A battle for information

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

At the `public hearing' at Ekta Vihar in New Delhi. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

At the `public hearing' at Ekta Vihar in New Delhi. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Second National Right to Information Convention, held in Delhi recently, sends out the message that the right to information movement in India can no longer be ignored by the lawmakers.

ON October 20, London-based Transparency International released the Global Corruption Perception Index 2004. India is ranked 90 alongside six other countries out of a total of 146 surveyed. At around the same time, the country's capital witnessed an unusual, spontaneous and lively demonstration. A congregation of over 1,000 people from 20 States and 250 organisations from around the country gave a rallying call in 17 different languages: "Hamara Paisa Hamara Hisaab", Nam Panam Nam Kanakku", "Aamcha Paisa Aamcha Hisaab... " which mean "Our money, our accounts".

The slogan signifies a tremendous shift in how citizens react to the dubious distinction of being in "one of the 60 most corrupt countries in the world". No longer the tortured, silenced, cynical `victims of the system', but a vocal, aware public demanding transparency and accountability - an outcry growing louder by the day. This transformation has taken on a new idiom. It is language that is steadily cutting across all barriers and divisive structures, understood by all those who have realised how something as `abstract' as information or the lack of it directly impinges on their daily lives - on how much food they have, on what jobs they get, on which schools their children do not get. Crystallised into one sharp belief that binds them together are people old and young, illiterate and educated, rural and urban. Among them are peasants, labourers, middle class people, women, Dalits and the marginalised sections - Janne ka hak, jine ka hak (the right to know, the right to live).

If this united call for accountability and the right to live set the mood and pace of the Second National Right to Information Convention (October 8-10) organised by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi, the energy and optimism resounded throughout the three full days that it lasted. The reasons for this are not far to seek.

India is on the threshold of putting into place a law to counter corruption. The draft national Right to Information Act, 2004, with 36 proposed amendments to the inadequate Freedom of Information Act, 2002, is to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament.

The origins of the draft date back to the struggles of the rural poor in arid Rajasthan who started questioning the doctored accounts in their panchayat: fake bills and muster rolls, non-existent buildings, and missing bags of cement meant for public works. For the first time, the demand for the right to information acquired a new meaning and form; shifting out of its dusty textbook, seminar-room existence, it focussed on real issues - drought, employment, health, education, electoral politics and so on. The right to information movement in India, unlike in many other countries, is a truly grassroots movement.

The First National Convention on the Right to Information, which was held in Beawar in Rajasthan in 2001, according to Nikhil Dey, a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) "had a two-pronged objective - one, to increase the pressure for legislation, which was showing some positive signs in some States as well as at the Central level, and, second, to send out strongly the message that the right to information comes alive when connected to other rights of life; it is a very powerful tool that every campaign must use".

In a span of three years, between Beawar and Delhi, the geographical spread and variety in the application of the right to information has simply burgeoned. Even as the idea of national legislation on the right to information was being mulled over, State governments started to take initiatives, with mounting public pressure. Nine States have passed right to information laws, in addition to which there are several executive orders at the State and national levels, which give citizens access to information from specific departments. The right to information is being demanded from many quarters and for many ends. It is really this integration taking place with a wide-ranging set of issues, from food security to displacement to communal violence, that is relatively new and continues to give it life and sustenance.

INDIA'S pioneering `role model' status in the international discourse on the right to information is unique. In a debate hitherto dominated by freedom of individual expression (as in Eastern Europe), the freedom of press or freedom of expression as talked of in the West and led by lobbying groups, the ability of ordinary people in India to link it to basic rights to life and indeed survival marks a major transformation in public discourse. Many countries like South Africa, Bolivia, Columbia, the Philippines and Japan have begun to draw lessons from the Indian examples, that is, by organising the demand for the right to information around local community groups.

A SYMBOLIC and fitting start to the Delhi convention was a jan sunwai (public hearing). The jan sunwai, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a mode of participation popularised by the MKSS, a public forum where people speak up and are heard. The subject of the public hearing was the public distribution system (PDS), the issue of food security being a basic right for the poor, kept blatantly out of their reach.

Specific testimonies were presented by residents of Ekta Vihar in the R.K. Puram area of Delhi where the hearing was held. Experiences of those from other parts of Delhi as well as representatives from Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the country were also shared. The presentations were divided broadly along four issues: accountability, Dalits and access to the PDS, urban migrants and homeless and alternative approaches (to distribution). Many complaints pertained to the irregular timings of PDS shops, non-availability or sporadic availability of rations, extremely poor quality of rations, overcharging by the ration shop dealer, rations doled out below entitled quantities, apathy of officials, difficulty in getting new cards and so on.

