A forceful assertion

Print edition : April 28, 2001

In Rajasthan, the right to information becomes almost synonymous with the right to life.

AS guest of honour at a convention on the right to information, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was perhaps keen to maintain an image of transparency and candour. The early-April gathering of activists, campaigners and political workers at Beawar in Ajmer district of Rajasthan took place under the shadow of a third successive year of deficient rainfall in parts of the State. This has in turn caused acute livelihood stresses and raised the prospect of famine-like conditions. Deaths from food deprivation and its attendant diseases have already been reported from parts of the State.

For this reason, the deliberations at Beawar tended to focus on the government's effort to cope with the looming humanitarian emergency. The assembly was convinced that the affected people would be able to contribute to the efficacy of the relief effort if they were equipped with the knowledge of their entitlements under established law and custom and if they were aware of the special measures being initiated to cope with scarcity conditions. Without the wide dissemination of such information, development administrators would be sluggish in responding to people's needs and relief measures would prove of limited utility and benefit.

Aruna Roy, founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, addressing the concluding session of the right to information convention at Beawar on April 6.-JHARANA JHAVERI

Believing that the Chief Minister would be receptive, the assembly put a number of questions to him, some on the contingency measures being initiated to cope with famine-like conditions, others on the legislation introduced by his government to provide citizens with the right to information. Specifically, Gehlot was asked whether the famine code had been invoked in the State and how the government proposed to meet the obligations that stemmed from it. Under the code, every person willing to work in scarcity-hit areas is entitled to obtain employment under special public works, while those incapable of work would be eligible for gratuitous relief.

A further question was posed about the quite arbitrary figure of 800,000 that had been fixed as the maximum prospective number of beneficiaries of emergency employment programmes. When scarcity conditions were known to be afflicting a population of over 20 million, the Chief Minister was told, a ceiling of this nature did little to mitigate suffering.

Certain irrationalities in the administration of the employment programme were highlighted, all to do with inadequacies of information dissemination. The allocation of employment targets between development blocks, for instance, is announced after a totally avoidable delay. On this account, the prospective beneficiaries are kept in the dark till the day the muster rolls are drawn up for labour employment. This leads to many eligible individuals being left out and a less than optimal distribution of the benefits of the special relief programmes.

The Chief Minister was also told that wage rates paid in public works programmes effectively work out to a figure well below the statutory minimum. And finally, at the root of all the inadequacies in the implementation of anti-poverty programmes is a default by the State government: of its total entitlement of foodgrain for people below the poverty line (BPL) it lifts a mere 60 per cent from the Central pool.

Responding to these queries, Gehlot spoke at length about how his party had always supported the right to information. This commitment was consummated in his government's very early legislative initiative to inscribe the right in the statute book. As for the specific concerns that had been articulated about famine conditions in parts of the State, the government's records were always open for inspection, said Gehlot. The National Campaign for the Peoples' Right to Information, the umbrella organisation that was the sponsor of the Beawar convention, could nominate any individual of its choice to examine the records if that would serve to assuage public misgivings.

With these remarks - long on political posture but perfunctory on matters of detail - Gehlot took leave of the gathering. Activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which hosted and organised the convention, made repeated appeals to him to return and deal with the specific concerns that had been placed before him. But Gehlot had to rush off to other engagements and as a politician he was not going to depart from the practised policy of giving nothing away unless compelled to.

Aruna Roy, founder of the MKSS and the inspirational figure behind the right to information movement in Rajasthan, came up with the appropriate response. Since the administration has proven that it is not amenable to a discussion about a matter involving the lives and livelihoods of millions, she said, the agitational programmes would have to be stepped up. The MKSS would begin laying siege to the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), where the burgeoning stocks of food with the Central government were beginning to waste away. The agitation would continue till the government opened up the granaries and began a welfare programme that would relieve the suffering of the most vulnerable sections, said Roy.

A FEW days later, a demonstration against the paradox of apparent plenty amidst poverty took place in Udaipur. The tribal areas of Udaipur are among the worst affected by the drought conditions prevailing in Rajasthan and have witnessed a number of deaths from the diseases that spread in times of deprivation. The two main Left parties and the Janata Dal (Secular) had planned their raid on the godowns well before Gehlot's public display of reticence in Beawar. Following that event, the Udaipur demonstration drew in a substantial contingent from the MKSS.

On April 12, a large crowd assembled in the vicinity of the Udaipur District Collectorate to listen to former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Sita-ram Yechury and CPI State Secretary Tara Singh Sidhu. With V.P. Singh and Yechury symbolically equipping themselves with hammers to break the locks that were perceived obstacles to food security, the crowd set out in procession for the FCI warehouse. Stopped a kilometre before their destination, the demonstrators broke through police barricades and courted arrest. As they dispersed, they held out the promise that this would not be the last action of its kind.

The slogan raised in Udaipur was that the youth needed opportunities to work. Eight hours of work a day could be compensated with an appropriate quantum of food that would help a deprived family retain its tenuous hold on subsistence. But the State government pleads inability on grounds of financial stringency. And the Central government merely argues that it is doing its bit in allocating grain to the State, only to find that the State government seemingly has no use for it.

