BOOKS: THE RTI STORY
Thirty years ago, four people—a former Indian Administrative Services officer, a couple from Rajasthan and a college dropout—moved into a hut in the village of Devdungri in Rajsamand district.
They wanted to work with citizens on the role of democratic institutions and their rights. They sought to do this through mobilisation, meaning getting masses of people behind an issue. This is the hardest aspect of civil society work but also the most effective. And they wanted to do this outside the political system. Living in the village gave them the opportunity, this book tells us, “to consistently raise issues through simple, everyday action”.
The four individuals—Aruna Roy, Shankar and Anshi Singh and Nikhil Dey—started working on the things that people they were living amongst were affected by. Such as the minimum wage that was promised to those working on government famine relief. This sum was Rs 11 a day, later raised to Rs 22, but the workers got less, often as little as Rs 5 or even Rs 2. A series of protests by this group—now named the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan— and the people that they mobilised brought the matter to prominence, and the group to the government’s notice.
The bureaucrats and the politicians would lie to the group to break up their fasts and protests, without meaningfully changing the processes by which citizens were paid their dues. This led the MKSS to conclude that the real issue was transparency and in the absence of an openness in the way the government distributed the funds, there would always be corruption and arbitrariness. The efforts that they put in once they understood this produced what we call today the Right to Information Act of 2005, the most powerful tool the Indian citizen possesses; for many, as important as the vote.
This success came after long decades of hard, public facing work, whose details this book chronicles. If one is looking for the recipes to produce real and meaningful change in a democratic polity, here is the cookbook. Readers may be familiar with Roy also because of her work on the National Advisory Council, the body in the first Manmohan Singh government that also gave us MNREGA.
This is a remarkable book for its content, of course, because of the impact that the MKSS has had on the lives of all Indians. RTI is a tool that many others have used to come into prominence, most famously Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia. But this book is also remarkable for the manner in which it has been written. Its tone is modest and the language is shorn of any ornamentation. It is a most readable and engrossing work and the absence of boastfulness is striking given the content.
The four individuals paid themselves minimum wage, which they continue to draw today. It is difficult to think of others in civil society who have come in to this sort of work and remained true to first principles.
India is a strange democracy with a fine, liberal Constitution whose promise is violated by the everyday actions of the state. Civil society victories have been very few, and most movements have in fact ended in failure. The achievement of the MKSS—like this book—is an absolute triumph.
RIGHT TO KNOW
THE RTI STORY Power to the People By Aruna Roy with the MKSS Collective ROLI BOOKS ` 495; 424 pages