While struggling for implementation of their legal right to the statutory minimum wage, the members of the MKSS realised that to enforce their economic rights and exercise democratic controls, they needed the right to access the documents, which constituted the basis for granting or denying them their rights. This information was stored with the Government and had been kept secret from the people.
They began by demanding transparency of financial records of expenditure in the Panchayat; the village council. Their demand for transparency, accountability, social audit (public audit by the people) and redressal (including the return of stolen public money), began with the first Public Hearing the MKSS organised in 1994.
The first set of Public Hearings was preceded by unofficially accessing the documents, as there was no legal entitlement. The contents of these documents were then shared and verified with the residents of the area. People came together on the date of the public hearing to testify and audit the work executed by their village council, and government officials.
The revelations of these first few public hearings led to an immediate and sharp reaction from government officials, who refused to share information and made it clear that in their view people had no right to access such documents.
The MKSS made a declaration of beginning a prolonged struggle till the citizens were given open access to the records of expenditure and governance at a local level. The Rajasthan Chief Minister and the Government responded to the pressure by making assurances which they did not keep.
The MKSS began a sustained struggle which was to last for three years, before they could get the assurances implemented- changing the Panchayat Raj Rules and widening the scope of their demands to the People’s Right to Information from all bodies that had an impact on public interest.
Their first set of demands was met in July 1997 when the Panchayati Raj Rules were amended by the Government of Rajasthan.
The public hearings held after these amendments have had a dramatic impact. Elected representatives and officials found guilty of corruption have publicly returned money, and ordinary citizens have seen how the right to access documents gives them an opening to ask questions and receive answers from those who rule. Today people are grappling with working out the modes by which people can effectively audit the decisions of those who rule in their name.
But there was need also for comprehensive legislation to expand and operationalise the implicit right to know contained in the fundamental right to the freedom of expression under Article 19 -1 A of the Indian Constitution.
The struggle in Rajasthan by poor people was symbolised by a slogan, which had brought the issue alive with a fresh perspective: “The Right to Know, the Right to Live”. It was clear therefore, that this had also to be seen as part of the fundamental right to life and liberty under article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In a democracy, without the right to know there can be no real right to exercise power and make the Government and the State machinery accountable to its people. The Constitution of India acknowledges that the people of India are the sovereign powers of independent India.
To exercise their sovereignty, and participate in governance in a responsible and ethical manner, the people must have a right to know.
In 1996 the NATIONAL CAMPAIGN FOR THE PEOPLES RIGHT TO INFORMATION (NCPRI), was created with a twin objective of drafting and campaigning for legislation to be passed at the Centre (Parliament) and the States; as well as supporting grass root struggles for access to government records and information critical to people’s lives.
India has inherited a colonial bureaucracy and a Westminster model of democracy, in which today both the elected government and the bureaucracy are riddled by corruption. Corruption impacts the poor people’s survival and the right of a citizenry to decide what would benefit the nation as a whole.
Right to Information is an effective tool to control corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power, and establish that the Government has to be accountable to its people. This can bring about a basic change in the relationship between the people and the Government. It can enable and empower people to exercise control over governance. And it has now become clear that it is critical to the struggle against the implementation of anti-people policies by governments who have become puppets in the hands of transnational financial powers.
If National Governments have to work with the people’s mandate, then links with the world outside cannot derail the poor and the citizen’s right to live, to know and decide on matters that affect their lives. People in different States have begun to use the right to probe and question decisions related to education, health, power projects, displacement, environment, and nuclear policies.
The Right to Information is not a right that will by itself solve all problems of corruption or the misuse of power. It is nevertheless a vitally important enabling campaign for all struggles for development rights, human rights and democratic rights.
The NCPRI, has been able to lobby both in the States and at the Centre, and today there are Right to Information Laws have been enacted in the States of Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Madhya Pradesh (1998), Rajasthan (2000), Maharashtra (2000), and Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Jammu and Kashmir (2003) and Assam (2003). Citizens pressure from across the country helped bring forth a greatly improved National Bill which was passed by Parliament in 2005, replacing the much weaker Freedom of Information Act passed in 2003. The Right to Information Act (2005) came into effect across the country in October 2005.
None of the Acts are perfect. In fact some of them, while paying lip service to the notion of the right to know, have well planned loopholes and exemptions to deny information. And even though the RTI Act 2005 is considered a strong law, bureaucrats and politicians continue to deny information through tardy implementation. These legislative and bureaucratic manipulations have shown even more clearly that information is power, and the ones who have it are loath to share it.
But the very fact that Legislatures have passed such laws shows too that democratic Governments cannot overtly deny the people’s right to know.
In such a situation the people recognise that they have to continue to agitate and struggle to formulate, and enforce paradigms of change which have the form and content that is true to their search for a better world.