ARUNA ROY, NIKHIL DEY and SHANKER SINGH
THIS was the year of the scam. One followed another to a point where figures lost all meaning. It was also a year which saw an activist court taking punitive action against guilty politicians. Yet we know that the revelations are not consequences of extra-active, or extraordinary investigative agencies. The body politic has been festering for too long with hidden wounds. The rot, as we well know, has set in everywhere.
What is more discouraging, however, is the belief that these revelations or sanctions will effectively curb an arbitrary exercise of power. Will politicians make less money or bureaucrats stop taking their share? Will there be fewer kickbacks? Will less black money be needed to fight an election? Will it be possible to get jobs without paying bribes? Will business houses be forced to realise that some things cannot be bought, whatever the price?
This is the context in which we examine the wider ramifications of a peoples’ campaign for transparency and accountability in rural Rajasthan. It is a parallel campaign where a different set of questions have been posed – questions framed initially by the rural poor, and which offer us more than just a critique of Indian democracy today.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is a peoples’ organisation that has used processes of collective analysis and political action as a means of empowerment. For those concerned with people living on the edge of poverty and sustenance, development priorities have become linked to the issue of survival. In the face of increasing unemployment and retrenchment, the diminishing role of the state and its withdrawal from social responsibilities, the poor can now see the development strategy as a systematic effort to paralyse their access to power through a variety of methods. Their exploration led to the identification of the jan sunwaii or public hearing as an effective mode where they could speak and be heard. The public hearings on development expenditure at the panchayat level have led to a crystallization of issues and given a tangible quality to the abstract notion of transparency and the right to information.1
The Sangathan has understood the importance of entitlements in its various struggles. Information is seen as an important entitlement because withholding information weakens the foundation of struggles. The state as the biggest development agency inevitably becomes the target for demanding transparency and information. In areas such as Rajasthan – arid and poor in natural resources – government programmes assume greater importance. In this context peoples’ demand for a right to livelihood, wages and employment were immediately translated into a demand to know how much money was allocated and where and how it was spent. ‘Hamara paisa, hamara hisab’. In other words, accountability became a critical issue in the public hearings organised in five blocks of four districts. Four demands were made: transparency of development spending, accountability, sanctity of social audit and redressal.
The initial queries of the MKSS were fobbed off with overall figures for the district. Although this basic data could be used to critique policy and allocations in general, it did not help the ordinary citizen understand why the village road was not properly built or full wages not paid. When details were sought, the administration, fearing exposure, fell back on traditional arguments for not sharing information. As one goes down the bureaucratic line, information is that much harder to get. After all, it directly affects pay-offs and graft.
At the start of the campaign in June 1994, the MKSS did manage to access fairly detailed information. This was obtained partially through pressure, though some officials did issue supportive instructions to their juniors. However, once the implication of a simple demand for detailed information became clear, the prevarication began. The gram sewaks and BDOs used every ruse to withhold information, as it had a direct relationship to their immediate lives.
Public hearings, which took the form of a public audit, dramatically clarified how doctored accounts may fool official auditors but not the people. They illustrated why transparency of bills, vouchers and muster rolls was required; why social audit was more important than a financial one. Village residents realised that questions must be asked if they were to get their share of the development cake. If 85% of development funds vanish en route, the civil servant or politician is unlikely to ask why.
In the first public hearing in Kot Kirana (Pali district) muster rolls revealed that half the names were fictitious. There were also several false bills. The dramatic nature of the revelations was brought home when a building at the site of the public hearing was shown on record as completed – billed for doors, windows, roofing and even finishing – whereas it stood in front of everyone without even its walls in place!
In Bhim, Rajsamand district where the next public hearing was held on 7 December 1994, it was the same story. It was discovered that Bhairon Nath and Company had defrauded the block of Rs 37 lakh through false billing. In fact, the company, which existed only on paper, had been checked and cleared by government auditors.
In Vijaypura, Rajsamand district, benami sales shown on paper as public auctions had resulted in the disposal of land on the national highway worth over a crore. The amount remitted to the panchayat as the auction price was a fraction of the booty, with only amounts from Rs 500 to 5000 realised for plots worth over a lakh. In Devgarh block, a group of anganwadi workers related a story of graft amounting to Rs 14 lakh over four years by their lady supervisors. This from a programme which provides malnourished children with 56 grams of dalia and 8 gms of oil per day!
Though the administration chose to keep away from the hearings, it was unable to ignore the fallout. After the first two hearings, FIRs were lodged and officials suspended. The gram sewaks decided to go on strike. They went up to the state government asserting that their association was answerable only to senior officials and would share information with official audit parties, not with any social audit. Ironically, this only helped the movement to expand. From a demand for transparency, the emphasis shifted to a peoples’ right to information. The denial of such information by the gram sewaks made the dialectic simple and clear.
