Know

Know your RTI soldiers

P Anima | Updated on April 27, 2018 Published on April 27, 2018

That’s not right: Social activist Aruna Roy at a 2013 protest in New Delhi against attempts to keep political parties outside the ambit of the RTI Act   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Ground zero of the ‘right to know’ movement, in Devdungri, Rajasthan   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE RTI STORY

The RTI Story: Power To The People Aruna Roy with the MKSS Collective Roli Books Non-fiction ₹495

The story of the birth of a people’s Act, in the words of the people who fought tirelessly for it — the otherwise ‘unheard voices and unseen faces that build democracy’

Devdungri, a dusty village like a thousand others in the Rajasthan desert, had only known oblivion. Google still throws up only a handful of search results. And almost all of it pertains to it being the home of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). In 1987, two rank outsiders and two locals rented a mud hut in this village where no one really came to stay, even less to work. For social activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, and the husband-wife duo Shankar Singh and Anshi, that old hut — which belonged to Singh’s extended family in Chokkavadia — was where their work proverbially began. Over the next 30-odd years, Devdungri would grow to become the nucleus of a movement, a place where the early stirrings of the demand for a citizen’s ‘right to know’ was debated, crafted and exercised before it ballooned into a countrywide assertion that culminated in the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

“The home, the hut, has a singular, personal and political value. It has been a reassuring place to come back to, and an effort to live the values of simplicity and collectivism” — The RTI Story: Power to the People, written by Aruna Roy in collaboration with the MKSS Collective. In Devdungri, the four social activists lived the lives of the local people. They cooked on the chulha, slept on the floor, drew water from the well and kept a goat. Roy writes, “It is the only way people’s issues could be understood within the limitations of our lives. It is important to evaluate the work of any group through the eyes of its people.”

 

Ground zero of the ‘right to know’ movement, in Devdungri, Rajasthan   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE RTI STORY

 

 

Collective battles would be the spirit behind MKSS when it was formed three years later. But the ground for it was set with smaller struggles in Devdungri. The first mobilisation and protest was at Dadi Rapat, over minimum wages for the villagers amid a season of drought. Lack of transparency led to questions, and the right to seek records and proof. It grew into rallies and hunger strikes in small towns. Questions on the right to work and minimum wages would crystallise into the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

Both NREGA and the RTI Act came into effect in 2005, a watershed year for MKSS. The RTI Story ends here. Much like the sangathan, the book too is a collective effort. To streamline a layered story, Roy and her co-authors have dipped into multiple resources — newspaper reports, diary entries, speeches and anecdotes.

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A day after the book’s launch in New Delhi, Roy is exhausted. She is scheduled to fly to Chennai the next day for another launch and discussion. The response at the Delhi event has warmed her heart. The hall at India International Centre was packed to the gills, and people had turned up to express support. Roy informs me the book is already set for a second print. And its collective voice is imperative to document a movement powered by multitudes. “That was the intent, and I’m pleased the world accepted it like that.”

The RTI is an assertion of democratic rights, and the book gives ownership to the foot soldiers who embolden movements but disappear from their history. The “unheard voices and unseen faces that build democracy”, as Roy calls them. “The people who make it happen never express their opinion on paper. It is the voice of the people in power, who interpret their experiences, that become a part of history. This (The RTI Story) is an attempt to bring their (the people’s) stories... a commentary on how important the RTI was to ordinary persons, how they shaped and fashioned it, and how they won very large battles.”

In a country rich in oral histories, and in a sangathan that thrives on spreading messages through songs and lore, a conscious effort was made to document their journey on paper. “We are an old people. We don’t really understand the importance of writing,” says Roy. On the other hand, legislative tools are fashioned by people who work with the written tradition. “What remains in history is the written word,” she points out.

Thirteen years after the RTI, and the chequered and evolving path it has been on since, the time was ripe to set down what it took. Amid growing worries that history is prone to distortion, the book attempts to safeguard the movement’s history as told by insiders.

