From Rural India- On the Right to Information.

Rahul Mahajan rahul at peaches.ph.utexas.edu
Thu May 2 16:11:13 MDT 1996


Apologies for the length of this posting. This seems especially apropos as
it raises the issues of worker/peasant cooperation, popular justice,
striking at the established order of social relations (it's mostly about
corruption, but, as anyone who knows anything about the diabolical
thoroughness of exploitation of the poor in the Third World knows, fighting
against corruption is not just a bourgeois issue, but one that goes to the
heart of popular empowerment), calling the government to account, and,
importantly, the issue of the new organizational forms that popular
movement can and should take.

Rahul

>THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION
>                              - Bunker Roy
>
>    The crucial issue facing the rural poor today in India is very
>simple.  Does a poor illiterate peasant, landless labourer, artisan
>and rural woman have a right to demand from the Government details of
>development expenditure carried out in their own village ? Do they
>have the right to ask for  copies of bills and vouchers and names of
>persons who have been paid wages contained in 'muster rolls' on the
>construction of schools, dispensaries, small dams and community
>centres that on paper have been shown to have been completed? If they
>are willing to pay for these documents to be photocopied which could
>also serve as certified copies in case any police cases have to be
>registered against village officials or politicians for embezzlement,
>corruption or misappropriation, can the government refuse?
>
>    In 1990 a mass based organisation called the Mazdoor (workers)
>Kisan (farmers) Shakti (strength) Sangathan (organisation) MKSS
>started working with the very poor peasants in an area what is openly
>acknowledged as one of the worst and most backward regions of
>Rajasthan-Bhim Tehsil on the border of the 3 districts of Pali, Ajmer
>and Rajsamand.  The idea of the MKSS was to find out the root
>problems behind the issue over non-payment of wages to workers on
>government works under the department of forests and public works.
>At every stage they were stalled when they asked for information and
>details of expenditure on schools, despensaries, drinking water
>schemes, rural housing anicuts, dams and community centres.  On paper
>they were shown to be complete but to the whole village it was plain
>to see that someone had misappropriated the funds-school buildings
>with no roof, dispensaries with no walls, dams left incomplete and
>community centres with no doors or windows.  Who had the details, the
>MKSS wanted to know.  Everyone knew but no one wanted to say.
>
>    As in every government there are some-very few-bureaucrats who
>are concerned that funds should reach the poor and be spent wisely
>and properly.  After years of knocking on doors one young recently
>recruited IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer managed to
>extract some details from the Block office.  In order to share this
>information in public with the people of the same village (Kot Kirana
>in Pali District) the MKSS organised the first Jan Sunwayi (Peoples
>Hearings) in the history of Rajasthan.  At the outset the MKSS had
>insisted it was a hearing not a court (adalat).  Everyone was welcome
>to listen and respond-politician, administrator, landless labourer
>and private contractor- and if they wished to say something to defend
>themselves the MKSS would give them the platform.
>
>    Corruption is nothing new.  There is no one in the villages in
>Rajasthan who does not think that the village officials and
>politicians are scoundrels and thieves.  So what is new? Very little
>can be done about it: from the top to the bottom public money is
>being embezzled.  What can one Jan Sunwayi do? By reading the details
>of the bills and vouchers and names of  people they made it very
>personal.  The audience who heard the names being read out howled and
>screamed at the brazenness of the officials and their elected
>leaders.  The response was electrifying and all of a  sudden it was
>no longer a game.  With the phenomenal response from the people to
>the first Public Hearing several other Public Hearings were organised
>from December 1994 to April 1995 in the same region.  With every
>Public Hearing in spite of polite invitations from the MKSS to the
>village officials and politicians they stayed away and damned
>themselves by their silence and absence.  Poor people came by the
>hundreds to listen in pin drop silence to embezzlement of public
>funds in such a large scale in the name of the poor.  As the names
>and details were read out more and more cases started coming out in
>the open.  The collective rage and anger was enough to make one
>engineer of the State Electricity Board return Rs.15,000 in public he
>had extracted from a poor farmer-the one and only instance of money
>ever being returned in Rajasthan because of public pressure and
>humiliation.
>
>    It was through this process that two demands emerged with one
>voice from all the Public Hearings.  One, that any citizen from the
>village should have the right to make photocopies of all bills,
>vouchers and muster rolls on payment of any work done by government
>in their village.  Two, that funds embezzled and misappropriated
>should be recovered from these village officials and politicians,
>their property be attached, and assets frozen and publicly auctioned
