The Delhi Right to Information Act has enabled urban disadvantaged people to get their grievances redressed, but there is no system in place to ensure that the government automatically puts information out in the public domain.
"ALTHOUGH my wife died five years ago, her name is on the muster-rolls for the construction of a project that she is supposed to have worked for in 2003," says Push0a Ram, of Kakku village near Nokha in Bikaner district of Rajasthan. The crowd laughs, and the irony of the situation is unmistakable. Pusha Ram is speaking at a jan sunwai (public hearing) in his village. As residents of the village come up one after the other to narrate how their names have been put falsely on the muster-rolls the indignation of the crowd grows. The public hearing is meant to be a platform where people raise their concerns before a panel of neutral observers. Government officials and elected representatives are also invited to respond. Activists from organisations working in rural Rajasthan have used public hearings for about a decade now to establish the connection between the manipulation of official records and the denial of opportunities to the rural poor. The public hearing at Kakku was held in a tense atmosphere with the police present in large numbers to prevent any intimidation or violence, by supporters of the sarpanch, who were accused of falsifying names on muster-rolls. On the eve of the hearing, they had assaulted the activists who organised the meeting. The activists were saved by local residents who heard the commotion and rushed to the spot.
The right to information has been used in Rajasthan to highlight corruption in government departments. Preeti Sampat, a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) which pioneered the right to information campaign in Rajasthan, said: "We held a public meeting in Jawaja on the people's access to the local public health system. We found that though doctors in the local government hospital are supposed to provide treatment completely free for people under the BPL [below poverty line] category, villagers often end up paying money because of entrenched corruption and the lack of information about their entitlements. Whether it is health, the Public Distribution System [PDS] or education, the government must display publicly the services that people are entitled to."
Learning from the Rajasthan experience, groups in Delhi have used Delhi's Right to Information (RTI) Act to organise public hearings on a variety of issues. Anjali Bhardwaj of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizen's group involved in this issue, said: "Jan sunwais in urban areas are not done on the same scale as in villages because the dynamics in an urban set-up are different and a lot of our work is with resident welfare associations and middle income groups. We also do work with lower income groups, especially in the slums where those who speak up in a forum like the public hearing are extremely vulnerable to threats of eviction and displacement."
Arvind Kejriwal, from Parivartan, an organisation that works on the right to information campaign in Delhi, said: "Almost 80 per cent of the time the Delhi RTI Act is used to get individual grievances resolved. For example, in an instance where a customer does not get an electricity connection because the official in charge wants a bribe, the customer can use the RTI Act to get information on what happened to his application. People have been able to keep a check on work taking place in their localities, including the construction of roads and the emptying of garbage bins in their areas." The Delhi RTI Act has been used extensively with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Delhi Jal Board. Anjali Bhardwaj added: "Residents of the Sheikh Sarai area shook up the MCD when they made a simple application under the RTI Act enquiring about the existing system under which sweepers employed by the MCD share 50 per cent of their salaries with the Sanitation Inspector, who in return marks them present even when they do not perform their duties."
In Pandav Nagar, on obtaining information through an application filed under the RTI Act, residents were shocked to learn that more than a hundred sweepers had been assigned to their locality though not more than 10 had ever been seen. Armed with this information, residents began to insist that the attendance for sweepers be taken in their presence and began to monitor their work.
Anjali Bhardwaj said: "The Delhi RTI Act is a powerful tool as it has a penalty provision where erring officials can be fined Rs.50 a day up to a maximum of Rs.500, which can be deducted from their salaries. This then goes as a black mark in their records and can affect their chances of being promoted."
Irregularities in the PDS have been the focus of groups involved in the right to information campaign for a while. Though the government spends Rs.26,000 crores annually towards food subsidy and attempts to provide subsidy to about 6.5 crore people identified as living below the poverty line, leakages are so enormous that they have severely limited the effectiveness of the programme. Public hearings organised on the PDS have revealed that these thefts are very common. Records obtained by Parivartan from ration dealers in the Kalyanpuri area and by SNS in Malviya Nagar showed that ration dealers had sold rations to people who were not registered with them as cardholders. In many cases, the dealers had sold grain at prices higher than the fixed rates and often refused to give ration on some pretext or the other. Yaaminey Mubayi, a volunteer with SNS, said: "Theft of rations is possible because shopkeepers get away with showing false records of the quantity of grain stocked and sold. What emerged from the public hearings is that ensuring that ration dealers maintained proper records is necessary to ensure that the beneficiaries of the system get what they are entitled to."
It has taken sustained pressure through forums such as the public hearings, to pressure supervisory officers like Food Inspectors to cancel the licences of ration dealers whose records show that they cheated people in their localities. Though the Essential Commodities Act prescribes a punishment ranging from three months to seven years of imprisonment for such offences, it has never been used against erring officials. Arvind Kejriwal said: "We have demanded that where there is evidence of direct collusion by officials, criminal action should be taken against them. But we need to put procedures in place so that in every government department there are prescribed rules on the action that will be taken against those found guilty of corruption." Mubayi added: "What we are trying to ensure is that there is a system in place that will ensure that the government will automatically put information out in the public domain, which will act as a deterrent against corruption." Arvind Kejriwal said: "There is an urgent need for institutions such as the Lok Ayukta to be set up and strengthened to deal with corruption cases independently and expeditiously." A government that wants people to participate in its decisions has to respect the right to information of people, a right that is essential in a functioning democracy.