“In the contemporary scene, history has been distorted, stories have been destroyed, claims and counter-claims are made. Instead of critique, we have a bizarre condemnation of people who made history,” Roy says. It seemed fitting then that the story of the RTI, which in spirit is hinged to facts, is presented for what it is. “It became important to state its own history clearly, and in writing supported by documents, and to set an example of historical narratives which are based on people’s experiences.”

Roy is perturbed by the attempts to misrepresent narratives on the freedom movement and the people who took part in it, especially at a time when most of them are no more or are too old to respond. She wants to save the RTI story from a similar fate decades later. It is easy to indict a party or a group of intellectuals or historians, but “it is very difficult to indict a people”, she contends.

***

For a law that was unanimously passed by Parliament, the RTI has had a bumpy course. Even before the euphoria could settle over a people’s law that allowed anyone to question the centres of power, attempts were made to fetter it. There are disagreements over its ambit — who came within it, who did not; the powers of the information commissioners; the penalties for delay in providing information; and the implementation of the law itself. Nearly 80 lakh people use the law each year. “It is acknowledged as one of the most powerful RTI Acts in the world. It is the most used Act in the world. No other country has an Act which has owned the news as much as the RTI. For all these reasons, political establishments have looked at the RTI with suspicion, with disfavour, as a pest.”

The RTI Story: Power To The People Aruna Roy with the MKSS Collective Roli Books Non-fiction ₹495

 

Attempts to blunt it have been covert as well as overt. “Stories of the real loss of citizenship, loss of justice and of inroads into the Constitution, are glossed over. Anyone who asks for information from the state in terms of development and human rights, or just on any matter of policy is increasingly being dubbed anti-state,” says Roy.

Attempts to brand the RTI Act as a policy paralyser, Roy argues, are intended to shrink the space for rights legislation and participatory democracy. “It is said that the RTI has been responsible for the failure of UPA 2. The attack on rights-based legislation is an attack on the Congress, and an attack on activists within the National Advisory Council (NAC) who had fought for rights-based legislation. The NAC is not Congress; it comprised people from civil society who supported the points of view raised first in the National Common Minimum Programme...”

Roy is clear that the attacks on the RTI are attacks on the credibility of rights-based legislations and the institutions that helped bring them. To her, it has larger manifestations. “It aims to destroy any kind of dissemination of power that would make inroads into the exercise of arbitrary power.” The BJP government, Roy adds, has been arbitrary, and she cites the instances of demonetisation and the dissolution of the Planning Commission.

Attempts to weaken the RTI are nothing new, she points out. Recalling how in the last days of UPA 2 the chief information commissioner’s (CIC) ruling on bringing political parties within the ambit of RTI was left in limbo, she says, “They neither appealed against it, nor did they implement the order of the CIC. So what one did by commission, the other does it by omission.”

Many considered the RTI an impossible endeavour. A lawyer in Beawar had told her, “Sadi gali vyavastha ko aap keh rahe hai ki kaleje se nikalkar bahar rakho toh thode hi na rakhega (If you tell people to discard a rotten system, that is hardly going to happen).But it happened.” The irony of Parliament passing an Act which worked against the concentration of power is not lost on her. She is, however, also acutely aware that, “The government will do only what it is forced to do. Nothing more than that.”

The RTI might be in the vocabulary of the ordinary Indian, but its management rests with civil servants. “But the civil service is the most depleted, in terms of power, by the RTI. So they are resistant to it. The commissions are full of ex-civil service. They are appointed by the government and maintained by it. Recent reports of reducing the salaries of the commissioners means they are lowering the stature of the commissioners.”

Roy believes the RTI currently needs a movement to keep the rights intact and protect those who exercise it. The RTI Story remembers the nearly 60 RTI activists who lost their lives for exercising their right to know. The campaign needs to go on. “It is important to make the campaign realise how pivotal it is for the future of Indian democracy. We must put pressure on Parliament to pass the other acts such as the Whistle-blowers Protection Act... It also calls for a large movement to demand not only the implementation of the laws in Parliament, but also issue warnings against any tampering with the rights already given.”

At Devdungri, 31 years on, there are changes. A sense of ownership over the RTI binds the people of Devdungri, Bhim and Beawar. Says Roy, “They feel they have given India the RTI Act.”

Published on April 27, 2018
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