There has been a deluge of articles and news items on the recent movement against corruption. First by Anna Hazare and his associates from the civil society, then by Baba Ramdev and his followers. While the electronic media has been giving minute to minute accounts of the movements and organizing multi-party discussions on location and in studio, the subject itself is hotly debated everywhere in varying intensities.
Politicians from different parties have either supported the movement or opposed it based on personal opinions or depending on which side of the parliament benches they occupy – the governing side or the opposition. One minister from the ruling party likened the fast of Anna Hazare in pursuit of the Jan Lok Pal bill to holding a gun to the government’s head!
The focus of editorials, columns and op-eds of a majority of newspapers has been on showing how wrong it is for civil society to try to do what is obviously the role of the government. In fact, who constitutes civil society? Several columnists have declared that these movements are undemocratic, renamed civil society to “so-called civil society.”
So what is the role of a citizen? What are her rights and responsibilities in this current scenario? If a government official or elected representative is corrupt what should a citizen do? Report it to the media, raise an alarm in the affected community, try to access information through RTI Act to prove the allegations.
The RTI Act
was passed and received assent from the President of India on 15th
In 2005? That is rather recent isn’t it? So I looked up the history of the RTI
on the net. I found more than one source
History of Right to Information movement in India
To cut a long and successful story short, in the early 1990s, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), a group of workers and farmers from Rajasthan, fought for fair working conditions and wages for daily wage earners and farmers by using the method of Jan Sunwai (public hearing) to raise awareness of the practical value of the right to information for poor people. MKSS lead the national campaign for right to information and continues to use the right to information to empower local people to root out corruption and hold their government representatives to account.
The movement for the right to information was started in early 1990s by Mazdoor Kisaan
Shakti Sangathan (which literally means ‘organisation for the empowerment of workers
and peasants’) in remote village Devdungri (Rajsamand district, Rajasthan). It was a
movement to expose corruption in the famine relief work by demanding information
related to copies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls for workers recorded in government
Under the slogan ‘Our Money-Our Accounts’ MKSS workers and villagers demanded their local administrators to provide them with an account of all expenditure made in relation to development work sanctioned for the area. While there was resistance at all levels, little by little, as public pressure continued and the media began to take notice, the Government relented and eventually provided the information requested.
MKSS then used the information disclosed to organise ‘social audits’ of the administration’s books. They organised Jan Sunwais/public hearings to see if the information in the government’s records tallied with the reality of the villagers’ own knowledge of what was happening on the ground. Not surprisingly, it did not tally.
At each public hearing, a description of the development project, its timelines, implementation methods, budget and outputs would be read out along with the record of who had been employed, how long they had worked and how much they had been paid. Villagers would then stand up and point out discrepancies – dead people were listed, amounts paid were recorded as being higher than in reality, absent workers were marked present and their pay recorded as given, and thumb impressions that prove receipt of payments were found to be forged.
Most tellingly, public works like roads, though never actually constructed, were marked completed in government books. Though many villagers were illiterate, through face-to-face public hearings they could scrutinise complex and detailed accounts, question their representatives and make them answerable on the basis of hard evidence.
Following a period of struggle, MKSS succeeded in acquiring photocopies of the
relevant documents in which the siphoning of funds was clearly evident. The successful
experiments of exposing corruption through access to information was good learning experience for civil society, led to the demand of enactment of RTI law in Rajasthan. Government of Rajasthan yielded to pressure of movement and enacted the law in 2000.
Success of struggle of MKSS led to the genesis of a broader discourse on the right to
information in India
and RTI laws were enacted in some states of India
. The demand for
national law started under the leadership of National Campaign on People’s Right to
Information (NCPRI). In 1996, the Press Council of India headed by Justice P B Sawant presented a draft model law on right to information to the Government of India. A working group (Shourie Committee) under the chairmanship of Mr. H D Shourie was set up by the Central Government and given the mandate to prepare draft legislation on freedom of information. The Shourie Committee’s Report and draft law were published in 1997.
Eventually, the Shourie Committee draft law was reworked into the Freedom of
Information Bill (FOI) 2000, which was passed in the Parliament in 2002 but it was not
notified. However, civil society raised several objections to FOI bill and suggested
amendments to National Advisory Council. As a result of long drawn struggle of civil
society; the RTI was enacted in 2005 in India.
But the key question is, can RTI be an effective tool for ensuring accountability in governance institutions? What happens when the information available through RTI reveals acts of corruptions on part of government officials or elected representatives? Would an independent Jan Lok Pal then help in investigations and pave the way for prosecution of the corrupt?
If a group of citizens of India
agitated for the passage of the RTI Act, is it not their right, nay responsibility to see that an effective Jan Lok Pal bill be passed? Wait a minute, isn’t that what Anna Hazare and his team have been trying to do? Exercising their rights and responsibilities as citizens of India
Journalists and news media now effectively use the RTI to get information, frame questions, write editorials, columns and op-eds. Just like some years from now, they will use the happenings and proceedings of the Jan Lok Pal to frame questions, write editorials, columns and op-eds. But for that to happen, the Jan Lok Pal has to be in place and the Jan Lok Pal bill has to be passed by parliament.