Interview: Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey

Transparency and Poverty in India

In liberal democracies as in dictatorships, people are routinely denied access to basic information that ought to be in the public domain. In India, the fight to guarantee the right to information (enshrined in international law through the United Nations General Assembly’s 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) was taken up by illiterate villagers in the state of Rajasthan. When the government cheated them of wages they were owed for work done during a famine in the mid-1990s, their anger and their determination to hold the government accountable sparked a Right to Information (RTI) movement that spread across the country, finally reaching such proportions that the Indian Parliament was forced to enact a Freedom of Information Act.

Uniting as Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan, or the Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants (MKSS) on May 1, 1990, the Rajasthani workers sought the help of noted social activist Aruna Roy.

Roy, 57, served in Delhi’s civil service for six years, an experience that taught her how India’s bureaucracy works—or doesn’t work. She eventually quit in disgust and made a name for herself among India’s rural poor through her work with the Social Work and Research Center in Tilonia, Rajasthan, founded and directed by her husband, Sanjit Bunker Roy. As luck would have it, MKSS’ request for help came just as Roy was hoping to disentangle her work from government subsidies. So, along with MKSS mastermind Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh, who speaks several regional languages fluently, Roy helped lay the foundation for a national RTI movement in India.

Roy works tirelessly to create awareness of a fundamental right that is meant to be a vehicle for transparency, openness, accountability, and civic involvement. In 2000, she was honored with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, generally regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize, for “empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people's right to information.”

Deepak Mahaan recently spoke with Roy and her associate, Nikhil Dey, about the remarkable rise of India’s RTI movement.

What are the origins of the RTI movement?
Aruna Roy: The campaign was born from an agitation for minimum wage by MKSS in the late 1980s, although it only took full shape after 1994.

Government officials regularly denied poor, illiterate workers in Rajasthan their rightful wages, claiming that “according to their records, the said people had not worked.” Because the records in question were kept classified, most illiterate people felt that making government records accessible to public scrutiny would solve the problem of contradictory claims.

Their argument was bolstered when the disclosure of an official enquiry report revealed that a bogus company had received illegal payments for labor that had never been done. The enquiry traced the company, Bhairon Nath and Sons, to government employees from Bhim, a small town in Rajasthan. Auditors cleared the project despite the fact it had never having paid sales or income tax on 3.6-million-rupee [at that time, about $257,000] project that was only executed on paper.

In 1994, a worker from Kot Kirana, a village in the Pali district of Rajasthan, complained that he was being denied his wages. The MKSS promised to fight on the condition that he demand access to records covering the entire period of his employment. He agreed, and the campaign began.

A sympathetic official allowed the MKSS to transcribe details of the enquiry report. When, through door-to-door visits, they made the inquiry’s findings public, people instantly mobilized. The government’s determined efforts to stifle the grassroots campaign set the stage for the first Jan-Sunwai [public hearing] in Kot Kirana on Dec. 2, 1994. The Jan-Sunwai demanded that all public works and accounts be made transparent, that a people’s audit be held to assess accountability, and that a system of redress be established to manage the return of siphoned money.

Jan-Sunwai were a radical innovation. How did they come to be held? And what effect did they have?
AR: MKSS considered various ways to communicate their message and chose Jan-Sunwai because of the challenges that this particular campaign presented. It was necessary to shift the focus from unsympathetic government functionaries who were unwilling to listen back to the people themselves, who were supportive and concerned.

The Jan Sunwai offered a platform for open debate and demonstrated that freedom of information could curb the abuse of power. Many a wrongdoer paid back siphoned money after public humiliation, thus underlining the importance of public audit in stopping corruption.

What difficulties did you face in educating people about their right to information and how did you cope with disappointments?
AR: Surprisingly, the people educated us. In fact, the series of five Jan-Sunwais from December 1994 to April 1995 made obvious the tremendous power and potential of the right to know or gather information. The government quickly realized that sharing information was indeed sharing power and used doublespeak to sidetrack the demands.

When we work collectively, disappointments only challenge our strategies and our ability to struggle creatively. The important thing is to carry on, not to give up. People recognized the importance of linking immediate needs with long-term benefits and their determination sustained the struggle.

What kept you going in the face of particularly daunting challenges?
AR: It was and always is the collective strength of the people and also the belief that somehow rationality and logic will prevail. But overwhelmingly, it was people’s support that kept us going.

