Right to information is vital for common citizens: Arvind Kejriwal

Right to information is vital for common citizens: Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal, 39, launched the movement for the right to information in India. Recipient of prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership and the Ashoka Fellowship for his contribution to India's right-to-information movement and empowering poor citizens to fight corruption, Kejriwal also founded Parivartan, an organization which works for democracy, transparency and accountability in India. A strong advocate for the right to information, he says right to information is important for common citizens to make the government bodies more accountable and transparent. He also strongly holds the view that Nepal has huge potentiality in driving the movement for the right to information. He was also surprised to find that majority people in Nepal think the right to information is for journalists.

During his brief visit to Nepal last week, the former Indian civil servant, now a social activist, Kejriwal shared his experiences with Ghanashaym Ojha and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post.


TKP: You received the prestigious Magsaysay Award for your right-to-information movement in India. Please share with us, how you started the movement.

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 Nepal, where RTI is specifically mentioned as a fundamental right, it is just a part of the rights in India. In India, we've freedom of speech and expression and the Supreme Court said that a person cannot speak or express himself unless he knows. Therefore, the right to know or RTI is a part of our fundamental rights. But just having RTI in constitution is not sufficient. RTI was declared as a part of fundamental rights but people could not exercise that right because there was no legal machinery available, which they could use to exercise the right. So, there was a need for a law, a law which could say that this would be the office of concern; you go to the office; this will be the form' you fill it up; and in 30 days information has to be given. All this process or the machinery had to be provided by the law for the exercise of the RTI.

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 Maharashtra started the move and it got State RTI Act in 2002 because of the movement. Similarly, in many other states, citizens stood and started demanding. It became a citizen's movement. So, it is really owned by the citizens of India.

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 Delhi. Three, four things came out in huge shape.

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 Delhi in which we obtained copies of 182 government contracts which were carried out by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. We verified these contracts, we went to the sites, and we found out that more than 50 percent of the money had been siphoned off. So, when people started doing social audit, the government officials came to know that the people have become aware and now they cannot take things for granted.

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 India, was in complete shamble. In most of the places in Delhi, the people had been given to understand that there is no PDA and that the government stopped sending supplies for the poor people and the shops hadn't opened for several years. What was actually happening was the supply was coming and it was being skimmed off to the black market. When records were obtained by us under the RTI Act and made public, the people, for the first time, came to know that actually the food was coming. And just because of that many stalls and shops started opening up.

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 India. Use RTI, it works more effectively than bribery. This campaign was done in 55 cities in association with almost 700 organizations, and all eight mainstream media houses participated in this campaign wherein help centers were set up in 55 cities. So, this awareness was one.

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 India. Thirdly, the list of exclusions is very small, and therefore, the scope of information is very vast in India.

TKP: How do you think this idea can be implemented in Nepal?

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 India we have a strong RTI Act.

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 Nepal, I've been given to understand that in some government circles, RTI is treated as some kind of a press freedom, which is wrong information. In this particular sense, RTI is not linked to the citizens' rights. Of course, it benefits press freedom but more than that it is intricately related to the existence of democracy, and to the empowerment of the poorest people in the country.

TKP: What should be the measures you suggest Nepal should take to replicate the Indian best practices?

Kejriwal: First, this bill should be strengthened in the light of best practices across the world, and Nepal should have a good RTI law, which should be made by the government in consultation with the people, the civil societies. Once there is law, then there is the need for strong awareness to be spread across the country so that a large number of people start using RTI.

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.

Second, Bihar has recently done a very interesting experiment. This issue [illiteracy] came up. Is this RTI going to remain outside the reach of so many people? Bihar has given a telephone number. So, you don't need to draft your RTI application. You can ask for information by phone which is recorded on the other side. And after 30 days, the same call center, who is taking that call, can provide that information to that person on phone. So, through phone also you can use RTI. Government can accept application and it can provide information on phone for which the applicant will receive Rs 10 on his/her telephone bill as the application fee.

TKP: What do you think can be the role of NGOs when most of them in Nepal are donor-funded and not transparent?

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.

Especially in India, NGOs who receive funds from the government are also covered in the RTI Act. They also have to appoint an officer within their NGO to provide information. So, NGOs are also, to a great extent, in the RTI Act in India.

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 India has become very cynical. When you say to the people, "look RTI has come; use it", many people would say "oh, it is just another law; it does not work." So it is very difficult to overcome this cynicism.

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 Nepal can take care of while enacting the RTI is, that many information commissions in the appellate body under RTI Act are not the right kind of people. Many people with doubtful integrity have also been put up in the body and are adjudicating appeals on RTI. So, here Nepal can draw lessons.

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