>and that money recovered should be spent back in that same village.
>No departmental enquiry, no due process of law, no cases to be
>registered-just return the money and lets get on with it.
>
>    The government stand all along was that the MKSS was raising a
>non-issue.  There is nothing to stop any villager from taking this
>information at the Block level, the government insisted.  The MKSS
>was playing politics and it was misleading the people with
>disinformation.  Until the union of Gram Sevaks (the lowest
>development officials of the government) in January 1995 decided to
>declare a strike on grounds that they refuse to part with any details
>of expenditure to anyone-thus playing neatly into the MKSS's hands
>and at the same time making the government look extremely foolish.
>
>    In April 1995 in an historic announcement on the floor of the
>State Assembly the Chief Minister of Rajasthan without naming the
>MKSS declared that any citizen has the right to information.  On
>payment he/she could demand and receive details of expenditure on
>work done over the last 5 years in their villages and all the
>documents could be photocopied as evidence should they want to use it
>in the future .  Since India' was independence no State Government
>has ever made such a sweeping commitment and the courage and vision
>of the Chief Minister was unanimously applauded.
>
>    With the commitment of the Chief Minister on the floor of the
>House what had to follow were government orders.  The MKSS waited
>patiently.  Nothing was coming out from the Director of Panchayats
>(local self-Government).  So many assurances have been made on the
>floor, they were told, and not all have been converted into orders.
>The MKSS waited one full year.
>
>On the 6th April 1996 the MKSS declared they were going to organise
>an indefinite strike in the town of Beawer in Ajmer District
>demanding that the orders be issued on the same assurances given by
>the Chief Minister on the Floor of the State Assembly, no more or
>less.
>
>In a classic but expected response of double-speak so typical of
>governments, while declaring that they will not ever succumb to
>pressure of any kind hastily issued an order that very night.  The
>order did not mention the right of photocopying documents but
>allowed for 'inspection' and writing details (of pages and pages) by
>hand with no certification possible.  In a State where the
>percentage of literacy is so low and they have no hope of copying
>any documents such an order borders on the farcical.  What the Chief
>Minister committed on behalf of government the bureaucracy mauled
>and distorted out of sense and content.
>
>    The MKSS refused to call off the strike.  From the 6th April the
>strike continues and the response from the common man and woman from
>the village and town  to the strike has been phenomenal.  Wheat,
>vegetables, sugar cane juice keep coming in as donations.  Offers of
>support to stay, to feed, to print pamphlets free and an ever
>sympatheic regional press have bewildered the members of the MKSS and
>such expression of unconditional support has carried them into their
>17th day.  Never before has Beawer ever seen such an outpour of
>affection and understanding to a cause they see just and which they
>want the MKSS to win.  It cuts across party lines.  Supporters of the
>major political parties in India BJP, the Congress, the Shiv Sena and
>the trade unions with all affiliations come to the open meetings and
>sit and support the MKSS.  Eminent Journalists like Nikhil
>Chakravarty, Kuldip Nayar, Prabhat Joshi, Medha Patkar spear heading
>the agitation against the Narmada Dam in Gujarat have all come and
>addressed the growing public and egged the MKSS to continue-not give
>up now.  Make the government sweat and bend-not crawl.  They will
>have to, what with the assurance given by the Chief Minister.
>
>    For once the political acumen of the Chief Minister has let him
>down.  The bureaucracy must have informed him the MKSS is just one
>other fly by night sort of mass organisation that has no base, no
>work but with political ambitions.  Just another NGO trying to
>capitalise on the election fever: it  will go away.  They want to
>embarass the government.  When all along the government has
>cooperated with them now they only want to stab the bureaucracy in
>the back.
>
>    With this attitude they have completely missed the point.  By
>passing this order the government will only enhance their own
>prestige in the outside world.  What the MKSS has done to make this
>possible will be forgotten down the line.  They could capitalise on
>this order with the World Bank, with bi-lateral donors with so many
>who hold the Right to Information dear and necessary for good
>governance.  They will applaud the Rajasthan Government.  Instead
>when statesmanship and magnanimity is called for and showing some
>grace under pressure we see indecision.  With every day that passes
>the MKSS as a result is growing stronger, more confident and ever so
>hopeful with such fantastic support from the people of Beawer that
>their cause is just.  In a sense whatever the outcome the MKSS has
>already won-raising the issue of the Right to Information and
>demystifying in a manner that every peasant, industrial worker and
>landless labourer now understands.  With or without the MKSS now the
>demand for information on development expenditure will increase.
>
>
>
>--Vikram




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