The MKSS threatened to initiate a state-wide agitation for the right to information. Interestingly, the Chief Minister, at a public meeting in Jawaja (Ajmer district) – which had earlier witnessed the gram sewaks’ agitation – declared that all information would be shared with the people. Later, on 5 April 1995, he announced in the state assembly that people had a right to information and that photocopies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls would be made available. He added that the state government would set up a special department to look into complaints of financial irregularities.
The panchayat representatives, despite their written assurances to furnish all documents to the electorate, took a cue from the gram sewaks and the BDO office and organised themselves as a lobby to protest against transparency. The sarpanches, including women (33%), succinctly summed up their opposition: if they were to be transparent in the panchayat, how would they recover the money spent on election campaigns? In an effort to supress the enquiries, women sarpanches were instigated to physically assault MKSS activists.
For over a year officials and political representatives at all levels were petitioned that the CM’s announcement be translated into written orders. When this was not forthcoming, the MKSS issued a notice and sat in dharna. The government reacted to the dharna notice by issuing a truncated order: applicants were now allowed inspection rights and the right to make pencil notes. The people refused to accept this as sufficient. They demanded photocopies which would reduce fudging, and could be taken home to be read and analysed. An authenticated document would also eliminate the need for a long drawn out preliminary official enquiry. Given the low levels of literacy in rural Rajasthan, this was a valid demand.
Fearing the outcome of transparency and yet keen to project a progressive image, the bureaucracy ignored the dharna and refused to recognise the people and their right to be heard. All negotiations during the dharna were summed up as... ‘The issue is a right one but your methods are all wrong... The issue is right but it is very complicated to implement...’ One senior civil servant went so far as to say, ‘It is only an assurance, and many are made. What is so special about this one?’
The poor have always fought their own battles, generally lonely ones. They have had to confront their neighbours, sometimes relatives, take on the powerful in the village community, testify, speak out, expose themselves. They have no one in power protecting their class interests. But this time they secured the support of some unlikely allies. Many in the village helped because this struggle made public the rape of the community and its collective resources. This information helped draw a line of demarcation between those who were part of the extortion network and the rest.
The dharna drew extraordinary support from a cross-section of society. Over 150 villages got together to donate grain. Sympathisers from Beawar contributed Rs 46,000. Free vegetables and water, free photography and video recording services were provided. The dharna brought hope to a people tired of the facile rituals of yet another election to the Lok Sabha. It showed that there were ways open to make the state more responsible and responsive. People clearly understood that the ‘abstract’ concept of the right to information offered a means to take some matters in their own hands.
The dharna site therefore became a place where lawyers, poets, politicians, journalists, women, trade unions, political parties, ordinary citizens, doctors and, of course, peasants and workers came together to think collectively about what should be done to make the state accountable. Apart from the 400 letters of support from organisations and individuals, the dharna raised the question of citizens’ responsibilities. There was a perceptible change in mood when a helpless electorate demanded control of a small part of its political destiny. Their earlier apathy was a result of a lack of faith in the struggle for change. Hope awakens the desire for active participation in the democratic process. Thus, from transparency grew the demand for accountability. Could a bureaucrat or an elected representative ignore their mandate?
After a month of confronting an administration unwilling to negotiate, a simultaneous dharna began in Jaipur. The range of support continued to grow. The administration was finally forced to set up a committee to work out the practical details of fulfilling the Chief Minister’s commitment made on the floor of the house.2 Stonewalling by the administration had its positive fallout: the message spread during the 40 days of agitation.
The Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, invited individuals from different professional backgrounds to a series of meetings during the course of the jan sunwais. This culminated in the framing of the first draft legislation on the people’s right to information. The local, regional and national press placed this issue on its agenda. Widespread reportage helped spread the message. These meetings led to the formation of a national campaign in July 1996.
The Press Institute and the Press Council had followed the issue since the Beawar dharna. The Press Council took on the job of drafting the final version of the bill, while the Press Institute undertook to publish a monthly bulletin on issues concerning the campaign. The draft bill has now been finalised under the Chairmanship of Justice P.B. Sawant and presented to the Government of India. Members of the Lok Sabha have also received copies of the bill. The United Front government has made a commitment that a right to information bill will be introduced in Parliament within six months.
