From freedom to right

AJIT BHATTACHARJEA

back to issue

FOR me, Nevathi Bai is the icon of the movement that has won us the revolutionary Right to Information Act, 2005. Nine years have passed since, drawing a typical multicoloured Rajasthani ohrni from her face, she walked up to the microphone to demand hamara paisa, hamara hisab. Raising her voice, she insisted that people had the right to see official records, to check how the money allotted for them was being spent.

Nevathi was one of a crowd of about 500, mostly women, squeezed into a small, triangular ground facing the Chang Gate in Beawar. They had been sitting on the ground for close to three hours, on a humid day, at a jan sunwai (public hearing). Details were being read out from the official record of funds paid out for construction and repair of schools, roads, irrigation channels and other development and public works. Local villagers got up to complain that the works were incomplete or not done at all. The degree of misappropriation emerged most obviously when muster rolls bearing the names of those paid for their daily labour were read out. Nearly half proved to have been faked, with the assembled villagers pointing out that many of those named had died, moved elsewhere or were not known to exist in the area.

Nevathi Bai stood out by the ring of determination in her voice and clarity with which she linked right to information to livelihood. She symbolised the awareness created by the movement that they were fashioning a peaceful, effective instrument to expose and counter decades of exploitation. Cleaner governance actually seemed possible. And so, over the years, ‘hamara paisa, hamara hisab’ drew thousands of villagers, many uneducated, into the repeated protests, dharnas and jan sunwais that fuelled the spreading movement for right to information. The slogan provided a motivation and a mass sanction that could not be legitimately denied in a democracy. Notice had to be taken in New Delhi and the state capitals.

Yet up to then it had been denied. One of the repressive laws promulgated when India was under British rule to protect the colonial administrators, the Official Secrets Act, was retained unchanged after Independence. This made it possible to describe any official document as secret and punish anyone trying to look into it. Those taking over governmental office from the British were reluctant to give up the power to misuse authority that denial of information provided. Secrecy enhanced opportunities to reward favourites in return for political and monetary support, the glue uniting lobbies and vote banks. Since files authorising payments and other orders were not open to public scrutiny, they could not be probed. Instead attempts to do so could be treated as crimes.

This encouraged the development of the widening nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and criminals that the official report by the N.N. Vohra Committee brought out a decade ago. The nexus could not have flourished unchecked without the cover of secrecy. But it was not until Nevathi Bai and the movement she symbolised forced attention to the misrule and corruption festering under the cloak of secrecy that serious attempts began to frame legislation. The press coverage given to jan sunwais highlighted the issue so clearly that it could be ignored no longer. Politicians and policy-makers were used to exposure of corruption – Rajiv Gandhi had admitted that only 15 paise in every rupee sanctioned for development reached the intended beneficiaries. But now they faced the prospect of the demand for democratic rights reaching remote villages.

 

Jan sunwais were the cutting edge of a process of empowerment. It was not easy to persuade poor villagers in a remote area of near-feudal Rajasthan to stand up and testify that local officials were misappropriating public funds. But this was achieved by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a small group of activists who gained their confidence by living and working with them. They went from hut to hut pointing out how much the villagers were losing by showing them the official record of expenditure. The villagers took courage and agreed to speak out at the sunwai, where local leaders were also invited. Copies of the relevant official records had been obtained from friendly officials who wanted to distance themselves from the corrupt. This was the only way that files could be accessed before the right to information era.

After intensive preparation, the first jan sunwais were organized in small villages in 1994. But they attracted little outside notice. Two years later, however, the movement had gathered enough support to invite the media to a bigger demonstration in the small town of Beawar in south Rajasthan, where Nevathi Bai was among those who testified. This was the small start of a mass campaign, consisting of demonstrations, mass dharnas (one lasted for 40 days in Jaipur) and jan sunwais that eventually led to the gates of Parliament House.

 

I was privileged to be present at Beawar and witnessed a series of subsequent jan sunwais. At two of the remotest, deep in the Aravalli range, the sarpanches were shamed into promising to return the money they had pocketed. Under pressure, the Rajasthan government issued a notification authorising transparency at panchayat level. At Janawad, in Rajsamand district, this enabled copies to be made of bills and vouchers authorizing expenditure of Rs 65 lakh. Evidence at the sunwai showed that as much as Rs 45 lakh out of it had been misappropriated. This was serious enough for an inquiry to be ordered and the officials involved suspended.

At Kishangarh, however, the notification did not prevent district officials from rejecting requests for access to panchayat records in the face of a day-long demonstration. No action was taken against them. The culture of secrecy had not changed. No action was taken against the officials responsible even after substantial diversion of foodgrains and essential commodities from ration shops to the open market was exposed at Kumbalgarh. The biggest victims were poor villagers with below-poverty-line (BPL) cards who were supposed to get essential supplies at particularly low rates. With a few exceptions, officials continued to regard disclosure of information as a concession and the perquisites of secrecy as a right. Changing attitudes took time and pressure.

 

The demand for right to information spread to other states. The response was varied. Many governments ignored it; others issued notifications authorizing limited disclosure. Effective legislation was obviously needed. After the Beawar jan sunwai, jurists, academics, journalists, social activists and a few political leaders held a two-day national conference at the Press Council of India in New Delhi. Justice P.B. Sawant was asked to head a committee to draft a model bill on right to information. That was in 1996. One by one, eight state governments enacted there own bills, most of them full of loopholes enabling officials to deny access to information damaging to them or their masters. The Delhi government passed one of the better bills, with a provision for penalizing officials who delayed or denied access without sufficient reason. This enabled Parivartan, a local civic group, to secure official documents exposing widespread misappropriation in ration shops. But no action was taken against erring officials of the Food and Civil Supplies Department.

The central government was obliged to take up the issue. For the next few years, bureaucrats provided an object lesson in the art of delay by examining and re-examining drafts carefully crafted to shield themselves. Eventually Parliament enacted a Freedom of Information Bill two years ago, but the bureaucracy failed to notify it. Another attempt was made after the United Progressive Alliance government took over, but the legislation was limited to Union Territories, among other restrictions. Officialdom had overreached itself. Protagonists of a comprehensive, effective measure were able to persuade the National Advisory Council to sponsor a number of crucial amendments that were incorporated in the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The act has a far wider range than any of its predecessors. It covers all central and state government offices; any body owned or financed substantially by government, including non-government organizations substantially financed by government directly or indirectly. Exemptions are limited. Penalties are provided for non-compliance.

The structure of the act reflects its origins. A network of officials, reaching down to sub-district level is to be appointed to receive, help and deal with requests for information. Applicants below the poverty line are exempted from paying fees. The list of disclosures that all public authorities, down to the lowest level, are required to publish regularly on their own is exhaustive. These include such details as particulars of the organization; the powers of its officers; monthly salaries of employees; budgets; details of implementation and concessions, if any, granted.

The key to the change in approach is reflected in the title. ‘Freedom of Information’ suggested an act of dispensation by authority; ‘Right to Information’ an inalienable ‘right’ of every citizen – a truly revolutionary change from the era of secrecy. But the battle is not over. Without continuing mass pressure, implementation will be tardy and errant officials continue to evade punishment. And unless efforts are made to ensure that information about procedures to secure information reaches Nevathi Bai, the act’s far-reaching objectives will remain on paper.

top