In conversation with Vinita Deshmukh, Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal talks about India's RTI movement, and worries that a formidable tool of empowerment might slip out of the hands of citizens if amendments proposed by the UPA government are enacted.
07 August 2006 - An IIT graduate and a former bureaucrat with the Indian Revenue Service, Arvind Kejriwal has created a silent social revolution in the Right To Information (RTI) movement in the country through his organization, 'Parivartan'. Propelling common people to invoke the Act, he streamlined the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Delhi where information obtained under the RTI revealed that the shopkeepers and food grain officers siphoned off 87 percent of wheat and 94 percent of rice meant for the poor.
He used Gandhiji's favourite weapon of Satyagraha in cases where the government departments hesitated to appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs) or where they refused to adopt transparency, as required by the RTI Act. He has been guiding hundreds of faceless citizens to use the RTI for their right to have proper public utility services, since they are the taxpayers to whom the local and state governments are duty-bound to provide the information.
His passion and dedication to this movement in India have been aptly recognized with this year's Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership, recently bestowed upon him. In an exclusive interview to India Together, Kejriwal gives an insight into the RTI movement in India, and worries that this formidable tool of empowerment might slip out of the hands of citizens if amendments proposed by Manmohan Singh's government are enacted. Vinita Deshmukh spoke with him.
How does it feel to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsasay Award, and what are its implications for the Right To Information movement in India?
Firstly, I would like to clarify that the award does not belong to me – it belongs to the entire RTI movement and every RTI activist in the country. I am happy that the world has responded so positively to the RTI movement in India. Though sadly, the Indian government is all set to kill it through amendments, which it proposes to pass shortly in the Parliament, with disastrous effects on transparency, which had just made its presence felt in the country. I have procured the copy of these amendments and if it is passed by the Parliament, then it will practically kill the RTI movement in our country.
One of the crucial amendments is the deletion of 'file notings' by civil servants in administrative matters, which has created an uproar among RTI activists across the country. What are the implications of making file notings inaccessible to the common man? Also can you elaborate on other proposed amendments?
As for the file notings, the proposed amendment says that they will be provided only in case of 'substantial' social and development issues. The word 'substantial' has not been defined and it therefore has no meaning. What it implies though is that each time a citizen requests for file notings he or she will have to hire an advocate to argue his case of whether the particular social or development issue is 'substantial' enough to demand transparency. Secondly, for any information given, the name of the officer or reference to any individual will be obliterated, which means an end to transparency, as government officers and politicians, even if corrupt, will be shielded.
Also, no information on any development project will be given unless and until the project is completed. Which hypothetically means, if a river project is going to take 20 years to complete, the citizen will not be able to access any information about its contents or question its progress, never mind if it may happen to be environmentally disastrous. No one can question the progress of the Enron project until it is completed. In Delhi, we had successfully stopped water privatization after we invoked the RTI and found that it was flawed.
Such privatisation would have made water more expensive for the citizens. At the ordinary level, people will not be able to find out the status of their passports until the passport has been issued to them. Sometimes, this may take two years, but the citizen will have no choice but to be at the mercy of the authorities. People will not able to demand as to why their ration cards are taking so much time to be issued. Otherwise, we have been invoking the RTI for these purposes and successfully speeding up the issuance of these vital documents of the common man.
Fourthly, now the Cabinet papers are never going to the disclosed until a Cabinet decision has been made. Until now, Cabinet papers were open to public scrutiny during the process of decision making, so that any decision that could adversely affect the good of the public could be questioned. These sometimes comprised notings of 10-15 files. Now, you can see them only after it's too late – when the Cabinet decision has been finalised.
Now that you have won the prestigious award, people across the country would be looking up to you to spearhead a protest campaign against these proposed amendments, which aim at official secrecy instead of transparency. What is your action plan?
Of course, opposing the amendment is going to be my top priority and biggest challenge now. However, I want to tell everyone that nation-wide protests should not be confined to RTI activists only. Since these amendments are going to affect everyone's life with disastrous consequences, the media as well as the people should wage a war.
From this week onwards, up to August 25, a number of events are being organised in Delhi and large parts of the country to protest against the attempt of the government to strangulate the common man's 'right to know' right. What's distressing and scandalising is that, the government is extremely secretive about the proposed amendments and is not willing to even make the draft proposal public. Somehow, I have managed to procure a copy. It is also secretive about when it is going to pass these amendments. So, at a time when the country was successfully moving towards transparency, the government is hell bent on taking a retrograde step.