So how exactly does the use of right to information bring concrete solutions to these problems? The systematic expos of rampant corruption in three specific ration shops in R.K. Puram area through the tool of public hearing was in itself a new learning for many present.

Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, an organisation that works intensively on PDS-related issues in the capital, which brought to light the malfunctioning of these shops, said: "A jan sunwai is part of a larger, systematic process. First, we obtain the records through the right to information and do a physical verification. Figures in the daily sales register of the ration shops, once accessible, are compared with entries made in the ration cards of the cardholders and the actual rations received. This `social audit' is followed up with a jan sunwai, where the discrepancies are presented and people testify in public. The findings are then presented to the government, which is expected to take action as per the law."

For instance, according to the daily sales register of one of the shops, Amir Hassan had been sold 75 kg of wheat and 50 kg of rice during April 2004. According to the ration card, however, he had been sold only 25 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice. Actually, Amir Hassan said he did not receive anything during the month. Collecting evidence thus, it was found that the ration dealer had siphoned off 440 kg of wheat, which amounted to nearly the entire monthly quota to be distributed to the eight below the poverty line (BPL) families that are covered by the shop.

Following the public hearing, the licences of all three ration shops were suspended. But this does not suffice, feels Arvind Kejriwal. Being a cognizable, non-bailable offence, cases should be registered and action taken according to the law, he points out. "Unless the findings of a jan sunwai are taken to their logical end, people will start losing faith in this potentially powerful tool," he cautions.

The public hearing worked in many ways. As organisations such as Parivartan, the experience helped them to define sharper questions. Those for whom linking the right to information and the PDS in the way demonstrated by Ekta Vihar residents revealed new ground, it led to a burst of enthusiasm, an eagerness to put this new learning to test.

"The fact that people themselves spoke and presented their problems (at the public hearing) in Delhi was very positive, something we would like to imbibe here," says Ramesh Kadam, coordinator of the Mumbai-based Rationing Kruti Samiti, an organisation that has done extensive work in obtaining ration cards for the urban homeless through advocacy and through educating people of their entitlements. In Madhya Pradesh, plans are afoot to conduct two public hearings. "We have collected information on 25 villages from the district administration for this," says Sachin Jain of the Right to Food Campaign in Madhya Pradesh.

THE events spanning the next two days were as expansive as the public hearing, intensive. Music, theatre and art interspersed the plenaries and workshops held at the Delhi University Arts Faculty (North Campus).

The reverberating spirit of `Hela' (an art form), in the music of farmers from Sawai Madhopur, a poor district in Rajasthan, the cry for accountability in different languages, and Shankar Singh's (of the MKSS) ever-popular rendition of "mein nahin manga" set in an exuberance that lasted right through the convention. The inaugural session, chaired by veteran journalist and former Member of Parliament Kuldeep Nayyar, was followed by the first plenary which saw people share their real experiences in using the right to information. The session gave a glimpse of the range of struggles people have faced, in places where the law exists, where it is poorly implemented, and where it is simply absent. The narrations by Susheela (MKSS, Rajasthan) and Santosh (Parivartan, Delhi) gave out one strong message: asking for information is like asking for the soul of this corrupt system. There will be resistance but unwavering public pressure can bring about visible changes.

The second plenary was significant as it encapsulated the living form of the right to information today. The coming together of leaders from so many different campaigns on the common platform of right to information indicated the explicit adoption of this tool in their respective movements. The session was chaired by Dunu Roy and speakers included Jean Dreze (Right to Food), Medha Patkar (Dams and Displacement), Suman Sahai (Agriculture and Globalisation), Harsh Mander (Communalism and Marginalised Communities), Pradip Prabhu (Forests) and M.P. Parameswaran (Education) and senior right to information activists in the media like Prakash Kardaley (Indian Express, Pune) and Harivansh (Prabhat Kabhar, Jharkhand).

The sheer variety of the parallel workshops organised was mind-boggling. But this, it seems, was precisely the idea behind holding 36 workshops on an equal number of topics. So, across the two days, one could stroll into any of the rooms at the Arts Faculty and hear discussions ranging from the role of the right to information on Land, Water, Biodiversity and Environment and Industrial Pollution to the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, Globalisation or the Media, Elections, Budgets, Social Audit to Health, Disability Rights, Education and Communal Violence.

"In Beawar, the approach was more cautious. This time the convention ventured into areas considered sacrosanct so far... . These areas would have been much more difficult to take on three or four years ago," said Nikhil Dey.

