BOOKS: THE RTI STORY

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Aakar Pa­tel

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.

PURUSHOTTAM DIWAKAR Aruna Roy

RIGHT TO KNOW

THE RTI STORY Power to the People By Aruna Roy with the MKSS Col­lec­tive ROLI BOOKS ` 495; 424 pages

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