How successful do you think the RTI movement in India has been? Do you think there are some pockets where it has been particularly effective?
I would say that the movement has been more successful in those states where the Act existed even before the Central Act was implemented in October 2001. In union territories like Delhi and states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Goa, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, people are well-versed with the Act and the government officers know what it means. Thus, the culture of RTI has set in firmly in these places. RTI has been invoked in innumerable cases across the length and breadth of the country with effective results. Thus proving that citizens can move the government if they are given a proper legislative and administrative set-up. However, this great power of transparency is slipping out of our hands.
Being a graduate from the elite IIT corridors of learning and having a cushy government job at the bureaucratic level, what drew you towards this people's movement?
It did not happen overnight, but took six to seven years to evolve. I was very happy with my government job but there was a lurking feeling of so much corruption, which existed at the level of the common man. He was asked to pay at every step for a work, which a government officer is duty bound to do by law. Thus, the common man was being forced into corruption, since he was asked to pay bribes at every stage. As a deputy commissioner of the Income Tax department, I helped people to get their jobs done without any middle men and without having to pay bribes to government personnel and also formed Parivartan as a platform to address people's grievances.
However, when the RTI Act was implemented in Delhi in 2001, we realized its power accidentally. When a citizen, Ashok Gupta came with a grievance that he was not getting his electricity connection for two years because he refused to bribe the concerned Delhi Vidyut board officials, instead of taking up his complaint with the department, we asked him to file an application under the new found RTI.
He wanted to know the names of the officials who have not taken action on his application, since, as per law, a consumer is supposed to receive his electricity connection within 30 days of applying for it. Immediately, he was provided with the connection. It was almost miraculous. How did this magic happen? In ordinary circumstances, such an application would have been consigned to the dustbin. This gave me the idea of the immense power of citizen empowerment. Thereafter, I went on a long leave and pursued the RTI campaign amongst common people, in full swing. In February this year, I finally resigned from the government.
Your success in streamlining the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Delhi is well known. What is its status today?
Streamlining the PDS in Delhi has been a long process. It also entailed attacks on women who were fighting for the cause. The Delhi government decided to systematise the areas and people have begun getting rations without hiccups. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) had been filed and we intervened. About two months back, the Supreme Court appointed the Wadhwa Commission to look into the distribution set-up in the PDS and make recommendations. The corrupt PDS officials, though, have yet to be booked.
You had formed the Delhi RTI Manch. Does it still exist now?
Yes, the Manch meets every second Sunday of the month. It is a platform for RTI activists to come and discuss any issue related to the right to know movement. In case of any urgent issue, we approach the relevant authorities. About 40-50 people generally congregate at every meeting.
What has been your moment of triumph in your RTI campaign?
My biggest moment of triumph was when a faceless woman, Triveni, filed an RTI application and followed it up. A resident of a slum colony, in East Delhi, she holds an Antyodaya card issued by the government for the poorest of the poor, by which she is entitled to food grains like wheat and rice at subsidised rates of two rupees and five rupees per kilogram respectively. However, Triveni used to buy wheat for Rs.5 per kg and rice for Rs.10 per kg.
When she came to know of the actual rates from Parivartan in February 2003 she was shocked and with our guidance, she filed an RTI application. What she asked for was details of rations issued to her as per records and also copies of cash memos purported to have been issued to her. Cash memos are receipts, which a shopkeeper is supposed to issue for every transaction and take signature of the customer.
The reply stated that Triveni had been issued 25 kgs of wheat at Rs.2 per kg and 10kgs of Rice at Rs.3 per kg every month, in the last three months, when in actuality she had not received even a grain during that period. The cash memos showed thumb impressions in her name although she is literate and always signs.
Shocked, she decided to confront the shopkeeper but having heard of the procurement of this information, the shopkeeper came to her house and pleaded to mend ways. Since then she has been getting the right amount of ration at the right price, thus proving that the tool of RTI places enormous power in the hands of the common people. Otherwise, no one would have listened to a poor woman like Triveni. This is a fine example of how the right to know redefines relationships between the people and the government in real terms.
And what has been your moment of agony?
Undoubtedly, the ongoing attempt by the government to dilute the Act.