Right to information is vital for common citizens: Arvind Kejriwal
Arvind Kejriwal, 39, launched the movement for the right to information in
During his brief visit to
TKP: You received the prestigious Magsaysay Award for your right-to-information movement in
Kejriwal: Constitutional basis of the right to information (RTI) goes back to 1976 when for the first time the Supreme Court of India said in a case that RTI is a part of our fundamental rights. Now unlike
The movement for enactment of this law started in the state of Rajasthan by Mrs Aruna Roy's Majdur Krishak Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). It was started by the poorest people there--farmers, laborers--where they started demanding minimum wages. They'd not been paid minimum wages. They were paid Rs 11 a day whereas the minimum wage at that time used to be Rs 22. And they said that if you are paying us Rs 11 you show us the pay roll, how much you have entered in the roll. Similarly, they started demanding information from Panchayat -- how much money is coming on their name and how much money is actually being spent in Panchayat records. So, this movement actually was started by MKSS in 1990 which slowly snowballed into a full RTI movement across the country. Many people joined in. And finally there was an RTI Act which was passed by the Parliament in 2005.
TKP: How did you involve yourself in the movement? Was it you who initiated the movement?
Kejriwal: The movement was simultaneously initiated by many people in many parts of the country. For example, Anna Hajare in
Indian movement is unique in the sense that it was started by the poorest people in the country. In that sense, they've demonstrated that the RTI is equal to 'rights to live' and that without it no government program functions well. RTI makes government transparent. It improves the efficacy of the government programs and, therefore, it is much interlinked to the lives of the ordinary people. And secondly, it has also proved that RTI is most critical for existence of democracy […] also critical for participatory democracy. Because I don't think democracy really means that you go once in five years and vote. Democracy really means that I, as a citizen should have the right to participate in governance in a day-to-day basis. And how do I participate if I don't know how much money is coming in my name, in my area? So unless I have information, I will not be able to participate in democracy.
TKP: You received the Magsaysay Award and the Ashoka Fellowship for your contribution on RTI. How did you contribute to that movement?
Kejriwal: Our role in RTI has been twofold. We got involved in RTI when Delhi RTI Act was passed in the year 2001. Since then, it is the implementation of RTI Act where we've been playing a major role in
One is that; earlier when people used to go to the government departments to get their day-to-day work done, they were forced to pay bribes. But now, when they use RTI Act, you find that the government officials do your work easily. Second thing that came out was that the ordinary people started demanding the government documents and keeping a check on the government works. So, they started demanding contracts and it had a great impact on the quality of works done by the government.
Then, we learnt how to do social audit. There is a concept of social audit that the society does the audit of the government works …. For instance, the first urban social audit was done by us in
Two more interesting things happened [when RTI Act started getting implemented]. The public distribution system, through which the government provides subsidized food to the poorest of the poor in
So, it is this one area, the uses of the RTI the way we used it, shaped awareness of the people. And we ran a national campaign called "drive against bribes." The campaign made a call to the entire nation that now if you have a legitimate pending work in any government departments, you don't need to pay bribes in
TKP: How many countries in the world have such RTI Act?
Kejriwal: There are 68 countries which have RTI Act. Indian law is said to be the best and the most effective one.
TKP: In what sense could you say so?
Kejriwal: First, it was drafted by the people and given to the government. Definition of RTI is quite vast in Indian Act. Normally, in many other countries you will find three provisions: you can ask for information, you can ask for inspection of documents and you can ask for photocopies of documents. Indian Act has two more components: you can ask for inspection of the government works and you can ask for sample of the materials used in any government works.
Second, India has a very strong panel clause -- which is not there in many countries -- that if an official doesn't give information in 30 days' time, the salary of the concerned officer shall be deducted at the rate of Rs 250 per day for the delay up to a maximum of Rs 25,000 or if he provides you incomplete, misleading and incorrect information, his salary can be deducted up to a maximum of Rs 25,000. This is unique to
TKP: How do you think this idea can be implemented in
Kejriwal: You see, you are very fortunate in that; your constitution already has 'right to information' as a fundamental right. So, the foundation is very strong but to implement that, you need a strong law to be in place. I'm told there is a law which is pending in the Parliament. I've taken a look at the law but, I think, that needs to be strengthened further. There are best practices available across the world; especially in
I should say that for any good RTI Act there should be strong law. First, there should be a strong penalty clause. Second, there should be an independent appellate body which listens to the appeals of the people who don't get satisfactory information. The body should comprise of retired judges, advocates, journalists, and eminent citizens. Third, the list of exclusions should be as small as possible.
When I've been speaking to people here in
TKP: What should be the measures you suggest
Kejriwal: First, this bill should be strengthened in the light of best practices across the world, and
Many people feel that RTI is about witch-hunting, about finding faults with the government and, therefore, many governments become skeptical about it. That is wrong information. It is about citizens holding their government accountable not only through parliamentary basis but on a day-to-day basis through the use of RTI Act.
TKP: As Nepal has a huge number of illiterate people, how do you think RTI can be exercised here?
Kejriwal: Two things are there. In India RTI is being used by a large number of people in rural areas. Citizens' groups and NGOs have played an important role here. NGOs have reached far and wide and they have taught how to use RTI to the people. So, first is its fellow citizens who are helping each other.
TKP: What do you think can be the role of NGOs when most of them in
Kejriwal: First, RTI is not just about seeking information from the government. It has to be seen in the context of ethical governance. We are demanding that the truth should be in the public domain, but this cannot be a one-way process. It has to be a two-way process -- when we are asking for information from the government, we ourselves, whether it is an individual, an NGO or any entity, should be willing to be transparent and truthful to the rest of the society. It is a process of introspection.
So, first, NGOs need to do homework and prepare themselves. Second, NGOs also have to play an important role in engaging with the government and they should try to get a good law. Third, when the law is there, they have a major role to play in creating awareness, in doing experiments with RTI, and in trying to find out how RTI can be linked to a life of a common man.
TKP: What obstacles did you come across while bringing this whole movement to this point?
Kejriwal: The biggest obstacle is to overcome the cynicism of the society. Society in
The second is to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles. Many bureaucrats are not willing to give information not because they want to hide something but because of a cultural problem that they are not used to answering questions to the public. This is a kind of feudal mindset within bureaucracy that the public or juniors cannot question the seniors.
The third obstacle is there from vested interest groups, vested interests both within the bureaucracy and outside it. RTI exposes wrongdoings within the government and when that is exposed, the people who were benefited start reacting. When they react, at times, they can be violent also. So, that is the third challenge.
And the fourth challenge that we are facing today, which