transparency in governance arose from the obligation to disclose and the right to know and demand information.

UPA promise

The collapse of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2004 led to the resuscitation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), which promised a better and stronger RTI. The National Advisory Council (NAC) was set up.

The UPA government promised a National Employment Guarantee Act that provided a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment every year on asset-creating public works programmes at minimum wages for at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle-class household.

It said that the RTI Act would be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful. The RTI Bill was passed in Parliament in June 2005 and came into effect on October 12, 2005. The Parliamentary Committee made 158 changes in the draft RTI law.

It is estimated that between 60 and 80 lakh people seek information under the RTI Act every year. There is no doubt that the RTI Act has addressed a wide range of grievances and allegations of corruption. The concerns voiced by some members of the Rajya Sabha over transparency, accountability and justice remained unproven.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government appears to be plagued by a plethora of non-participatory and unexplained policy decisions and is using empty rhetoric instead of dialogue and consultation. There are no platforms for informed debate and consultation. RTI applicants/whistle-blowers are attacked and even eliminated; the death toll, so far, is said to be around 70.

The 18-year-long journey, from 1987 to 2005, has been a stormy one for the MKSS. It believes that the RTI Act is more than a tool to fight corruption; it is a fundamental and transformative right against arbitrary use of power.

Aruna Roy and the MKSS deserve our appreciation for their magnificent contribution to just governance, despite many disturbing signals.

K.S. Subramanian was Director General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development in the Government of Tripura.

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