Democracy, and a real sharing of political power, is far beyond the reach of the common man. Elected representatives have shown a lack of concern for the electorate. Ethics has been divorced from governance, people from their representatives, development from the well-being of those for whom it is intended, education from responsibility. Corruption has therefore become the hallmark of governments and their hypocritical stances. Political parties have ceased to look critically at themselves or the processes they are involved in. Civil servants have sold their souls to the devil with Faustian sophistry. The electorate has been beguiled by a revival of caste loyalties, and offers of a taste of paradise. Global alternatives have been narrowed to a Hobson’s choice – free markets symbolised by Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsicola, Uncle Chips, Star TV and the horrifying prospect of the rape of natural resources for the gods of profit. The intellectuals have sunk deep into their armchairs in bewilderment.
When the MKSS sat in dharna, the issue had its genesis in a strong local struggle. But the struggle also threw up issues outside its immediate environment.
The reaction of the gram sewaks was not unexpected, but their fears helped the people realise that they had caught an important nerve-end. The gram sewaks, though at the bottom of the bureaucratic edifice, echo the bureaucratic position. In seminars and workshops, members of the bureaucracy have expressed concern about corruption and the colossal tragedy of development. If only this concern was genuine, there would have been greater support for the campaign on transparency – for the culture of secrecy is so ingrained that it is possible to neutralise constitutional and democratic obligations. In Rajasthan, this campaign offered a shackled bureaucracy a chance to garner public support and cleanse the system. But no bureaucrat in the state even initiated a debate on how this could be done. In its silence and non-cooperation the bureaucracy exposed itself. Whose side is the bureaucracy on? Such questions need to be asked of a deeply entrenched neo-colonial service which continues to perceive itself as a special entity.
In contrast, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy went beyond hosting meetings and expressed unstinting support for the issue. A member of its staff, now posted as Commissioner, Bilaspur, in Madhya Pradesh, passed an extraordinary order giving citizens the right to photocopy all documents relating to the public distribution system – with a provision for fining any official who delayed the process. Even here the most strident opposition came from the bureaucracy. But what the Academy and some of its officers show is that if the civil servant is willing, it is possible to act.
The political establishment displayed different shades of reaction. Politicians not in power have for obvious reasons been more supportive. And many have come out with written and verbal support. For instance, during the agitation, politicians from across the political spectrum participated in large numbers. They were part of the dialogue, looking at transparency and right to information in its many facets. They recognised it as an important issue with far reaching consequences. However, the political establishment was caught between a desire to make popular announcements and a knowledge of just how suicidal such legislation could be. For a class that has repeatedly promised and forgotten, the prospect of an electorate exercising its right to hold them to their word is disconcerting and threatening. So, despite the obvious popularity of the issue, no political party or leader has adopted it as its own.
Local politicians and sarpanches, most directly affected, have withdrawn from their earlier assurances of transparency. Unlike the civil servants who hide behind government procedures, the local politicians frankly admit that this would affect their income. Since their election is not funded by political parties, they need to appropriate money for themselves.
The Chief Minister who sits on top of the pile, is caught between the radical assurance made in the assembly and his intent. Held to it, he takes recourse to more assurances or silence and delay tactics. The MLAs and ministers have begun to abuse the Sangathan and express open hostility towards its activists. Naturally there has been a counter demand for information about the Sangathan, its expenses and sources of funds. For the Sangathan, the exercise of preparing comprehensible accounts for the people has increased its credibility and neutralised the whispering campaigns inevitably used to undermine such agitations. It has also clarified that anyone who raises the issue would first have to apply it to themselves.
Why has the issue of transparency and the right to information arisen as a popular demand 50 years after Independence and the framing of a democratic constitution? How has such an ‘academic’ issue become part of a struggle for livelihood?
Some of its roots lie in a struggling group’s collective understanding of changing relationships and power equations in a fluid socio-political scenario. Village people know their reality. But for any kind of change, this is not enough. They must also comprehend the mechanics of power and the idiom of a ‘so-called democratic polity’. Since authority is vested in structures that span a large canvas, the comprehension of their own small, specific reality has often been dismissed as trivial or insignificant.
The government in turn thrives on a culture of secrecy and silence, an inheritance from its colonial past. Occasionally, the pressures of democracy force it to reveal information, but often this is so general that little benefit can be derived. In focusing on the muster rolls, bills and vouchers, a nerve-end has been exposed. A beginning has been made in the fight for the state’s accountability to its own people. This has now moved onto the more fundamental questions of transparency of functioning and a democratic sharing of power and responsibility.