An interesting aspect of the workshops was how it brought together people at different ends of the information spectrum. This was perhaps well exemplified by the workshop on `Knowing Power - the Politics and Political Economy of Information' organised by SARAI, a Delhi-based organisation on contemporary media research. Among the participants was Naurti Bai from Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), Tilonia. An outspoken woman from a small village in Ajmer district, Naurti has been involved in the right to information movement from the outset. In an engaging debate, Naurti spoke of the grassroots experiences she brought with her, seeking answers to the practical problems she had faced while seeking information. The researchers at SARAI, on the other hand, visualised `right to information' as closely linked to the `right to broadcast'; to put out information freely and creatively, without bounds on the form and content. This, in their opinion, would create automatic pressure on those who manipulated information itself so far. To Naurti, this was obvious in an intuitive sense, although the speakers at SARAI somehow placed it in the foreground, over the right of simply seeking or getting information. Thus, as Naurti focussed on the `here and now' of the use of this right, grounded in rural realities, the SARAI speakers dwelled on expanding and redefining the entire conceptualisation of the right to information in the future.

The fact that the workshops took place simultaneously meant it was impossible to be everywhere at the same time. Some saw this as a drawback. Sachin Jain said: "I was content with focussing on topics which were of interest to me."

Paul Diwakar, of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in Andhra Pradesh, said: "We have realised that human rights violation of Dalits crucially links up to the right to information. It hold the key to many other rights, like accessing justice by filing FIRs, getting pensions, land rights or food security. The convention gave us good access to strategies, on the other hand it also helped us to convey Dalits' perspective, which needs greater understanding."

Sampat Kale of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune, said: "Maharasthra is a State where there is awareness about the right to information from both sides - the people and the government. The District Collector of Raigarh fined an official up to Rs.27,000 for not providing information as per the law. Cases of penalties have been recounted across Sangli, Satara, Thane, Pune and Akola districts. But most of these have been regarding applications of the Right to Information Act in urban areas. Rural awareness is still lacking in the State."

It was really this reciprocity that was the hallmark of all these workshops and indeed the entire convention. Cross-applications between States, rural and urban areas, and across campaigns meant everyone had something to learn. Only the degrees varied, depending on who sat where.

Two more plenaries were held on the concluding day. One was on "Right to Information and Law and Implementation," chaired by Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. At the concluding plenary, plans and visions for future action were discussed by some of the activists who have come to symbolise right to information movements in their respective areas, like Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Lal Singh and Praveena Imroza. The valedictory was chaired by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who spoke strongly in favour of the campaign.

THE Delhi convention was not all about prose, debates and discussions. Various forms of cultural expression, sometimes spontaneous outbursts, characterised and lent the convention its true meaning. The poignant images of Godhra and Manipur in the films screened on day one, the touching lyrics and melody of a song specially composed by singers Vinay and Charul for the occasion, the outstanding performance of the Manganiyar singers and Kalbeliya dancers from Barmer (Rajasthan), and the songs of celebration and protests by farmers and peasants are memories that one carries long after the adieus were said. The power of the words "mere jindagi ko janne ka haq re, ab haq ke bina kya jina, ye jine ka saman nahin (my life has the right to know; living without rights is not equal to living)," in the song of Vinay and Charul went right out to the audience; today it is being sung at every forum, gathering or demonstration on right to information across the country.

"Kuch bhi diary tak seemit nahin honi chahiye"(nothing should remain limited, in a diary), sums up Susheela from Jawaja in Ajmer district. For someone who has been closely associated with the MKSS from its early days, the convention brought her the happiness of seeing an idea one has worked hard for take wing and spread far and wide. For Ramkaran, of SWRC, Tilonia, "it was an opportunity to learn from the experiences of 15-20 States in two days, something unthinkable otherwise." For many, the convention has served to energise and reinforce with even greater strength the potency of the right to information as a powerful tool in strengthening accountability and participative democracy. And for those who came with doubts, the convention helped to clarify at least in part the `whats' and `hows' of the right to information in reality.

The convention has had some instantaneous effect. In Andhra Pradesh, where no right to information law exist, and issues have been raised so far only at the district level, a series of meetings were held in villages and panchayats after the convention. "We have realised the importance of taking up issues even at the village level. A case of swindling by the sarpanch in a village in Mehboobnagar with the connivance of revenue officials in the construction of latrines were brought to light and the District Collector has taken action," said G. Sudhakar, district secretary, Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union. Posters on the right to food and information have been printed and pasted in a number of panchayats; villagers have been urged to send postcards with their complaints directly to the administration. In Madhya Pradesh, organisations involved in the right to food campaign have now started giving applications in different departments about various schemes. Issues seen hitherto in isolation are now being redefined in terms of the right to information. In Maharashtra, an entire documentation of cases is being planned for its widespread dissemination.

The writing is on the wall. The right to information movement in India has reached a critical stage. While the struggles continue at different levels, the campaign continues to grow and get enriched by these individual experiences. It is this show of strength that the Members of Parliament may want to remember when they take up the Right to Information Bill this winter.

Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar, a freelance writer, is a member of Research for People, Jaipur.

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