‘’Zamana choran ka, Ae rishwat khora rol machai o,
Zamana choran ko, haan re raaj choran ka.
Peliwala chor bhaya janagala maye rehta woh
Abwala chor toh bangla mein ghus gaya re.
Peliwala chor bhaya bandooka suin maarta wo,
Abwala daakuda kalmaa suin maare wo
Likhne parwanon bhaya gaava-gaava melo wo,
Gaavanwala bhai ben eko karjyo woh, ki jhagdo jeetala’’
Ms. Aruna Roy sang these lines at the launch of the book, “The RTI Story: Power to the People” at the recent Manthan talk at Hyderabad. It urges the villagers to unite against the corrupt but educated thieves. They live in bungalows and use their pens to steal in broad daylight, unlike the dacoits in the past who lived in jungles and used guns to loot.
Composed by Mohanji, an illiterate Dalit activist of MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan, the organization which spearheaded in the formulation of RTI), the song captures not only the understanding of the sophisticated methods of thievery used by corrupt lawmakers and bureaucracy but also the participative approach of MKSS in fighting it. And this was the recurring theme of Aruna Roy’s talk, while describing the process of formulation of Right to Information Act and writing of the book.
The process comprised of a well-educated and privileged urban woman coming to terms with the rural realities; a reality where the need for toilets and schools is ranked low and getting work and ration is priority. A reality where the illiterate villagers want to be heard and treated like equals and not lectured upon the topic of their village’s development by urban intellectuals. A reality where achieving Magsaysay award fails to excite the receiver as much as timely delivery of wages and water.
Ms. Roy narrated that inspiration for Right to Information Act came from Mohanji, who in 1994 after completion of a 40-day hunger strike for payment of delayed wages, forbade MKSS from organizing such hunger strikes and instead demand for access to records. Ms. Roy said that the book is a compilation of stories of such extraordinary people, their passion to incorporate transparency in a practical manner to the RTI law which was formulated under chairmanship of Justice Sawant. Though the law was made by legal experts, their reference point was experiences of ardent users of the law on the ground. She narrated another instance of one of their activists Susheela, who is just 8th pass but doesn’t lack the awareness to exercise her rights. In 1996, when the first draft of the bill was presented to the public, Susheela was questioned for her role in creation of such a complicated act due to her poor educational qualification. In her reply, she gave the famous slogan, ”Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisaab” explaining that if government is spending billions in her name, it should be held responsible to give details of the spending.
She quoted Baba Aadhav’s comment on RTI, “Satta badalnewali baat nahin hai, vyavastha badalnewali baat hai”, which translates as “RTI would change the system, only changing government will not help”. According to her, the beauty of the whole story lies in the democratic nature of the making of the law governed by the guiding principles of MKSS: transparency and a culture of continuous discussions, scientific and rational in nature. This led to creation of collective decision-making and leadership process which is consensus driven sans the domination of a single powerful personality. She remarked that the culture driven approach involving songs and mythological stories attracted villagers to participate in discussions over ideas of dharma, justice and equality which formed the bedrock of RTI.
She informed that the officials and elected representatives at both state and central government were wary of being questioned at the Gram Sabha and Dharnas organised by villagers. Their discomfort on being held accountable got translated into various obstacles and delays in the making and passage of law by parliament.
Since its implementation in 2005, 60 to 80 lakh RTI applications are being filed every year. On an average, 300 RTI applications are filed every hour. However, the process of seeking information through RTI is marked by murders of 70 RTI activists and threats. The government soon understood the danger RTI can pose in form of unearthing of corruption cases. The first amendment was proposed within six months of passage of the act. The citizens protested and the amendment was stopped. However, over the years, successive governments have watered down the act and the current government has adopted a dubious method of introducing rules in the act, which doesn’t require discussion in parliament. The number of government departments and laws inaccessible by RTI laws is increasing every year.
She lamented the apathy of privileged urban citizens in mobilizing themselves in questioning the functioning of government, as they don’t ponder over the effect of the government decisions over different strata of the society. She asked why we don’t question the dignity of life of a worker in the unorganized sector receiving the paltry sum of Rs. 200/month as pension, while a retired IAS officer is entitled to receive Rs. 1,25,000/month. Similarly, why don’t we question the discrimination where the political parties are allowed to receive donations from foreign sources but Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) permission for many NGOs has been scrapped. She further questioned why we are not agitating for appointment of Lokayukts to fight corruption, or questioning UIDAI or Demonetisation or discussing CAG reports.
She gave the example of Narmada Bachao Aandolan, which in spite of being unable to stop the heightening of the dam created a blueprint required for activism, highlighting integrity and tenacity to continue the fight. She informed that Ramlila grounds in Delhi, a spot favoured by activists, is rented out at Rs. 50,000 a day, making it exorbitantly expensive. In such a scenario, Ms. Roy said the educated urban citizens need to mobilise themselves, pool resources, use our education in understanding and analysis of laws, decisions and reports shared by government for collective understanding of a larger group, use social and traditional media, and turn the streets into parliament if they want democracy to work. In response to follow up of RTI law, she said that we need to start a signature campaign for quick passage of Whistleblower Act, Grievance Redressal Act, and changes such as display of information in public domain in case of death of an RTI activist.
She concluded that as citizens we need to be alert and reexamine the role of government, role of citizens, and the quality of parliamentary processes used in passage of different laws and amendments.