A GLANCE at the Central government's outlay in rural employment programmes would show that the scandal of 50 million tonnes of grain wasting away in warehouses as scarcity conditions grip large numbers of people will continue to haunt the country. In 1999-2000, the total outlay in rural employment programmes was Rs.3,729 crores - marginally lower than the budgetary target. When the Budget proposals for 2000-01 were presented, ample evidence was available that the preceding monsoon had been deficient in certain regions. Yet Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha chose to cut the outlay in rural employment sharply, to Rs.2,655 crores. At the same time, he held the allocation for rural water supply programmes at the preceding year's level of Rs.1,890 crores.

Less than two months later the government seemingly encountered the flash of revelation. Although it was always apparent that the onset of the summer months would increase sharply pressure on livelihoods in the rainfall deficient areas, the government waited till the blazing heat had set in to begin to reckon with the magnitude of human suffering. A huge public spectacle ensued with Ministers scaling new rhetorical peaks in seeking to mobilise public support for the relief effort.

Yet in concrete terms the response was abysmal. The outlay on rural employment and water supply programmes remained unchanged. All additional financial allocations went through the special contingency funds that have been created to cope with natural calamities. And these special allocations, it is known, have a tendency to flow through channels less open to public scrutiny, finally to end up enriching those who least deserve any kind of relief.

True to form, the Central government has been niggardly about rural employment and water supply programmes this year, the magnitudes of the increase in allocation being just over 10 per cent for both. With this level of reluctance at the Centre, it is no surprise that State governments should prove incapable of lifting the allocation of foodgrain they are entitled to for BPL populations. And though a large part of the problem may lie in the aggregate volumes of expenditure in rural works, the core issue really is their poor execution and the chronic lack of accountability and transparency of development administrations.

Underlying the current scarcity conditions in Rajasthan is the unsavoury reality that years of budgetary spending in rural works have done little but enrich dominant coteries of contractors, middlemen and the landed elites. This denial of the legitimate entitlements of the rural poor is another consistent focus of the right to information campaign, particularly as articulated by the MKSS. In December 1999, the MKSS made use of the limited access to official records that citizens enjoy under Rajasthan's right to information legislation, in order to lay bare the anatomy of corruption in public works in Umarwaas village of Udaipur district (Frontline, March 17, 2000). The dubious role of the individuals who had dominated the local body, as also the connivance of contractors and government officials, was unravelled in a dramatic public hearing (or jan sunwai) initiated by the MKSS with the enthusiastic participation of the poor and the landless. Although proven in the public mind, the corruption of the dominant coterie in Umarwaas is yet to elicit an official response.

Prior to the Beawar gathering in November 2000, the MKSS initiated a jan sunwai at Janawad panchayat in Rajsamand district (Frontline, April 13, 2001). Documentation of public works executed to the tune of Rs. 65 lakhs constituted the subject of the public debate. With the people certifying which of the works recorded in the official documents had actually been executed, it was established that no less than Rs. 45 lakhs of this sum had gone into fictitious, untraceable projects. In other words, rural employment and relief works had been a mere pretence to channel government outlays from official coffers into a small number of private hoards. And the Janawad jan sunwai was categorical about who should be held culpable for this state of affairs in their panchayat.

On April 9, three of the individuals identified at the public hearing were arrested by the State police and booked for criminal conspiracy, fraud and corruption. Ram Lal, sarpanch of Janawad for much of the six-year period for which the MKSS managed to audit the official record, was the most notable catch. Also booked were two State government functionaries - Ata Mohammad, who functioned as secretary of the panchayat for a two-year period when it was directly under the administration of the State government, and Savanchand Chandel, a junior engineer with the State Panchayati Raj Department. The MKSS believes that the action, although belated, against the three will serve as a deterrent for others who have been engaged in similar pursuits. But they insist that one of the junior engineers in the Panchayati Raj Department, now posted in a village of Ajmer district, has been unreasonably exempted from legal action.

THE Beawar convention was an observance of five years of the right to information movement, at the precise venue where it had been launched in April 1996. During this period, the movement has successfully pressured the State government to enact an enabling legislation that nevertheless remains weak in several respects. The Rajasthan Act, for instance, provides for no punitive action against officials who wilfully delay or deny access to information. A toothless Act, various speakers at Beawar pointed out, is perhaps of as much value as no Act at all. But the MKSS' Janawad operation proves that with sufficient diligence, even a deeply flawed law could serve an important public function.

Humour and irreverence are two other powerful propaganda tools that the right to information movement has deployed. The public at Beawar, for instance, were induced to participate in the convention by a "Ghotala rath yatra", an ironical celebration of the spirit of corruption, with the MKSS' Shankar Singh playing the archetypal politician revelling in his power and his exemption from all forms of accountability. Satire may seem out of place in the grim circumstances prevalent in Rajasthan. But in conjunction with agitation and the systematic pursuit and scrutiny of information, it is galvanising the poor and the deprived into an awareness of their rights.

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