Ek chidiya, anek chidiya (One bird, several birds).These are the sing-along lyrics of the musical animation, ‘One, Many, and Unity’ broadcast on Doordarshan decades ago. Once popular among children, the feature with its buffered graphics and analog sound depicted the power of collective action. Narrating the story of a flock of birds who band together to escape the net of a poacher, it made many children rhyme along with joy and laughter. This may have seemed amusing to elders, as a cartoon viewed but not practiced. But if we pause for a moment and consider the possibility that our moral stunting is not a natural outcome of maturity, we would be left with the power to affect positive social change.
To the delight of many, this story of idealism in thought and practice can now be found in the non-fiction section of bookstores across India. The outlines of a progressive movement for greater government accountability emerge from the narration of Aruna Roy and the MKSS Collectives in The RTI Story: Power to the People. This is a remarkable book for several reasons and despite the title, explains much more than the birth of the Right to Information Act. The story starts in 1987 in a mud house in Devdungri, a village in Rajasthan. Rather than indicia of poverty, used to demand legitimacy, the village signifies the strength of lived experience, one that becomes necessary in the 18 years during which a national movement for RTI builds to a fever pitch.
While the journey begins with the desire of a few who have forsaken city comforts, it almost immediately finds fellow travellers across social barriers of class, caste and gender. The participatory basis of this movement is not a cloak, where a few leaders assert the implicit virtues of an internal democracy, but is real structural inclusiveness, existing in thought and physical fact. As stated by the authors, “[c]ontrary to the popular narrative of single heroes being inspired to define a path, the poor peasants and workers gave birth not only to the struggle, but also to the ideology and form it took. We believe that poor people think, and think as well as the literate do…” This emerges naturally from the narrative style of the book, which credits individuals who are farmhands, labourers and even village poets.
Rather than focusing on these identities, it focuses on their desire for greater fairness, a better life and the ingenuity and craft they use to build a national movement.
The implicit modesty of the campaigners is heartening. As we turn the pages, we notice the cadence of a movement gathering pace. Small efforts limited to immediate ills build towards a larger goal. The goals of a movement for transparency start from practical, tangible demands for payment of minimum wages and access to job cards for workers maintained by their contractors. This brings the realisation that welfare reforms need to be rooted in the realities of the indigent. Policies designed to benefit the marginalised cannot remove them as stakeholders from the process of its formation. While the libraries of calm and comfort spur our intellect and committee rooms facilitate expert deliberation, the policy proposals in such environments, when done to the exclusion of a jan sunwai (village hearing), will trammel real world applications.
Effective application of state policy requires the advocacy, conversation and leadership of women, dalits and the chronically poor. A natural outgrowth of these community efforts is the incremental process in which the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is formed.
MKSS’s demands for transparency in Rajasthan bring modest success, a trickle of information at first, and then a flood. Constant negotiations with district officials start to reach the floor of the assembly, catching the attention of metropolitan journalists who become campaigners for the right to information movement. Greater partnership between the village and the city is a significant turning point of the RTI story.
It demonstrates a tactical agility when the campaigners are able to draw strength from the grassroots of the hinterland, as well as the towering jamun trees of central Delhi. Scaling these heights becomes possible with the formation of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), that brings together numerous civil society organisations and collectives such as MKSS, Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and many others. It helps in the drafting of law under the aegis of the Press Council of India that goes through several rounds of consultation and metamorphoses until it is finally enacted in 2005.
Bhimsain Khurrana, the creator of ‘Ek chidiya, anek chidiya’, passed away in April, leaving us with what seems like a reminder of the days past. A legacy of idealism, seemingly overdone and preachy in times where basic human morality and kindness are viewed as weaknesses. Coming at this tenuous moment, The RTI Story provides a compelling antidote to contemporary cynicism with an urgency to support civil society organisations. The campaigners themselves acknowledge growing threats to greater accountability and transparency.
Towards the end, they remark that their journey continues — “Log judte rahe, karvan badhta gaya (people kept joining in, the caravan kept advancing)”. One can almost imagine this being said by a laughing child.
Apar Gupta practices law in New Delhi, India