Enough has been said about peoples’ knowledge not to have to re-define it. But it would be interesting to re-examine it in the context of the present struggle. Whenever working village women and men in Rajasthan get together, they bring with them a wealth of information about their work and experience of development – detailed accounts of work sites, who worked, how they were cheated, what materials arrived and to whom they went (most often not to the work site). These accounts may be biased, but they are always minute in detail and inter-related with many other happenings. Evening chats in rural Rajasthan are invariably marked by exchanges of this sort.
Working people try and use this method of collecting information, culled and retained mainly through the oral tradition, in their dealing with modern structures like panchayats. Non-payment of minimum wages and cheating at work sites, however, could never be substantiated, because officialdom countered the charges with, ‘But the papers do not say so’. Semi-literate and literate workers began to enter information in their little diaries; one was flaunted in public view in Beawer as a parallel in essence and substance to the Jain diaries! Even then, official documents were al-ways contrary to what people knew was right.
So arose the demand for transparency. To ask was the first step. The black humour of a ‘mate’ running away with a muster roll under his arm was matched by stories of cows consuming muster rolls! Once the importance of access to a muster roll was defined in people’s minds, the shades of corruption also became clearer. Muster rolls filled but gone; major discrepancies between kucha muster rolls prepared on site and official muster rolls submitted for payment; totally fraudulent muster rolls – a variety of methods resulting in the disapperance of huge amounts of money without a trace.
Once the muster roll was identified and highlighted as an important primary modus for defrauding people of wages, a logical second step was the demand to see bills and vouchers. People observe tractors laden with material; they count empty sacks. They notice that money is paid and transactions concluded. A village existence, in any case, does not allow for great secrecy. Also, it is difficult to hide materials like stones, cement, chuna and stone slabs; people know where these go. But the government auditor comes and gives a clean chit and all seems well. With new buildings showing cracks and brand new check-dams sprouting fountains, indifference has given way to indignation. Examining accounts is now recognised as an important skill. Though accounts may not be understood in their overall form of balance sheets and bank statements, people do recognise a fraudulent bill for 65 bags of cement at higher than market rates when only 20 arrived.
People are well-equipped to demystify accounting technology. We have excellent systems by which illiterate women traditionally lend money, working out dues to the last paisa. What people need to know are the methods through which frauds are possible by one group of people and supported through apparently legal methods by others. The unnecessarily complicated rules and orders, used only to facilitate corruption, must be understood to be countered. What lies within the four corners of an official order is not necessarily just.
The right to information issue has been talked about in seminars and policy papers for over a decade. It is also a standard catchword in the lexicon of every national politician and political party. But what shot the MKSS struggle into prominence is that it is perhaps the first grassroots struggle for the right to information. While important peoples’ struggles like the Narmada Bachao Andolan and those of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy also emphasised the right to access specific kinds of information, this demand was lost in the larger canvas.
By highlighting the citizen’s birthright to obtain information on matters affecting their lives, the MKSS campaign has given space to a wide spectrum of interest groups to see themselves as a part of this struggle. In this case, the specific demand for photocopies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls was indeed seen as an illustration of the importance of the demand, giving it immediate life and meaning. The difference between the issue of transparency and a peoples’ demand for the right to information indicates a fundamental shift in who asks the questions.
Demanding information is more than the framing of a question. It is an attack on the culture of secrecy, the hidden vested interests and the structures that control decision-making. People in Rajasthan and elsewhere see the significance of the issue in their own lives and struggles. Also, the need for victory on the specific demand. The political machinery which had only paid lip service to the issue for years, found itself ill-equipped to deny this simple demand, given its implications for a radical shift in the sharing and wielding of power.
Speaking on television, US President, Ronald Reagan explained the size of the American budget by piling up dollar notes, calculating how high the pile would rise on its way to the moon. It did seem at the time that it was the only way he could comprehend what so many zeroes after a given numeral meant. The figures involved in the recent scams have also reached similar proportions. After a point you stop counting and lose track.
A scam a day. Every morning, newpapers bring to our homes yet another story of a nation taken for a ride. Hawala, gawala, urea, the stock market, uniforms, medicines, land, shoe contracts, bureaucrats selling the country, politicians selling themselves, investigating agencies selling time, and newspapers and magazines selling like hotcakes because of it all. The middle class hates paying the bribes it does – for a berth on the train, for clearing a building plan, for getting a government job, a transfer, a place for their children in college, for getting the phone repaired, the electricity meter fixed, the license renewed. There is an obsession with corruption. Yet what the middle class hates even more is fighting a lonely battle. There is a need for a Lochinvar – a Seshan, Khairnar, Kiran Bedi, Alphons, and now an entire band of knights in shining armour, the Supreme Court. It has been celebrating the activism of its new heroes in this never ending proxy war.
While these heroes have played an outstanding part in these battles, is this a solution? There is a degree of truth in the assertion that corruption is a never ending malaise. Anti-corruption campaigns are used from time to time to alter the balance of power between competing equals. Many feel that corruption is an entirely symptomatic and superficial political issue; that endemic causes of such systemic malaise are never examined as a result of such battles. After all, we know that what has been revealed is only the tip of the iceberg. We are all convinced that under any contract, any patronage, in any sector, lies a scam. We have seen how investigating agencies and audit bodies have failed in their duty, such that each scam has grown to gigantic proportions. We are relieved that some big names have finally gone to jail, and that some others are spending a lot of time seeking bail. But none of this is likely to change the way the nation is run. We are happy that some thieves have been caught, but remain certain that the daylight robbery will continue.
How then does the MKSS campaign differ? Is it not also a campaign against corruption? The scams uncovered in monetary terms are miniscule in comparison to the national ones. The people identified as thieves are mere pawns in a system where the powerful continue to call the shots. What is the significance of the MKSS experience?
The most important factor of the campaign in rural Rajasthan is that it is a peoples’ struggle. For the primary movers in the struggle, corruption is only incidental, though undoubtedly an important issue. It is an external manifestation of the denial of a right, an entitlement, a wage, a medicine, a bag of urea, 20 kgs of ration rice, 56 gms of dalia and 8 gms of oil. Corruption is the denial of a right to question.
Information has enabled an exposure of the contradiction between promise and action in the polity. It has been a battle led by the poor (or an organisation of the poor) where the ‘vested’ interest in changing the systems of exploitation is linked to their livelihood and survival. This is immensely significant because the entire edifice stands on this huge foundation of institutionalised robbery. At this ‘grassroots’ level, such an exposure reveals that for the people at the receiving end of such extraction, corruption and exploitation mean the same thing. The campaign has also shown the middle class that its security is extremely fragile and that its own future is linked to a tottering structure.
It is this marriage of interests between the poor and the middle class that contains the seeds of a peoples’ movement against something much larger than corruption. The specifics may vary from area to area, but the movement has found a tool which exposes the contradictions of an economic order based on profit and money, while claiming to ‘sustainably develop’ all. It removes the veneer from statistics and presents specifics. It allows those at the bottom to not merely demand their voice be heard, but that their questions be answered. Their questions contain the ingredients of a debate on ethics and governance for which our people are ready. After all, despite a huge increase in personal resources of the middle and upper income groups, there is a growing disquiet about the simplistic packaging of development.
There is unhappiness with the obvious lack of ethics in governance. And there is at least a nagging doubt that things are not quite as they should be. The questions being raised by the poor are based on an indisputable reality which is at gross variance with what has been put on record. The emperor is indeed wearing no clothes!
Even after questioning and a larger assertion by hundreds of people, the government sits inactive. There is a facade of helplessness that covers its lack of intent. The government uses inefficiency as an excuse for deliberate inaction since accountability threatens to pare down all perks. The situation now stands at a point where every inch has to be fought for. There is a need therefore to build public opinion over a large canvas before real power-sharing can begin. The information battle is only the beginning of a long struggle to share power. But the right to information is by itself not enough. The people are frustrated, faced by a government which admits theft and fraud, but will not punish; which knows of its misgovernance and looks the other way. The pending first information reports (FIRs), enquiry reports collecting dust – all make the intent clear. The demand for greater accountability is an essential ingredient in the battle for participatory democracy.
Where then do solutions lie? Not in seeing any particular tool, movement, struggle or law as the magic wand. That only takes us to the same mindset which has resulted in our democratic institutions becoming perverted versions of what they were meant to be. Democracy in the last 50 years has been manipulated so that democratic participation has been reduced to a vote once every five years. Asserting one’s right to participate in decision-making in an everyday sense, rather than once every five years, carries with it the responsibility of using that space. The dispossessed are always prepared to seize any new space. Indian democracy will only reflect the peoples’ voice if it changes its emphasis from the present representative character to a genuine participation of the people themselves. And here lies the burden on all of us. The battle is for more than a right to ask, more than a right to monitor; indeed it is an important first step in an assertion to be heard and to call the bluff of a democratic system. By the people? Of the people? For the people?
* Reproduced from ‘India 1996’, Seminar 449, January 1997.
1. For details of the mode of public hearings, see Seminar 431, July 1995, pp. 42-46.
2. The committee set up to look into implementing the cm’s assurance of transparency submitted its report in August 1996. The ultimate irony is that the government has refused to divulge its contents, marking the document ‘secret’.