Nikhil Dey: In the 40-day Beawar dharna [sit-down protest; Beawar is a city in Rajasthan] in April-May 1996, we had 400 signatories to the campaign. We got free vegetables for the community kitchen, free videography, and dharamshalas [rural rest houses] opened their doors for us. A small child gave us 2 rupees every day and flower-sellers gave us 5 rupees daily out of their sales, while the chaiwallah [tea-vendor] gave us tea at half price. These are just a few instances of solidarity that gave us hope and energy.

Why campaign for freedom of information? Why not lobby for other human rights?
AR: The pity is that there is no accountability in the present system of governance. All human rights depend on the basic right to know, to demand accountability. In India, the feudal social fabric has exploited the formal democratic system to its advantage because the literate are too busy building careers and empires to bother about social inadequacies. That's why RTI has a widespread appeal for everyone.

Every citizen of the state has a fundamental right to say: “You are spending my money. Render me the accounts.” But most people are unaware of this power and suffer as a result their inaction and ignorance.

Don't you think that to foster a strong democracy, there has to be not just a commitment to transparency on the part of the custodians of information, but also a concrete desire on the part of citizens to seek and exercise their right to information?
AR: Yes. People must realize that though representative democracy may have given us some democratic rights, it is by definition a very limited concept. There is need to move beyond the right to vote, towards a right to participate in governing ourselves.

The middle class always wants to work by proxy but democracy cannot work this way. By casting a vote, we accept our share of the responsibility for shaping and controlling the system of governance. We cannot shrug off that responsibility for five years until the electoral process begins all over again. Questions need to be asked consistently since accountability is a continuing process.

How did the RTI movement generate such huge momentum?
AR: It was a poor people’s struggle for the right to know, the right to live, that attracted others who were grappling with the problems of implementing participatory and responsible democratic systems. Questions regarding accountability, corruption, arbitrary governance, and public ethics that were raised by the people's movement brought the different parties together.

Who would you credit for the strong bond within MKSS?
ND: To be cohesive, organizations need to be collectively responsible and accountable. In its internal administration, MKSS practices what it preaches. We are essentially a non-competitive pool of complementary skills and talents, and we review problems related to work and personal life. We criticize each other, and although we are really surprised at what we have accomplished, we don't have any great notion of ourselves.

The RTI movement now has national stature. How did MKSS garner such widespread support for its campaign?
AR: At the Beawar dharna, when 400 organizations signed in support, there was a growing understanding that this was a huge struggle and that many kinds of people and skills needed to come together.

Fortunately, participation by eminent media and academic personalities like Harsh Mander, Nikhil Chakravarthy, Kuldip Nayyar, and Prabhash Joshi gave the campaign an august stature and strength, as did the presence of activists like Swami Agnivesh and Medha Patkar. But it was Chakravarthy who made us recognize the campaign’s potential as a second war of independence. Thus, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information was born and Press Council of India's backing gave it national stature.

What are the highlights or shortcomings of the new Freedom of Information bill recently passed by the Indian Parliament?
ND: It suffers from certain inherent defects since it lays down no penalty for a civil servant guilty of refusing or delaying the requisite information. It’s rendered toothless in the absence of an independent appellate authority, especially as it conflicts with the Official Secrets Act and is excluded from the courts' jurisdiction. Moreover, its non-applicability on the private sector is grossly unfair since that too involves public interest and money.

Dilution is visible in the name itself, which has been changed from Right to Information Act to Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless, it's a beginning.

Would you recommend penal provisions within the statute?
ND: Of course. Without punishment, it has no deterrent for cunning officials who might obfuscate and confuse matters like true bureaucrats.

Has any government passed an RTI Act that you would hold up as a model?
AR: That's a difficult question to answer because I have not seen all the laws. Within India, the state RTI Acts of Goa, Delhi, and Maharashtra are reasonably good, but they all leave out the private sector completely. The Press Council Draft, which was discussed and drafted by more than 250 eminent minds, was unfortunately not accepted in its entirety anywhere in India.

ND: The South African constitution guarantees the right to information wherever it is needed to fulfill another constitutional right, and its RTI Act is the best because it applies to both public and private institutions. Moreover, it has a "whistle blower protection" that protects citizens from harassment if they disclose wrongdoing.

What safeguards are necessary for transparent governance to be ensured?
AR: To ensure transparent governance, people must take interest in government functioning by exercising the right to know about decisions taken on their behalf. It's absolutely necessary that citizens insist on implementation as well as non-implementation of laws in public institutions. Intelligent people must recognize and publicize the potential and use of this law as an enabling right for all other constitutional rights.