In 2003, three years after Arvind Kejriwal, now the chief minister of Delhi, launched Parivartan to help citizens get access to services without having to pay bribes, a spark was lit in a jhuggi of Sundar Nagri. Nannu, a daily wage worker, had lost his ration card. Despite applying for a fresh copy with the Food and Supplies department, there was no movement on his application for six months. I had joined Kejriwal’s organisation around that time.
After Nannu approached Parivartan for help, Kejriwal drafted an RTI application for him (Delhi had a state-level RTI Act at that time), demanding to know the name of the official whose job was to process the ration card, and the time within which the official was expected to have performed his duty. The answers to these questions would have been an admission of guilt. Instead, the food inspector arrived at Nannu’s doorstep to deliver his ration card.
It was a eureka moment for many of us who were then working as activists, trying to secure citizen’s rights to basic services from the government. Many years later, Kejriwal would mention Nannu in his acceptance speech at being awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2006.
The enactment of the national RTI Act in 2005 was an important moment in the history of our democracy, a milestone in our journey towards building an empowered citizenry. The dilution of the Act by the present NDA government is also an important moment, but in the opposite direction. The opposite of democracy is authoritarianism.
All democracies evolve, and that is their strength. A dialectical process in the early 2000s that involved a spirited social and political campaign for the right to information, countered by the establishment’s distaste for transparency, finally led to the conclusion that India must give its citizens access to information about the state and its functions. Even at that point, the resistance to RTI was strong. For a system accustomed to rule over people, the idea of citizens asking questions of the government did seem a little bizarre.
Once a senior officer, who was speaking at an RTI orientation programme asked, how can any Tom, Dick or Harry question the wisdom and authority of a well-educated and qualified bureaucrat? How can an auto-rickshaw driver be allowed to pose questions to officers? We would reply, your salaries are drawn from the taxes people are paying. Do we exempt an auto-rickshaw driver from paying taxes? If not, the auto driver is effectively the employer of government officials.
A few months after the enactment of the national RTI, Kejriwal’s Parivartan led a national campaign called “ghoos ko ghoosa”. The spark lit by Nannu’s successful use of RTI needed a catalyst to spread the fire across the country. Parivartan set up camps across several cities and as many as 60,000 to 70,000 people were assisted in filing RTIs to expedite their access to services like power, water connections, and ration cards.
There are a number of such RTI success stories which led to the citizens of this country being able to lead dignified lives, promised to them by our Constitution. Cases of corruption in road construction around the country suddenly started coming to the fore. Ordinary citizens became “inspectors” of the government, and social audits of government works became popular, thanks in large part to the work done by stalwarts like Aruna Roy and others.
The wheels were turning in the direction of a deepening of democracy. The measure of progress of any democracy is the level of empowerment of ordinary citizens. When the state seeks to take away power from ordinary citizens, it is at the cost of democracy itself. The RTI movement was born out of the view that people are the masters and the government exists to serve them. For the five-year period after elections concluded, there was no mechanism to hold governments accountable. The RTI plugged this loophole. The RTI has now become the backbone of our democracy.
The NDA government is seeking to control the appointment and salaries of Information Commissioners with the amendment it passed in Parliament. The authors of the RTI law, including Arvind Kejriwal, had chosen to place Information Commissioners at par with Election Commissioners because both offices are mandated to protect, preserve and promote the cause of democracy. By bringing Information Commissioners under the control of the executive, the government is striking a decisive blow at the independence of the institution.
I am no longer an RTI activist, but the weakening of the law has pained me. I have now been on the other side of this tug rope for almost five years as Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi. I have been the subject of several RTI queries from the Opposition over the years. Of course, they can be inconvenient at times, misused and misrepresented by vested interests to create an adverse narrative. But not once did it bother us because we stand by the strength of our convictions. That it causes the political executive inconvenience is actually the strength of RTI. In the face of an apathetic government, it gives citizens access to justice, a commodity in short supply.
An honest government would never be scared of information being made accessible. Even a corrupt UPA regime deserves credit for introducing RTI in the first place. But the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party that used RTI exposes against the Congress, and has now taken its place in the national political landscape, is ironically, terrified of it. This speaks volumes about the intent of this government. We are entering a disturbing phase, where the wheels of democracy are being forced to stop in their tracks.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 16, 2019 under the title ‘Look who’s afraid of RTI’. The writer is Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi.